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India: Manufacturing offence - The cartoon controversy

by Rohini Hensman, 30 May 2012

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Infochange, May 2012


When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power, it revised school textbooks published by the National Council of Educational and Research Training (NCERT) in accordance with the ideology of Hindutva. After the NDA was defeated in the elections of 2004, the NCERT under Dr Krishna Kumar began working on the National Curriculum Framework, which came out in 2005. One of the main issues discussed was whether to go back to the pre-NDA texts or design new textbooks altogether. The decision was in favour of the latter course of action, for two main reasons: one, new research and knowledge that had emerged since those textbooks were written needed to be incorporated, and two, the educationists wanted to encourage students to engage in more analytical thinking and debate rather than rote-learning (Menon 2012). ‘The gist of these debates – in which more than 3,000 scholars, teachers, civil servants, activists, students and parents participated through various means – was that the knowledge imparted in schools fails to inspire children, hence any new educational initiative should first worry about reconceptualising the knowledge that different subjects comprise’ (Kumar 2012, p 13). The textbooks came out in 2006, and while they were far from perfect, the new pedagogical approach was widely appreciated by both students and teachers.

The controversy

The cartoon by Shankar Pillai that caused such pandemonium in parliament when various dalit and non-dalit members demanded its deletion on May 11, 2012 was published in 1949, and depicted Ambedkar with a whip riding a snail entitled ‘Constitution’, and Nehru, also with a whip, looking down at the snail from behind. It was entitled ‘Snail’s Pace,’ referring to the slow pace of the drafting of the Indian Constitution, and appeared in a Class XI textbook. This was read as an insult to Ambedkar by dalit activists, led by Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India, who protested against it (Vijapurkar 2012). Thirumavalavan is a Tamil nationalist who extended full support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) even while the Tamil dalits of Sri Lanka felt that ‘the social movement against caste discrimination…has been silenced and more or less co-opted by the LTTE. Caste is seen as, at best, an unnecessary diversion and, at worst, a threat to political and social unification of the desired Tamil nation’ (International Dalit Solidarity Network: 2008, p 7). Athavale (who fought the last municipal elections in Mumbai in alliance with the anti-dalit Shiv Sena and BJP) demanded not only the withdrawal of the textbooks, but also the arrest of Prof Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, who were advisors for the political science textbooks and resigned in protest. He even condoned the vandalising of Palshikar’s office by four activists of the Republican Panthers of India.

However, Prakash Ambedkar said that Dr Ambedkar himself would not have opposed the cartoon. A dalit intellectual condemned the vandalising of Palshikar’s office as an insult to Ambedkar’s vision, pointing out that ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar himself was a hardcore supporter of liberty of thought. It was because of his reverence for the freedom of speech and thought that he specially incorporated Article 19 in the Constitution of India, which assured citizens the right to think and express their thoughts’ (Narke 2012). Another deplored the degeneration of dalit politics in Maharashtra, expressing the opinion that ‘This controversy, created by the Republican Party of India’s Ramdas Athawale, has radically challenged general assumptions about rational-progressive dalit activism in Maharashtra…It reflects the incapacity of the dalit leadership to imagine its own path through political struggle and mass mobilisation’ (Wankhede 2012). Prof Gopal Guru, who was a member of the Monitoring Committee for the NCERT textbooks, strongly defended the textbooks and the cartoons in them, and he too questioned the motives of some of the dalit political groups behind the attacks. According to Paramjit Singh Kainth, president of the Chamar Mahan Sabha, ‘“Most often these SCs and champions of dalits who claim to be Ambedkar followers but are intolerant of any criticism—they are the real problem in our society today.” Dismissing the current wave of intolerance as complete humbug, Kainth says they don’t subscribe to it. Says S L Virdi, advocate and well-known dalit writer, “I don’t see any merit in the present controversy, which seems an attempt to gain political mileage. They are clearly exploiting the name of Ambedkar but don’t have any intentions of following his teachings” (Raman 2012). Thus dalits themselves are divided on the issue. Why is this?

One problem is that the image can be read or interpreted in different ways. The argument of the protesters hinges on the perception that ‘This cartoon depicts the violent imagery of a Congress politician taking a whip to Dr B R Ambedkar’ (Savari 2012). At first glance, one could indeed get this impression. But a second look shows that Ambedkar too is wielding a whip (no one has objected to this), Nehru is looking at the snail not at him, and the captions make it clear that it is the Constitution (or, rather, the Constituent Assembly, since the Constitution had not yet come into being), not Ambedkar, that is proceeding at ‘Snail’s Pace’. The metaphor is that of a horse-rider (Ambedkar) whipping his horse to make it run faster; Nehru would have to be an idiot or madman to whip the rider to make the horse run faster! To say repeatedly that Nehru is shown whipping Ambedkar is thus at best disingenuous, at worst a deliberate misrepresentation. An alternative reading is that Ambedkar, seated atop the snail with the reins in his hand, is in a more elevated position than Nehru, who plays a subordinate role on foot behind him, thus reversing the caste hierarchy. Both men are trying to make the snail move faster, and Ambedkar is portrayed as a leader of the whole nation, not just a leader of dalits.

Those who object that the cartoon is not funny miss the entire point of the exercise. Reproducing a cartoon published over 60 years ago is not supposed to make you laugh, any more than reproducing a film poster from that period is supposed to make you go out and buy a ticket, or reproducing a newspaper clipping is supposed to tell you the latest news; the point is to tell you something about the culture and debates of that period. The cartoon tells us that some people – perhaps including the cartoonist – were impatient because they thought that framing the Constitution was taking too long. Apart from being a far more vivid way of conveying this than a bald assertion of the fact, it introduces students to the idea that it is necessary to produce evidence to support your assertions.

Those who are protesting against the inclusion of the cartoon in the textbook feel that the textbook is castigating Ambedkar for being ‘slow and snail-like’ (Savari 2012), and telling students that he took too long to frame the Constitution. This interpretation would make sense only if Ambedkar had been portrayed as a snail; in fact, if anyone is being portrayed as being ‘slow and snail-like,’ it is the Constituent Assembly, consisting largely of upper-caste men, over whom Ambedkar is wielding a whip. Furthermore, the rest of the text explains why it inevitably took a long time to discuss so many complex issues and come to a consensus in a democratic manner. In an interview after his office had been vandalised, Prof Palshikar explained that the purpose of including the cartoon was ‘to encourage students to develop an opinion instead of getting readymade answers’ (Thite 2012). Students are presented with evidence of one opinion (that the process of Constitution-drafting was needlessly long) and evidence for another (that a great deal of time was needed to carry out the task) and are asked to come to their own conclusion.

Ambedkar cartoon controversy

Changing caste equations

Yet another justification offered for finding the cartoon offensive now, despite the fact that Ambedkar did not find it offensive at the time, is that caste equations have changed since then. This is true, but how have they changed? In his writings and especially his book on the terrible massacre of a dalit family in Maharashtra in September 2006, Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop, eminent dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde ‘has developed the argument that, in the postcolonial era, brahmins and other “elevated” castes moved from the rural areas to the cities, where they benefited from the openings afforded them by the new state. In the rural areas, it was the intermediate castes and OBCs, the shudras, who benefited from the modest land reforms, and it was they who became the immediate oppressor of the dalits (bear in mind that 70% of dalits in India are landless cultivators). In this way, Teltumbde writes, the shudras became the “virtual baton holders for brahmanism”. The shudra-dominant castes have also become the “main prop of the Hindutva movement”…These analytical moves allow Teltumbde to identify the problem at hand in Khairlanji, one of India’s many rural ghettos. The contradiction between the shudra landholders (who are aligned with the BJP and Shiv Sena) and this dalit Buddhist family is writ large in the tragedy that visited the Bhotmange family’ (Prasad 2009).

This is indeed a momentous change. It means that instead of being confined to the upper castes, the perpetrators of ghastly atrocities like the Khairlanji massacre come from all the way down the caste hierarchy. Fighting against such atrocities must start from a recognition of this fact. Yet that is exactly what is obfuscated by the protesters against the Ambedkar cartoon. Indeed, the simplistic ‘upper-caste-versus-dalitbahujan’ analysis by Savari, for example, makes it impossible even to acknowledge, far less address, this oppression by OBCs, because it lumps perpetrators and victims together in the same category. From the perspective of fighting against caste oppression, the cartoon is no more offensive today than it was in 1949, and the entire controversy is ‘complete humbug’ as the president of the Chamar Mahan Sabha puts it.

Encouraging students to think for themselves

What is especially tragic about this particular attack is that the new textbooks were intended to push ‘students to think for themselves. The idea was to raise questions that would encourage critical thinking among them’ (Nigam 2012). Encouraging students to think for themselves rather than simply believing and reproducing what they are told is an absolutely crucial requirement for a democratic society, and this cannot be done unless they are presented with contradictory viewpoints and asked to come to their own conclusions. It is a telling indictment of the Indian polity that politicians of virtually all parties descended on the textbooks like a pack of vultures. ‘The tone was set by Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal who said the textbooks are “poisoning young, impressionistic [sic] minds.” This was heartily seconded by other MPs, including Congress MPs. Some of the speeches were startling for their unfounded claims with CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta, for instance, seeing a conspiracy in the textbooks to further “totalitarianism.” The lone voice of dissent came from a marginal party, the National Conference’s Sharifuddin Shariq, who pointed out that the MPs themselves had given cartoonists ample opportunity to caricature politicians. But aptly enough, he was shouted down by other MPs, including those from the Congress’ (Sen 2012).

As this blogger remarks perceptively, ‘If Indian politicians think that this approach is poisoning the minds of students, we must reach the sad conclusion that the latest pedagogical methods have bypassed our MPs and that they are firm believers in rote learning. Worse their attitude reeks of paternalism which completely underestimates the minds of today’s teenagers’ (Sen 2012). The charge of poisoning impressionable young minds is not new; it was raised by the Shiv Sena against Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, when they burned copies of it and demanded that it be removed from the syllabus of Mumbai University because it was offensive to Maharashtrians. The novel was withdrawn against the background of threats of violence. Subsequently, A K Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,’ was withdrawn from the history syllabus of Delhi University because of claims that it was offensive to Hindus.

The fact that the authorities have been so quick to withdraw the cartoon, essay and novel because they allegedly poison young minds suggests very strongly that for the powers-that-be, ‘poisoning’ consists in fostering the ability of young people to think critically and make their own moral judgments rather than bowing down to authority. The underlying message is that schools and colleges are supposed to turn out adults who are adapted to an authoritarian culture and will cause no trouble for those who hold power.

Can oppressed groups participate in right-wing politics?

Freedom of expression is not an absolute, least of all in education. Libel and slander are illegal, hate speech and incitement to violence against any group should also be illegal, and both should be excluded from the classroom. It has been argued that when an oppressed group like dalits takes offence it is completely different from dominant majorities taking offence, but how valid is this argument? If Maharashtrians were depicted as apes and Hindus as imbeciles in a textbook, would that be acceptable simply because students from these communities were the majority in the classroom? Surely not. Apart from the danger of being lynched, the teacher would also have to worry about the psychological and social effects of these depictions.

Were the cartoon, novel and essay really derogatory in this sense, or was the ‘offence’ manufactured? What distinguishes manufactured offence from justifiable protest against derogatory representations is that (a) a section of a group or community claims to speak on behalf of the entire group or community; (b) political groups or parties are usually involved; (c) there is systematic misrepresentation of the supposedly offensive text or image; and (d) unlike genuinely offensive representations (eg the garlanding of Ambedkar statues with chappals) which produce instant protests, these protests often occur after a gap of years. As Anand Teltumbde points out, this cartoon had been in the Class XI textbooks for six years without causing any offence, so how did it suddenly merit such vehement protests from dalits, and that too at a time when the acquittal of the perpetrators of the Bathani Tola massacre of dalits aroused no such protests? (Teltumbde 2012).

The dilemma for non-dalit progressives in the cartoon controversy is that many are reluctant to criticise an initiative taken by members of an oppressed group, or to characterise it as reactionary. This is strongly reminiscent of the reluctance of many Europeans and Americans to condemn Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians, because those atrocities are committed by Jews. But does membership of an oppressed group provide immunity from right-wing politics? There was a time when some Indian feminists thought that women were not communal, but that myth was rudely shattered when women participated in anti-Muslim pogroms in 1992-93. The myth that dalits could not collude in the Hindutva agenda was likewise shattered when they participated in the Gujarat carnage of 2002. Instead of attempting to explain why dalits allowed themselves to be used as stormtroopers in the service of viciously anti-dalit fascists (after the 2002 carnage, dalits in Gujarat have been even more oppressed than they were before), Prof Kancha Ilaiah blamed Muslim intellectuals: ‘The participation of dalits, tribals and OBCs [Other Backward Classes] in Gujarat carnage has raised several questions with regard to the unity of SC, ST, OBC and Muslims…No Muslim intellectual or leader goes to the moral help of the dalits/OBCs in day to day life and that keeps the social gap between dalits/OBCs and Indian Muslims without having any social bridges between them. That is one reason why the Hindutva forces can still use the dalit/OBC youth against Muslims with ease’ (Ilaiah 2002).

There is no doubt that Jews, dalits and women have been subjected to horrific oppression, but that does not render them incapable of participating in right-wing agendas. And if members of an oppressed group can act as fascist stormtroopers, they can surely participate in other forms of right-wing politics. The wholesale assault on ‘NCERT’s violence’, supposedly embodied in the new textbooks (Savari 2012), is part of a reactionary campaign against a critical pedagogy which encourages students to think for themselves and equips them to make moral judgments instead of being manipulated by those in positions of authority. The principles underlying the NCERT textbooks prepared in 2006 have been identified as ‘a belief and confidence in human reason, a respect towards human persons and appreciation of their dignity; equality of persons irrespective of their other differences and beliefs; a strong appreciation of diversity and difference; a respect towards culture and beliefs which in India invariably happen to be deeply plural, a certain suspicion of power and the need to bring it under responsibility and accountability; a strong endorsement of democracy and toleration; a strong sense of self-respect; a certain regard for rule of law foregrounded in the above values, and a respect for institutions as enabling devices’ (Rodrigues 2012, p.23) If all this is lost as a result of the cartoon controversy, dalits would yet again have allowed themselves to be used to bring about a reactionary change – the return to an authoritarian pedagogy – and they themselves would be the biggest losers.

Does this mean that the textbooks should never be reviewed? Not at all! Or that more dalit scholars and educationists should not be involved in writing textbooks? Certainly not! What it does mean is that any review process should move further in the direction already embarked upon in 2005, rather than reversing it. Dr Ambedkar knew that in order to eliminate the obscenity of caste oppression and caste itself, education in the broadest sense of encouraging critical thought, speech and writing is a must. Seen from this perspective, manufacturing offence in order to attack the 2006 NCERT textbooks is undoubtedly a betrayal of his legacy.

(Rohini Hensman is an activist and independent scholar working on issues of workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities in India and Sri Lanka, and globalisation. She has written extensively on these issues, her most recent book being Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons From India. Her publications include two novels)

Infochange News & Features, May 2012


Ilaiah, Kancha, 2002, ‘Untouchables and Muslims,’ IslamiCity, 24 May,

International Dalit Solidarity Network, 2008, “Dalits of Sri Lanka: Caste-Blind does not mean casteless,’

Kumar, Krishna, 2012, ‘Quality Constraints in Education: Fallout of the Cartoon Controversy,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XLVII No.27, 2 June, pp.12-13

Menon, Nivedita, 2012, ‘Please sir, may I take a newspaper into my class?’ Kafila, 16 May,

Narke, Hari, 2012, ‘Attack an insult to Dr Ambedkar,’ Mumbai Mirror, 13 May,

Nigam, Aditya, 2012, ‘Cartoons All! Politicians and Self-Seekers,’ Kafila, 14 May,

Prasad, Vijay, 2009, ‘Rural Dalit ghetto: “Khairlanji” by Anand Teltumbde,’ Himal Southasian, April,

Raman, Anuradha, 2012, ‘This Godly Delusion,’ Outlook, 28 May,

Rodrigues, Valerian, 2012, ‘Politics and Pedagogy: The NCERT Texts and Cartoon,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XLVII No.27, 2 June, pp.21-23

Savari, 2012, ‘Whipping up ‘critical pedagogy: Uncritical defence of NCERT’s violence,’ 21 May,

Sen, Ronojoy, 2012, ‘Cartoons in the House,’ Times of India, 16 May

Teltumbde, Anand, 2012, ‘Bathani Tola and the Cartoon Controversy,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XLVII No.27, 2 June, pp.10-11

Thite, Dinesh, 2012, ‘Democracy is losing space gained thanks to the Constitution,’ Mumbai Mirror, 13 May,

Vijapurkar, Mahesh, 2012, ‘Symbolism vs substance: Why Dalit politics is about icons,’ Firstpost, 15 May,

Wankhede, Harish S., 2012, ‘In Ambedkar’s name,’ The Indian Express, 18 May,


The above article from Infochange News and Features is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.