The misrepresentation of Babasaheb Dr B.R. Ambedkar in an NCERT Textbook is a national shame.
Blessed are the dehumanized/ For they have nothing to lose/ But their patience.
—Keorapetse Kgositsile, “Mandela’s Sermon”
When NCERT’s Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, came to the attention of some Dalit activists in early April, they objected to the manner in which the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, had been depicted riding a snail representing the Constitution, with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip behind him and an entire crowd smiling and watching the spectacle (p.18). Six weeks later the issue was raised in parliament and a chorus of MPs cutting across party lines sought the withdrawal of the cartoon, and some even of the NCERT textbooks. Many sections of the public have not been privy to the contents of the textbook in the past six years. It is only now that these textbooks are being debated.
We, the undersigned, are dismayed by the two polarized sets of reactions that have emerged. Firstly, many members who were part of the textbook advisory committee for the senior secondary level, including Chairman of the committee Hari Vasudevan, and Chief Advisors Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, have opposed the demand for reconsidering the use of this insensitive cartoon. Subsequently, many members who have been part of various Textbook Development Committees have argued that the textbooks remain unchanged; and have been silent about the violence of the cartoons. This is a rather untenable position. We find it insulting that some intellectuals suggest that people protesting the cartoon fail to understand the “productive power of laughter” or that there’s a “fear of cartoons”.
The textbooks, however good they are, and even if they mark a radical departure from past efforts, cannot be above criticism, discussion and improvement. This logic, in fact, goes against the stated aim of these textbooks: to engage skeptically and critically with what one reads. Indeed, each of the new NCERT textbooks solicits feedback, criticism and suggestions. The textbook writers may have tried their best to overcome their caste bias, but none of us is exempt from the baggage of caste, gender or other interests. As the feminist movement has clearly shown, humour is by no means exempt from prejudice. Cartoons and jokes can be vicious about minorities. Hate speech often masquerades as humour. Jokes and cartoons need to be subjected to critical scrutiny.
Secondly, we do share the fear that in the name of handling the contentious cartoon on Dr Ambedkar, the UPA government might well use the opportunity to attempt to remove many cartoons and other visual/textual material from the textbooks. Crucially, these textbooks feature several posters from women’s movement, the Dalit movement and environmental movements. Also to be commended is the inclusion of a wide range of literary texts by Dalit writers. However, the textbook writers must realize that they have not done a favour to Dalits by such inclusion which was long overdue. There’s much that is good about these textbooks—a result of the pressures that the women’s movement, the Dalit movement, environmental and farmers movements, anti-SEZ mobilisations etc—that may be lost if the final say about what may or may not appear in a textbook is to be with the state.
These textbooks have been drafted collectively by a range of social scientists, including some who happen to be Dalit, and in consultation with activists, NGO representatives and educationists working at the field level. However, it is not as if these textbooks are completely error-proof. Besides the offensive cartoon, the text in the Class XI textbook does not ever properly introduce Dr Ambedkar. The text does not inform the students that a Drafting Committee chaired by Dr Ambedkar drafted the Constitution. In the light of absence of proper discussion of Dr Ambedkar’s role in the Constituent Assembly, the violence of the cartoon is all the more palpable. We urge the Thorat Committee to make the necessary changes in the text as well.
We wish to express dismay over the adamantine attitude of some of our academic friends who seem to treat the cartoon as sacrosanct. The implication that “dalit intellectuals have unwittingly played into the strategies of politicians” is indefensible to say the least.
The lack of empathy on the part of the “intellectual classes” towards the Dalit viewpoint has been distressing. The Dalit question has always been historically deflected and postponed in this manner. When Dr Ambedkar and the early Dalit movements raised the question of caste, the nationalist movement said the anticolonial struggle was more important; when the issue of caste was raised in the feminist or left movements, it was considered divisive; when Adivasis raised the question of representation in the leadership of dam evictees’ movements, the stopping of the dam was made paramount.
We also wish to bring to your attention that many Dalit activists and scholars, including some young Dalit students in the University of Pune, not only condemned the act of vandalism at the office of Prof Palshikar, but even guarded his office during the attack. This went unreported in the media. We are however deeply saddened that because of this one aberrant act, the otherwise democratic and rational engagement with this issue that Dalits and some non-Dalit intellectuals opposed to the cartoon have engaged in—through news media, blogs, Facebook, and the internet—has been portrayed as emotional and infantile. The Dalit movement has been one of the most democratic movements in this country. And for Dalits a whip is a vulgar reminder of everything feudal and casteist about this society.
As the Dalitbahujan feminist blog Savari says: “The whip is inseparable from violence against slaves, dalits, women, animals and children. Almost all histories of protest against injustice, be it feminism, anti-slavery, anti-caste or anti-apartheid movements have protested and continue to protest the symbolic violence in imagery that uses instruments of violence such as the whip, noose or chains.” That the advocates of critical pedagogy do not see this as such is regrettable.
It is time we realized that there is a permeable boundary between the symbolic violence of such a cartoon, and the tolerance of such cartoons by academics on the one hand, and atrocities like Bathani Tola, Melavalavu, Chunduru or Khairlanji on the other. These two sites of struggle are not non-permeable. Quite often the iconicity of Dr Ambedkar has been used by Dalits to assert their democratic rights. And the struggle against the cartoon is indeed a democratic struggle—even if the mainstream and alternative media have portrayed it as otherwise.
At this stage, we petition the Thorat Committee set up to examine the textbooks to reconsider the Ambedkar cartoon (and possibly other such insensitive material). While we demand that the NCERT take into account the wide range of criticisms and feedback the textbooks have elicited, we also urge Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, to desist from seeking any major overhaul of the basic National Curriculum Framework on which the textbooks are based.
We also think this is the occasion to seek fair representation of Dalits and other social minorities in NCERT’s various committees, as well as in the Senates and Syndicates of Central and State Universities; and to introspect on why Dalits and Adivasis, despite constitutional provisions for 22.5 percent reservation, occupy less than 3 percent of faculty positions in academic institutions.
7 June 2012
1. Omprakash Valmiki, author of Joothan; Dehradun
2. Namdeo Dhasal, founder Dalit Panther, and winner of Golden Jubilee Sahitya Akademi award; Mumbai
3. Bama, author of Karukku and Sangati; Uttiramerur, Tamil Nadu
4. Siddalingaiah, founder Dalit Sangharsha Samiti and former legislator; author of Ooru-Keri; Bengaluru
5. Urmila Pawar, author of Aydaan: The Weave of My Life; Mumbai
6. G. Kalyan Rao, author of Untouchable Spring (‘Antarani Vasantam’ in Telugu)
7. Imayam, author of Beasts of Burden (Tamil)
8. Ravikumar, author Venomous Touch; editor, OUP Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing; former legislator, Tamil Nadu
9. Ruth Manorama, National Convenor, National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW)
10. K. Satyanarayana, co-editor, No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, and Associate Professor, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad
11. Susie Tharu, co-editor, No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India; founder-member, Anveshi, Hyderabad
12. Anoop Kumar, activist, New Delhi
13. S. Anand, publisher, Navayana, New Delhi
14. Sushrut Jadhav, Senior Lecturer in Cross-Cultural Psychiatry, University College, London
15. M.R. Renukumar, artist, poet and activist; Kerala
16. Rekha Raj, scholar and activist; Kerala
17. Unnamati Syama Sundar, cartoonist, and research scholar, JNU, New Delhi
18. Gurram Srinivas, Asst Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi
19. Ravichandran, director, “Dalit Camera”, a youtube channel on dalit issues, Hyderabad
20. Ajay Navaria, Hindi writer; Associate Professor, Hindi Dept, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi
21. Anita Bharti, Hindi writer and social activist, New Delhi
22. Rajni Tilak, Hindi poet; secretary, Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan; New Delhi
23. Sheel Bodhi, Dalit Lekhak Sangh; New Delhi
24. Gogu Shyamala, Telugu writer, activist and scholar; fellow, Anveshi, Hyderabad
25. P. Sivakami, political activist, and author of The Grip of Change and Anandhayee (Tamil)
26. Paul Divakar, National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, New Delhi
27. Sharmila Rege, Director, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Pune Univ
28. Raj Kumar, Associate Professor, Department of English, Delhi University
29. N. Sukumar, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University
30. Hany Babu, Associate Professor, Dept of English, Delhi University
31. Sanal Mohan, Assoc. Professor, School of Social Sciences, M.G. University, Kottayam
32. Rajkumar, Associate Professor, Dayal Singh College, Delhi
33. Ajay Skaria, historian, University of Minnesota, US
34. Radhika Menon, publisher, Tulika Books, Chennai
35. Meena Kandasamy, poet, author of Ms Militancy; Chennai
36. V. Geetha, historian, and editor, Tara Books, Chennai
37. S. Japhet, Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP); National Law School of India University, Bengaluru
38. Uma Chakravarti, historian; contributor to Class XII NCERT history textbook; New Delhi
39. Gail Omvedt, scholar and chronicler of the Dalit movement; Kasegaon, Maharashtra
40. Bharat Patankar, Sharmik Mukti Dal; Kasegaon, Maharashtra
41. Ivan Kostka, publisher and editor-in-chief, Forward Press, New Delhi
42. Pramod Ranjan, Editor (Hindi), Forward Press, New Delhi
43. Umakant, independent researcher and human rights advocate, Delhi