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Cartoon Debate INTOLERANCE LAUGHABLE, By Dr S Saraswathi, 20 June, 2012 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 20 June 2012

Cartoon Debate


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Growing intolerance amongst our political class is acquiring ridiculous dimensions. Sadly, it is slowly emerging that this class is losing its sense of humour. We can easily confirm this by the controversies erupting over cartoons, which go back decades! The latest in the row is the leaders of both the AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu demanding the removal of a cartoon on the anti-Hindi agitation in the State in 1965, which they insist ridicules the Dravidian Movement.


The Human Resource Ministry is regrettably under siege and obliging, with the first encounter it faced in last session of Parliament. Recall that a rather frivolous issue consumed a good deal of time of both the Houses which should have instead gone for debate on important legislations. It related to a cartoon in the political science textbook for class XI published by the NCERT. The cartoon, which was  introduced  in the book  three years back, suddenly found a display of surviving anti-Dalit mentality derogatory to the self-respect of  Dalits, and  disrespect  to the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, and hence highly objectionable.


The controversy provoked nationwide debate through the mass media.  The demands from critics ranged from deletion of the objectionable cartoons, careful scrutiny of all cartoons in textbooks, withdrawal of the books from distribution, action against those responsible for production of the texts, and even resignation of the concerned HRD Minister.


This despite the fact that the cartoon itself was 60-years-old and resurrected from a popular Weekly reputed for humour in presenting political happenings. It showed Ambedkar riding on a snail (symbolizing the Constitution) cracking a whip, and Jawaharlal Nehru whipping from behind to make the snail move faster.


The cartoon is included in the chapter: Constitution: Why and How in the book Indian Constitution at Work. If one goes through the chapter the text is on the framing and working of the various aspects of the Constitution and its over-all tone is one of appreciation for the tremendous work involved in writing the Constitution. But, this seems to have been lost in the ingenious interpretation of the cartoon by Dalit leaders.


MPs were near unanimous in their expression of objections to this cartoon in the school textbook – a rare scene in Parliament -  and the Minister was extraordinarily prompted in responding to take action for the removal of such cartoons – an indication of the omnipresence of vote- bank politics. This was followed without delay by the resignation of the scholars responsible for the preparation of the book, who obviously in their enthusiasm to make school books readable and interesting, lost sight of the prevailing socio-political mood waiting to politicize any issue.  


Sadly, this sequence of events remains the greatest achievement of the last session of the Parliament convened to pass the Budget and number of pending legislations, including the setting up of a Lok Pal and economic reforms. There is least realization that it was not an issue which should have been debated in Parliament, but one that should be decided by authors, publishers, and academic authorities/committees including teachers. The matter has been removed from the academic domain and has become a political issue that amounts to shifting it from educational institutions to Parliament.


Those defending the cartoon favour innovation in textbooks and teaching methods, interesting presentation of lessons, and humour in classrooms, and want to cultivate the ability of students to look at issues from various angles. They also try to remind those opposing it that this cartoon was never objected to by neither Ambedkar nor Nehru nor from any reader in the past 60 years.


However, the Ambedkar cartoon and the action taken on it seems to have given the political leadership a handle to oppose outright anything objectionable towards them. And regrettably, the cartoon episode, which started earlier in West Bengal when action was taken against a University professor, has not stopped with the Ambedkar cartoon.


Cartoon wars clearly divide in two camps, those for and against. Those in favour insist on the right to freedom of expression, a sense of humour and have faith in the ability of students to decipher the meaning of the cartoons. Additionally, they point out that students are exposed to cartoons and caricatures in any case through newspapers and journals.


Those against, who discover Dalit baiting in the cartoon on the Constitution, seem to be attributing a new meaning to the drawing neither intended by the cartoonist nor conveyed in it. Nothing in the cartoon signifies casteism even remotely. It refers only to the enormous time taken for framing the Constitution and the anxiety to go faster.


In fact, the cartoon can also be seen as anti-Nehru for forcing a quick job of writing the Constitution. For, Nehru did not want a rigid and permanent Constitution, but spoke of flexibility so that the Constitution can be amended later as required by future generations. The cartoon may well be interpreted as depicting physical and psychological pressure applied by Nehru on the drafting committee.


In any case, we have to be clear about the place of cartoons in textbooks and cannot be quarreling about meanings and interpretations of particular cartoons. The present controversies have revealed for those who are not already aware that a cartoon may convey more than one message and one has to be careful in using it as illustration of the text matter. Cartoons are not photos to reveal the reality, but have a punch or hidden meaning. They are bound to lead to misunderstanding if used in the midst of a text.


Cartoons must be separated from the text and used to improve the ability of students to discover their meaning. A number of cartoons on one theme may be presented and students may be asked to find out their meaning – the mood depicted, the devices used in the drawing like symbols, personalities, etc., the issue or event referred, the action depicted, the purpose and the message, the audience reaction, the view-point supported and opposed, etc.  Such an exercise may help improve the capacity of students to analyse a matter in various dimensions.


Thus, cartoons should form a separate subject under the broad field of “drawing” intended to improve the knowledge of students on current affairs, prevailing view-points on  a topic, their intentions and flaws, and ability to present an issue pictorially from various angles, and also to cultivate a sense of humour about serious matters very necessary for a  healthy social life.


In serious political science textbooks, it is doubtful whether cartoons can help students learn the subject matter. Evidently, in their enthusiasm to experiment with innovative methods, the political scientists failed to gauge the absurd mood of present day politicians and the extent of politicization that has taken place in the society. ---INFA                      


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)





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