What has happened to the nation? The Parliament is scared of cartoons while the government resents freedom of press. News broke on Friday that the parliamentarians are upset with a cartoon depicting Babasaheb B R Ambedkar and that they want HRD Minister Kapil Sibal to resign. Even a Congress leader, P L Punia, asked Sibal to either resign or apologise to the nation. Prabha Thakur says all the officials behind the cartoon must be suspended. BJP and BSP were speaking in the same tone. Neither they knew, not they understood anything about what the cartoon is about, who drew it, and when was it published first. What's the personality of the man who drew the cartoon? It was made by one of the best cartoonists the country has produced, Shankar Pillai, who happened to be a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru himself is believed to have told Shankar, "Don't spare me when you draw." It was published on Aug 28, 1949. Nobody objected to a cartoon that was made 63 years ago - until now. Nehru was alive in 1949, and so was Ambedkar. They never objected to it, neither did his supporters or cronies. In 1949, nobody called it anti-Dalit, or that it disrespects Ambedkar.
However, the same cartoon has suddenly become offensive to a section of people and that it should be removed from the NCERT textbooks with immediate effect. By the evening that Friday, the head of the committe behind the textbooks, Yogendra Yadav, and another member Suhash Palshikar resigned from their positions. I know Yogendra Yadav personally. It will be criminal to think of him as anti-Dalit or somebody who would deliberately disrespect Ambedkar. He is not only one of the best known political scientists of the country, but also one of the most simple and honest fellows around. He also follows the Dalit issues closely. He has often alerted me on some atrocity or the other against a Dalit and that we as a TV channel should cover it. When a Dalit village was torched in the Mirchpur area of Haryana, forcing the Dalits to flee, then it was Yogendra ji who would call me either to provide some information or generally to show his concern for them.
It was, therefore, painful to receive his email on the cartoon controversy on Friday. He wrote simply yet emphatically: "The Parliament, in its brief and heated debate, conducted under an appalling lack of information over the cartoon, has not done justice to its responsibility towards the future generations of this country. The supremacy of the Parliament must be upheld, but we also have a right to protest." With these words, he, along with Suhas Palshikar, resigned from the NCERT committee.
Yogendra Yadav is not the first person to approve of the textbook which contained the controversial cartoon. The book was duly checked by the monitoring committee which had renowned educationists like Prof Mrinal Miri and G P Deshpande as its members. Deshpande has authored a great play on the Dalit reformer Jyotiba Phule. The textbook then went to the national monitoring commitee which boasted of members like Prof Gopal Guru and Prof Zoya Hasan. Far from being anti-Dalit, these remarkable academics in fact are well-known champions of Dalit causes. It is a matter of shame and not laughter when, in such a scenario, the parliamentarians allege disrecpect to Ambedkar and demand action against people who brought out the textbook. What has happened to our parliamentarians? Has politics fallen to such low standards?
The discussion doesn't end at one mere cartoon. There is a general culture of intolerance getting stronger in the nation. Every other day, either a painting is torn into pieces or incidents of violence and vandalism are organised around a book. The government remains silent. No leader stands up to reprimand the protesters. Recently, there was furore over Salman Rushdie attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. Rushdie didn't come, nor was he allowed to even hold a video conference. The shenanigans of a few made the mockery of an otherwise great cultural event. The administration was a mute spectator. The right to expression was being denied, while governments from Delhi to Jaipur looked the other way. Isn't it a matter of shame that one of the biggest painters of the century, M F Husain, was denied the right to even die in peace in his own nation? Just because some fanatics thought his nude paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses was an insult to the religion. The paintings that should have been otherwise preserved as national treasure were allowed to be torn apart and destroyed. Cases were filed against him, hounding him out of the nation. Similarly, Taslima Nasreen was not allowed to stay in West Bengal. Her crime: she wrote a book that hurt the sentiments of the Muslims. The Left ruled the state for 35 years. It is the same party that claims to uphold freedom of expression. The Taslima episode exposed it.
The Left didn't like Taslima, the Muslims were the culprits in the Rushdie episode and BJP in the Husain one. In other words, parties of any persuasion remain guilty. It was for this reason that I was not at all surprised when a call was raised to muzzle the voice of the media. Only an intolerant society can be scared of a cartoon or free press, or a Rushdie, Husain or Taslima. In such a debate, the ruling Congress forgets the great traditions of this country. This is what Nehru said in 1950, a year after Shankar drew that cartoon: "Despite the dangers of press freedom being misused, I would rather live with that as opposed to a press under censorship."