Recent protests in Delhi by followers of Dr B R Ambedkar demanding revocation of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, conferred on cartoonist Shankar Pillai in 1976 should rank as a bizarre attempt to write a new history of the country. Pillai died in 1989 and his cartoon of Ambedkar that now gives offence was drawn and originally published in 1949!
India’s economic transformation since 1991 has been accompanied, against the grain, by a rash of sectarian demands for censorship of books, films and works of art, often accompanied by violent attempts at social policing by mobs. What is even more disturbing is that governments at the centre and states are willing to pander to these sectarian groups, hoping to convert them into ‘vote banks’.
Bans are now officially in. Books and plays are routinely banned at the merest hint of protest. In 2009, actor Shahrukh Khan was stunned to find himself up against a federation of The Salon and Beauty Parlour associations that took offence at the title of the film Billu Barber. Khan begged that it was too late to change the movie’s title and that he had no intention to “hurt the sentiments” of barbers. The film, which had almost nothing to do with the profession of cutting hair, was really an adaptation of the mythological story of Sudama and Krishna.
The cartoon of Ambedkar was included in 2006 in a Standard IX textbook. It shows the principal author of the Indian Constitution, Dr Ambedkar, riding and flogging a snail (drafting of the Constitution in slow progress) while Jawaharlal Nehru stands alongside, also holding a whip. Nehru is whipping the snail, not Ambedkar, the textbook editors plead, in an embarrassing defence of the obvious.
Ambedkar was alive when the cartoon was published in Shankar’s Weekly and there is nothing on record to show that he had taken offence. Even so, wary of possibly upsetting Dalits ahead of crucial elections in some states, Sonia Gandhi’s ministers instantly withdrew the textbook and apologised for the cartoon. The protesters are unrelenting and want the editors of the textbook to be prosecuted.
Writer and novelist Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy often says: “The only Indian icon you may criticise without fear is Mahatma Gandhi.”
In March 2011, the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat proscribed a new biography of the Mahatma, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld. The book had not yet been released in India. More to the point, few — if any — had either protested or sought a ban. In any case, that storm never took form and didn’t even make big TV. Modi’s men, not exactly the apostles of Mahatma Gandhi, were simply protesting too much. Unlike most political leaders of India today that are identified by religious, caste or language affiliation, the Mahatma remains virtually unclaimed and easy pickings for historians and social commentators.
This tendency to ban books, and now a cartoon, which first appeared in 1949 and was not disapproved of by the people it tried to caricaturise is a disturbing development in today’s India and one that needs to be resisted.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2012.
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