Friday, 18 May 2012

The cartoon controversy

The cartoon controversy
A severe blow to democracy
by Justice Rajindar Sachar (Retd)

The country has just witnessed a Shakespearan tragedy when both Houses of Parliament self-patted themselves and resolved to keep the dignity of Parliament at the highest. The members were, however, forgetful of the shameful furore in Parliament on May 11 over the reproduction of a cartoon in 1949 by Shankar depicting the delay in finalising the Constitution (which was done on November 26, 1949) and which has been included in the NCERT textbooks on political science of Class XI — the cartoon was alleged to have insulted Nehru and Dr Ambedkar.
The more worrying aspect was the almost craven response of the HRD Minister that he was directing the NCERT to stop the distribution of these textbooks and to review the same. He even gratuitously said that the government would review all the cartoons and this year the present textbooks would not be distributed. How sad? The sneezing irrelevant remark of a legislator is enough to give them shivers down the spine and to agree to delete the cartoons, ignoring the fact that these had been selected by two of our respected social scientists. Such is the panic of caste-based politics that apparently even sober legislators of all parties jumped in to support the suppression of the cartoon oblivious to the fact that both Nehru and Ambedkar took this cartoon as an expression of a right of free speech guaranteed to Indian citizens. It may help the legislators to know that Nehru had inaugurated Shankar's Weekly much earlier in 1948 and encouraged the cartoonist by openly telling him, "Do not spare me, Shankar". And Shankar went about the work but never did Pt Nehru or Parliament took any objection.

It was a surprisingly puerile and deliberately provocative suggestion by a lone member of Parliament (picked up immediately by all the parties, panic-ridden as they are by election phobia) that the cartoon should be treated as a castist slur on Ambedkar. How ironic that these self-proclaimed admirers of Ambedkar want to pigeon-hole him as a Dalit leader while in reality Dr Ambedkar's contribution to Constitution-making has been universally recognised and, in fact, was openly praised and complimented when President Rajendra Prasad, speaking during the closing address in the Constituent Assembly, said, "We could never make a decision which was or could be so right as when we put him on drafting committee and made him a Chairman. He has added lustre to the work which he has done."

The response of Dr Ambedkar was equally gracious when he said, "I feel so overwhelmed that I cannot find adequate words to express my gratitude to them. I am grateful to the Constituent Assembly reposing in me so much trust and confidence and have chosen me as their instrument and given me this opportunity of serving to country." How can then small self-appointed Dalit leaders dare to say that the contribution of Dr Ambedkar was not fully recognised during his lifetime.

Let me remind everyone that Dr Lohia, himself one of the tallest leaders of India, had openly stated that he considered Dr Ambedkar as the next biggest leader after Mahatma Gandhi that modern India had produced.

It pains one to say that while the country is so proud of its Fundamental Rights, including the Right of Speech and Press, the discussion in Parliament should have revolved on how to suppress the freedom of the Press by deleting the cartoon and also interfering with the freedom of the students to know about the trends and currents at the time the Constitution was being framed. This action of Parliament is antithetical to the strongly held view of Pt Nehru who said, "You do not change anything, you merely suppress the public manifestation of certain things thereby causing the idea and thought underlying them to spread further." 

The argument of the parliamentarians that these cartoons will spread a wrong notion of the politicians is a self-serving congratulatory observation and is an insult to the independent and wise-thinking of teachers and students themselves. Have we not already had in our country the unfortunate results of yielding to the threats of goons in banning the globally recognised paintings of Hussain who unfortunately, even after his death, could not have his paintings shown at an exhibition arranged by a government-appointed body on the unacceptable excuse that the organisers could not save the paintings from being damaged at the instance of some unruly elements. 

The intolerance against certain opinions is spoiling the free atmosphere at the universities as was demonstrated when Delhi University banned the teaching of three Ramayanas, a very researched and documented version by a well-known historian. The present discussion, if it leads to the deletion of these passages from the textbooks, would strike at one of our proudest Fundamental Right of Freedom of Speech, a constituent of democracy. It is well to remind everyone what John Stuart Mill in his essay on liberty said, "The need for allowing even erroneous opinions to be expressed on the ground that the correct ones become more firmly established by what may be called the dialectical process of a struggle with wrong ones which expose errors.” 

The Supreme Court has also emphasised that "intellectual advances made by our civilisation would have been impossible without freedom of speech and expression. The court has drawn its strength from the well-known expression of democratic faith expressed by the great French philosopher, Voltaire, "I do not agree with a word you say but I will defend to death your right to say it." The court has reminded that "Champions of human freedom of thought and expression through ages have relied that intellectual paralysis creeps over society which denies, in however subtle form, due freedom of thought and expression to its members. 

Dr Ambedkar was conscious of the danger to the dignity of an individual in our political system and gave the warning thus, "There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness….. no nation can be grateful at the cost of liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India Bhakti or what may be called path of devotion or hero worship plays a part in its politics unlike any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship".

The writer is a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.

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