Cartoon row: A death knell for freedom of expression
The decision of HRD minister Kapil Sibal to withdraw the controversial Ambedkar cartoon from NCERT textbook shows that India is fast losing its democratic ethos for free speech.
Shankar’s satirical cartoon came up at the time when the Indian Constitution was being framed and depicted the view at that time. Neither Bhim Rao Ambedkar nor the other character in the cartoon Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, objected to an artist’s imagination of a political situation of that time.
Why this brouhaha now?
An argument is that Dalits are now more sensitive than before and are vocal in protesting against what they believe insulting. Dalits being killed for demanding equality in society is increasing in Hindi heartland. There are now websites dedicated to create awareness about atrocities against Dalits and rights provided to them by Ambedkar in the Constitution. The first whirl protest against these cartoons was initiated by one of such websites in late March 2012.
Nothing wrong in Dalit activism but the government of the day, UPA 2 and its minister, Kapil Sibal, should had observed due diligence when the protest against the NCERT textbooks rocked the Parliament. Sibal succumbed to the pressure immediately and apparent reason that comes to my mind is that he did not own textbooks, finalised during tenure of his predecessor Arjun Singh.
In 2005, when the debate was doing on National Curriculum Framework, there was lot of concern over textbooks failing to stir students’ thinking faculty. The academicians, who debated these books for months, wanted to the books to be interactive and cartoons were a tool selected.
In the class XI political science textbook, which is a reason for the row, there are over 100 cartoons depicting India’s political scene after Independence. Not just Shankar, popular satirical cartoons of R K Laxman on former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and others have been used. If somebody goes through these books, they make an interesting reading, not only for school kids, but even for grown-ups.
With a single stroke, Sibal had undone the hard-work and promotion of free speech through NCERT textbooks and announced that all cartoons will be removed. Withdrawing these cartoons will boost elements, which protest and create ruckus at the slightest, and push governments to succumb to their pressure.
Such elements forced M F Hussain to die in oblivion outside leave India and had pushed liberal voices to a corner. A dangerous trend for a democratic nation aiming to be global power in coming years.
Satirical visual art is a key element of a democratic culture and every news publication has used it to tell a story. Many a times, a story told through cartoons, is much better than written text.
Internet is a fast moving medium for satirical art and that is also facing curbs from the government.
Sibal other ministry — telecom — had tried to curb the curb freedom of speech through a set of rules forcing social media organizations to withdraw content within 36 hours of any complaint being lodged. Unlike the west, there was no provision of restoration of the content, the Telecom ministry rules didn’t had any such provision.
Although Sibal had agreed to review the rules, the government will enjoy the handle to regulate social media websites till the requisite changes are made in them. The Google Transparency Report for 2011 said that most number of complaints against internet content came from the Indian government.
The worst part of these episodes is that what both Ambedkar and Nehru never envisaged — government censorship with reasonable restrictions —- Sibal had ensured.