Today’s leaders, tomorrow’s gods
Since we have relegated the arduous task of thinking — that key determinant that differentiates man from beast — to our leaders, we need to accept its consequences as well. The Babasaheb Ambedkar controversy, conveniently aroused six decades after an innocuous cartoon (look carefully, it is clear that Jawaharlal Nehru is whipping the snail, not Ambedkar) was published, is really an investment in a future that says the following: if yesterday’s leaders are today’s gods, tomorrow’s gods will emerge out of today’s MPs.
A clear case of petty politics at a time when the fragility of the system is at a breaking point, this controversy is probably a sign of our times. When a legitimate cartoon can upset Parliament and get it to throw all cartoons out from all NCERT (National Council Of Educational Research And Training) books, you know that the political discourse of India is moving towards intolerance. Two advisors to NCERT — Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar — who had begun to use the cartoon as a form of communication have resigned, education minister Kapil Sibal has apologised and has assured Parliament that this will not recur.
In the debate that preceded these actions, MP (Member of Parliament) after MP rose to condemn the cartoon. Clearly, the Dalit factor loomed large over. And by smothering Shankar’s cartoon, our leaders have taken one more step towards strengthening the idea that in India crushing artistic, literary or scholarly expression is par for the course. Everything, from gods to men, has to be sanitised to fit into a narrow prism defined by vested interests. If you have a problem with anyone on any issue, raise it here — a ban is guaranteed.
Those in the business of education and academics are livid. Palshikar, a professor of politics and public administration at Pune University, held forth on the emerging power play a day after he resigned from NCERT’s advisory panel. “Politics is about creating and running institutions; politics is about power and about power being used for various collective purposes; politics is not a sanitised anthem of democracy but a shrill and not so sweet mix of different sounds,” he wrote in The Hindu. “Unlike the romantic movie, there are men and women in politics rather than sanitised heroes and heroines and villains and side villains. Is this not a robust and democratic depiction of politics?”
Shiv Visvanathan hit harder. “Parliament that insulted the spirit of the Constitution,” he, describing himself as a social science nomad, wrote in The Economic Times. “I think the great Indian disease is political correctness as a new strain of hypocrisy. It goes well with sycophancy. To think Ambedkar belongs only to the Dalits is a travesty of history. To embalm him in political hypocrisy insults the courage of man. To deny him laughter, self reflexivity is the bigger crime.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta warned that this will recur. “The political science textbooks that are now being re-examined were a momentous achievement, in terms of pedagogy, content and the process by which they were written,” the president of one of India’s best think tanks, Center for Policy Research, wrote in The Indian Express. “They were debated in Parliament in 2006 because Congress MPs had objections to them. They somehow managed to survive. It will be the ultimate irony if we come to such a pass that Arjun Singh looks like a greater paragon of liberalism than the present establishment.”
The bigger issue, however, lies beyond the educational or political discourse. It lies in the intents of power mongers wanting to use any man, thing, idea, icon, beast, group to serve their political ends. In this case, some Dalit leaders claimed that Ambedkar is a god and as such the cartoon was blasphemous. By making Ambedkar a god, the blasphemy charge can be legally brought in. Whether Ambedkar can be called a god is an issue nobody is daring to question.
This incident is not very different from the way a small group of people want to convert the teachings and ideas of Sri Aurobindo into a religion. While the Supreme Court has rightly veered to the contrary as far back as in 1982, the attempt by a few to push Sri Aurobindo into a religion just refuses to end. In a new case they have sought a ban on The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, a deeply insightful biography of one of India’s most articulate, liberal, grounded, evolved spiritual leaders.
The intolerance with facts or a differing view has seen India become the banning capital of the world — biographies of Mahatma Gandhi (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India), Sri Aurobindo and now Babasaheb Ambedkar (the Madhya Pradesh Congress unit has demanded a ban on Arun Shourie’s book, Worshipping False Gods, for insulting Ambedkar) are not acceptable. Only hagiographies (idolising biographies) will be allowed to be published and sold in India. Trouble is, the option to reject men as gods is not an option for the peaceful people wanting to go about their business of truth or faith; it is enough that a handful of power peddlers do the dirty work of deciding who is a god and who’s not for them. Thinking is dead and dying with every passing day; these are indeed dark times for those daring to undertake this risky activity.