By Swapan Dasgupta
Am I alone in imagining that the outrage over the Government’s cowardly decision to delete the contentious Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon from future NCERT textbooks has been relatively muted and overwhelmed by squeamishness?
True, many intellectuals have been vocal in the op-ed pages of newspapers and on TV channels. But imagine if some so-called ‘right-wing’ loonies had descended on the office of a professor and ransacked it, would the country not have seen the usual suspects furiously signing petition after petition and hosting seminars denouncing fascist forces?
When in an act of churlish impulsiveness, Mamata Banerjee’s Government arrested a Jadavpur University lecturer for circulating a cartoon that lampooned the Chief Minister and the Union Railways Minister, the biddyajan—loosely translated as people of intellectual substance—went apoplectic. Pillars of academia took to the streets and gave media interviews to explain why they were marching: “any normal, innocent activity may invite retribution.” By contrast, Kapil Sibal’s pusillanimity has merely provoked sniggering despair over India’s inability to laugh at itself.
One explanation is that intellectuals with links to academia are loath to be too critical of the HRD Ministry, even when the issue is inextricably linked to pedagogy. But this is being needlessly cynical about honourable men and women truly attached to their versions of enlightenment.
My sense is that the professional petition writers were confronted with an awkward dilemma. They had to weigh their instinctive commitment to a liberal ethos and historical maturity against the weight of political correctness. For a long time, enlightened voices have sought to distinguish between reactionary and progressive assertions of identity. All grievances, they have held, are not equal; some are more equal than others. In short, there are no uniform standards: judgment is always dependant on the context.
The Dalit activists who flagged the cartoon controversy were not remotely concerned by the use of a Shankar cartoon as an imaginative relief from the drudgery of high school lessons on the Constitution. What agitated them was the depiction of Babasaheb Ambedkar as a mortal, a mere political player. In their agitprop-inspired imagination, Ambedkar was an icon and had to be depicted with the reverence associated with calendar art.
Just as many crude Hindutva-types couldn’t countenance departures from Raja Ravi Varma’s portrayal of the sacred and went after M.F. Husain, the upholders of Dalit identity were outraged that Ambedkar could be presented as a caricature—and that too in an officially-approved textbook.
This mindless attachment to literalism should, ideally, have been debunked, if only for the pursuit of enlightened education. However, when it comes to Dalit issues, or for that matter any issue centred on the self-expression of communities that are in need of empowerment, liberal principles are expediently set aside. Doing otherwise would invite charges of hegemonic conduct—and that’s just not on in a world infected by political correctness.
Last month, for example, a clutch of Dalit activists in Hyderabad’s Osmania University organised a beef festival on the campus. It was an act of provocation and defied every rule governing “common decencies”—philosopher Roger Scruton’s telling description of an unwritten social consensus. Yet, this grandstanding, which could so easily have triggered a major disturbance, was stoutly defended by many academics as a protest against “food fascism”.
The point to note is that in the over-enthusiastic bid to nurture Dalit empowerment and atone for centuries of instutionalised discrimination, the normal rules governing civic and political life have often been set aside. Yet, far from persuading disadvantaged communities that the political order is receptive to their material well-being and political empowerment, the double standards have often served to encourage a fringe. These social entrepreneurs have grasped the possibilities of high returns from unreasonableness. The international seminar circuit is saturated with ‘oppressed voices’ that have turned guilt tripping into a fine art. They have learnt valuable lessons from the West’s only growth industry—multiculturalism.
Sunday Times of India, May 20, 2012