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Chains of thought

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Cartoons are no laughing matter, evidently. That some thoughts in caricature in a school textbook could cause such huge tremors in the parliament of the world's largest democracy, and that its aftershocks can still be felt in various circles, including academia's shady groves, are good enough indications that cartoons and such issues need be taken seriously.

In the current controversy - sparked off by an illustration from 1949 that ostensibly depicted the making of the Constitution 'at a snail's pace' - a range of issues has been articulated and strident positions taken by many. Unfortunately, however, these voices seek to sideline the issue that started it all: the cartoon in question has indeed offended a segment of the population. Expressions of lamentation - that people have lost their 'sense of humour' or 'the capacity to laugh at ourselves' - coupled with condemnation of 'growing intolerance', 'threat to liberal democracy' and 'academic freedoms' appear to have overwhelmed the issue. To this must be added the government's knee-jerk reactions, which have also contributed significantly to this act of silencing.

A hegemonic sensibility, and its 'rationality', usually seeks to make an experience of discomfort invisible. For instance, those who feel offended by the cartoon have been implicitly or explicitly termed as people who have lost their 'sense of humour'. They have also been bombarded with questions such as: Why are these guys so 'touchy' about a cartoon? Don't they 'read' the text? Don't they 'see' that Ambedkar also holds a whip? And so on. The argument is not merely about a sense of humour, or the lack of one, but a discourse that produces and celebrates some kind of rationality. To this 'rationality', the inability to laugh at the cartoon is a sign of an underdeveloped or twisted mind which is dominated by emotions and sentiments. It suggests a quality of being 'touchy', and also of a lack of 'reading' and 'seeing', as characteristics of the offended sensibility, which deserve to be condemned as irrational and parochial.

Incidentally, this rationality has a distant cousin in the rationality of (colonial) modernity that regarded 'natives', women, children and neurotics as 'inferior' categories of people who were supposedly dominated by 'emotion' and 'sentiments' rather than by 'reason', and were hence very different from 'superior' western men. Historically speaking, such a dominant sensibility, and its 'reasoned' perspectives and arguments, have been powerful instruments that have sustained oppressive ethos. And it is here that the danger of such a hegemonic sensibility and its rationality lies. After all, such an ethos almost always undermines the capacity of a liberal democracy to accept, respect and manage differences.

We must acknowledge that what is funny to some may not be funny to some others. We must engage with the reasons that offended such sensibilities. Only then can we hope to evolve a political culture based on empathy, which, in turn, is the only way to ensure that liberal democratic spirit is preserved. In effect, we must accept that segments of the population find the controversial cartoon not only offending but also see it as a deliberate political ploy to undermine the socio-political assertions of dalits by denigrating Ambedkar. Besides, such feelings are not without reason.

Take for instance the figures of Nehru and Ambedkar with whips in the controversial cartoon. Given that it is visual expression, it would be presumptuous to insist that it would only be read as a commentary on the 'making', rather than the 'makers', of the Constitution. Nehru with a raised whip behind Ambedkar could very well be read as the former attempting to ensure that the latter expedites the speed at which the Constitution was drafted. And given that the 'whip' has appeared in so many visual representations of slavery, such readings could immediately accumulate an obnoxious tenor. Besides, the textbook (titled Indian Constitution at Work) does not even acknowledge Ambedkar as the 'chairman' of the drafting committee. In that, the cartoon with such visual elements is arguably out of sync with the book, and with contemporary political reality.

Incidentally, the authors seem to have sensed that the cartoon might be read differently. The caption describes it as a '[ c]artoonist's impression of the "snail's pace" with which the Constitution was made' and that the '[ m]aking of the Constitution took almost three years'. Then strikingly, a question follows : Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? This question is unique, as none of the other cartoons in the same textbook have such a question that seeks to ensure, as it were, that the cartoonist's intention is to describe what the authors have already described as a 'cartoonist's impression'. Going by subsequent protests, it's only clear that many thought that the cartoon insults Dr 'Babasaheb' Ambedkar.

It also goes without saying that academics must look to be judicious in their intellectual life and avoid creating alibis for others to subvert their vocation. This controversy has shown us that our political class has a vital role to play here. It must not seek to undermine the intellectual autonomy of the academic profession. Doing otherwise would only mean the hegemonic exercise of power applied to suppress differences and destroy liberal democracy's ability to creatively manage such differences.

The writer teaches social and political psychology at JNU, New Delhi

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