Friday, May 11, 2012

Ambedkar cartoon row shows how thin skinned we are….

Another reason to disrupt Parliament! An old cartoon that shows Nehru “whipping” Ambedkar for delaying the writing up of the Constitution raised a storm yesterday. And as usual, given our poor sense of humor, this has led to an outrage.

It’s a fact that we are highly intolerant of anyone joking even a little bit with us. Jokes are taken personally. Even innocuous ones are often interpreted to be directed at some non-existent political agenda. This is understandable – considering that the ability to laugh at oneself comes much higher up in the developmental ladder. People who are just about managing to get out of centuries of ostracization cannot be expected to laugh at themselves.

But there are a few things that I find reprehensible in this episode. Ambedkar is a national hero; not merely a hero of the dalits. He may have been a dalit, but with his work (writing the Constitution, as well as his fight for freedom), he elevated himself out of the claustrophobic restraints of belonging to a socially backward community. It should be a matter of great pride to all dalits that one of their members is recognized as a national hero. That’s why I find it disturbing that the row has emerged from amongst members of the dalit political parties. It would have been different if someone else had objected to this cartoon. But no, in our country, a person is first identified by his caste, then by his work. So it had to be the dalit parties that raised the storm.

Here’s another thing I don’t like and this time I can partially understand the angst the dalits experienced. Ambedkar may well have delayed the writing of the Constitution. Given the effort of the 1st Parliament headed by Nehru to make the process all-inclusive, a lot of time must have been spent forming the drafting committee that Ambedkar headed. In a true democratic spirit, all members would have been allowed to express their very different visions for India. Since it was the primary statute that would decide India’s structure and form, it is understandable that the process may have taken more time than Nehru would have liked. Also, Nehru may not have had the patience for such democratic processes and he may have wrongly accused Ambedkar of dragging his feet. But what I find sad is that of all the stuff about Ambedkar that could have put into text books, the one NCERT chose to put was this little critique of Ambedkar. Usually, when we remember historical figures, we try to cover up whatever negatives they had (and all of them did have negatives) and we try to bring out the positives. This is basic courtesy we extend to the freedom fighters. For a school text book to have a cartoon about Ambedkar and Nehru, and for it to be about the delay is a little unfair. While I do feel that it should have been laughed away, I also do feel that singling out this cartoon was unfair.

Like I said, it’s hardly a matter that concerns only the dalits. It’s not like the upper castes are more relaxed about such things. The recent controversy (amongst many others) about Mahatma Gandhi’s sexual preferences as captured in "Great Soul; Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld is one such example. It would appear that the author has fully credited the Father of the Nation with all that he deserves to be credited with, but yet the talking point about the book were his comments on Gandhi’s sexuality. It was the same with Nehru’s relationship with Edwina Mountbatten. Some recent reports indicated that that relationship could even have been sexual. And as expected, many people took objections to this. More recently, the Abhishek Manu Singhvi episode comes to mind – when he was allegedly involved with some woman of the bar (there was no evidence that he offered her judgeship in return for favors…..the controversy was more about the colorful act!).

It’s like we expect our leaders to be perfect. It’s like they simply cannot have any flaws (if they can be called flaws at all). It’s like we like to just hide those minor chinks that they may have. We are highly intolerant about any criticism about people we elevate above ourselves. We make such people like our Gods – no one can question them at all. A very similar thing happened recently with respect to Anna. Agreed he was on a great cause. Agreed he had done a lot of great social service all his life. That was enough for the people to place him above themselves. Once they did that, they simply couldn’t see that he was also a human being who could have his quirks. I personally found Anna to be wrong with respect to the specificity of his demands. He was also a poor leader in the sense that he gathered a poor, politically motivated team around him. He was inspirational, but he couldn’t stay focused on the core issue. But writing anything negative about Anna was seen as unacceptable; the one who did so was called unpatriotic. Again, we couldn’t face a little critique about Anna.

That’s why economic progress alone is not enough for a country to achieve. As a society, we need to progress a lot more socially. We must learn to be tolerant; laugh a little at ourselves; think beyond our community and caste. We must be more courteous towards others; show it on the roads in the way we drive; in our public behavior. We have to get rid of our social awkwardness and become more sophisticated and modern. If we don’t learn to laugh at ourselves, the world will laugh at us!

The real truth is that centuries of oppression have made the dalits (and most of us) hyper sensitive. Ambedkar is much more than a dalit freedom fighter. He is the symbol of pride for the dalits. Any joke around him is seen as a joke around the whole community. It’s sad that even after 60 years of independence; we haven’t been able to get rid of such narrow parochialism and diffidence….