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A 60-year-old cartoon shows how far India has strayed

A squabble over an antique cartoon seems strange to outsiders but reveals some of the stresses that are afflicting India's political structure.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

In India, cartoons have become dangerous over the past few weeks. So dangerous, in fact, that in one case, a cartoonist has been packed off to jail for offending people's sensibilities. In that instance, it was the decidedly unfunny bone of the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, that was prodded by a caricature. In another case, one that has serious consequences at the national level, the cartoonist K Shankar Pillai is long dead - as, indeed, are his subjects Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar, two major leaders of the Indian freedom movement. The grave, it would seem, is no protection against controversy.

On its own, Shankar's cartoon, published in 1949 soon after India became independent, hardly even merits a guffaw, which is why its power to subvert today's politics is so fascinating. The image shows Nehru, India's first prime minister, wielding a whip while Ambedkar, the man who chaired the committee that drafted India's constitution, sits on a snail, holding his own whip. A group of gossiping stragglers in the background wonder what's going on.

Nehru, the cartoonist implies, wants to know why the constitution-drafting exercise is taking so long and hopes Ambedkar will soon get a move on. In reality, as Ambedkar took charge of the enormous undertaking in late 1946, India hovered between independence and the dark shadow of communal rioting that lay just beyond. He was overseeing the drafting of a document that not only captured India's sense of history, but which spoke to all the hopes and dreams and aspirations of nearly 400 million Indians at the time.

Flash forward more than 60 years to last week as Dalit politicians (representing the so-called "downtrodden", as "Dalit" literally translates from Sanskrit) from across the political spectrum protested against Shankar's cartoon, which has been republished in a Grade 11 political science textbook. The government must not only withdraw the cartoon, politicians said, and apologise for the insult to Ambedkar at the hands of Nehru, but also punish those who put the cartoon in the book in the first place.

As the protest snowballed inside parliament, incredulity and outright laughter could be heard further afield. Ordinary Indians wondered what the noise was about and whether it was distracting from the much more important issues at hand. Economic analysts and the Reserve Bank of India scrambled to save the falling rupee and keep the growth story afloat. Meanwhile, writers and thinkers across South Asia, gobsmacked at India's embarrassment over such a trivial issue, privately felt that the country, an unabashed power of the last decade, was receiving its fair comeuppance.

Inside parliament, the commotion was increasingly divorced from reality on the streets. From the left to the right, from the national communist parties and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to regional outfits in Punjab and Tamil Nadu, politicians rose from their benches to condemn the Congress-led government. School, they said, was no place to condemn politicians. The right to laugh, they argued, was not sacrosanct, especially as one had to distinguish between who was doing the laughing and who was being laughed at.

It didn't matter that Ambedkar was alive when the cartoon was published in 1949 (he died in 1989), or whether he had objected to its publication at the time. The inheritors of his legacy, India's Dalit community, believed that the goading of Ambedkar, a Dalit, by Nehru, an upper-caste Brahmin, in the public domain was perpetuating a caste slur. Those political science lessons in school weren't the least bit funny, politicians added indignantly.

In the wider public, outrage was spilling into the pages of newspapers. The Indian Express carried another cartoon by Shankar, this one published in 1954, parodying a group of politicians, also sitting on snails, indicating the slow pace of decision-making. Elsewhere, people began to demand that their elected representatives leave their children's education out of the dispute. The spirit of inquiry was far too important, by this reasoning, to be left to people who sought to draw lines based on caste and class prejudice.

Was India showing its thin skin? Did this crop of politicians realise that the friendship between Ambedkar and Nehru had been forged by the fire of the freedom movement? It was a time when India was throwing off the fetters of British colonial rule. Nehru had been a princeling to the manor born, while Ambedkar was the son of a soldier who had performed menial tasks for the British Indian army.

They were joined by their common adherence to the rule of reason. The unlikeliest of friends reached across the caste divide to become staunch allies to mould the new Indian state in both of their images.

That was all forgotten as a single cartoon threatened the entire political class. It showed a touchiness that has become all-too-familiar in Indian politics. Just last month, West Bengal state police arrested a chemistry professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra, because he had emailed a cartoon to a friend. The image, which hasn't been released to the public, lampooned chief minister Mamata Banerjee - she had ordered that all the buildings in Kolkata be painted blue, in sharp contrast to the blood-red that had signified the communist parties that had ruled West Bengal for 34 years until she evicted them in elections last year.

Mr Mahapatra used the word "vanish" in his cartoon, parodying a Satyajit Ray film that had used the same word, but Ms Banerjee insisted that "vanish" meant murder. Her life had been threatened by a cartoon that was really an alibi, she insisted.

To be sure, as political power shifts from New Delhi towards the provinces, growing political assertiveness over the last couple of decades has been accompanied by economic reform. As the centre grows richer, it also seems to become increasingly distanced from those with a differing sense of India. The cacophony of voices that are a manifestation of deepening democracy have also become a challenge to a weakening political centre, in this case the Congress-led government.

Opposition to the cartoon had, in fact, also come from within Congress but no senior leader, not prime minister Manmohan Singh nor Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, was able to explain why the party must hold firm on the principle of comedy. With the government already under attack on several unrelated fronts, censoring the cartoon seemed a small price to pay for peace inside parliament.

Certainly, as the controversy gained momentum, a nervous Congress capitulated quickly. The government ordered not only the withdrawal of the cartoon from the textbooks, but also a review of all books from Grades 9 to 12 to ensure that nothing offensive could escape the censor's critical eye.

Has India become a lesser country after this controversy? Surely the answer is yes, although there is a far more important subtext to the reply. India's elected representatives demand that only they have the right to delete - or keep - the imagery and substance that defines India. Do "outsiders" still have a right to express their own contrary views?

The very idea of India as a tolerant, even anarchic, space able to accommodate a million mutinies is under threat. Erasing the laugh lines from a democracy that only just celebrated its 60th anniversary can hardly be its best birthday present.

Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi. On Twitter: @jomalhotra