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Millennium Post

Whipping passion with a cartoon

Communication is complex. More so in a country which is complex. And no country in the world today is more complex than is India. The controversy in 2012 over a cartoon published more than 60 years ago, illustrates this complexity. The cartoon shows Dr B R Ambedkar, a noted jurist and the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution riding a snail marked 'constitution' and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, whipping the snail to move faster.

Evidently the cartoon was an attempt to paint Nehru as the man standing firmly behind the fast enactment of the Constitution of India. Dr Ambedkar, as the nation’s first law minister, had the unenviable task of framing an acceptable constitution for a complex nation. Point to note is that geographically Independent India had been a new entity. Never in the long history of the subcontinent such a country did exist which was under one single central rule. Even under the British rule there had been several Princely states which had its own constitution and administration. For the framers of the constitution the task was more complex than any researcher will accept today.  It goes to the credit of Dr Ambedkar and  Dr Rajendra Prasad the President of the Constituent Assembly to put together a document which has withstood the test of time.

It is curious that a cartoonist then thought that the constitution making process was slow. Even more curious is that the 'pundits' who  oversaw the NCERT text book found it important enough to put it as a part of the curriculum. Clearly they too felt, even after the hindsight of nearly six decades, that the constitution drafting process, two years eleven months and seventeen days, was painfully slow. At least this is what the editors of the textbook wanted to convey. The point at its best is debatable. The Constituent Assembly was created in December 1946, nine months before India was formally declared independent from the British rule. Then there was the issue of electing representatives from the former princely states to join the constituent assembly. Also it had to meet the challenges of partition of India and riots all over. Given the complex and fast moving scenario there is no question that the founding fathers did a commendable job. It is preposterous to believe that the process was slow. The figment of imagination of a cartoonist, not erudite enough to appreciate the intricacies of a constitution drafting for a newly created nation perhaps did not attract much attention then. In fact those who had been around then said so. Why the pundits today thought it fit to adorn a textbook with an insignificant cartoon remains a curious riddle.

For the cartoonist the illustration served two purposes. It indeed was pleasing for Nehru. Through this illustration he painted Nehru as the architect of the Indian Constitution. This is at best factually incorrect. In fact this undermines the tremendous role of Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr B R Ambedkar along with Dr Harendra Coomer Mukherji et al in drafting a document unique in the history of mankind. Second the cartoon was populist, at least for the large majority who failed to understand the labours of framing the constitution (and do so even now as can be seen from its choice in the NCERT text).

The innocuous cartoon, rather cheap in its conclusion, evidently was dismissed by most then. The Constituent Assembly did not find any time to take note of it. Nor did Dr Ambedkar feel disturbed. Even the snail did not take a whip wielding Nehru seriously. But this disturbed the House in 2012. While the hurt sentiments of those who claim to be followers of Dr Ambedkar is difficult to digest equally curious is the silence of the august body NCERT and the HRD ministry on the complaints in this regard. When the same came to their notice there should have been instructions to drop the cartoon forthwith. Study of Indian Constitution would not have been seriously impaired had this not been there in a school textbook.  The professors who chose it did not see the cartoon in their school textbook yet gathered enough knowledge. When a controversy could have been avoided easily without compromising on the quality of education why was it not done in the first place?

Communication, as we began, is complex. The same material takes different meaning with the passage of time. Shankar’s cartoon is just one of the many such examples. There are many such cases. What was seditious in British India is a matter of pride for independent India. What is acceptable to a liberal Hindu, M F Hussein’s depiction of Hindu goddesses for instance, arouses violent protests in certain quarters. Dr. Martin Luther King was painted as a sex maniac anti-American character by Hoover’s FBI, a clever manipulative communication which was digested at that time. FBI had no place for black Americans then. In today’s USA Barack Obama is a favorite to win the second term.  With the passage of time opinions change. The cardinal mistake of the editors of NCERT textbook was a failure to realize the same and obduracy to see the world through their prism only. Textbook is a primary means of communication. One must be completely unbiased and contextual while drafting it. Shankar’s cartoon fails this test.

Sugato Hazra is a communication professional.
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