The Rule of the Rich

Democracy as Caricature
Anand Teltumbde

[The cartoon episode depicts how the Ambedkar-icon is exploited to manipulate Dalit sentiments by vested interests for their selfish ends. This icon has also shielded the misdeeds of Dalit politicians and disoriented the Dalit movement.]

In the wake of controversies that erupted funnily over cartoons (first, the 'vanish' cartoon of Mamata Banerjee and, second, Shankar's cartoon of Babasaheb Ambedkar in a Class XI textbook), some basic questions of freedom of expression are being raised in the media. As such, it is not the first time that such an attack has been mounted by the Indian rulers on what constitutes the essence of democracy. Over the years, these attacks have nearly annihilated democracy for the common people.

Viewed in this perspective, the discrete manner in which the media presents issues, though well-inten-tioned, amounts to contributing to their further devastation. Mostly the debates and discussions in the media, both electronic and print, on such issues, although appearing to be critical of the wrongdoers, actually give legitimacy to the idiosyncratic viewpoints of the latter and indirectly reinforce the wrong viewpoint. The current controversies would warrant condemnation and disgust in the strongest possible words by all those who love democracy in India.

Mamata Banerjee came to power in West Bengal dislodging the CPI(M) after 34 years in the name of paribortan (change). It was not something which was unexpected. CPI(M)'s electoral strength had been dwindling for some time and during its last term it had earned lots of negative publicity for highhanded behaviour, particularly in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh. The CPI(M), with its cadre base, had almost decimated the opposition in West Bengal, which in turn helped them to win elections, term after term. Piggybacking on peoples' struggles, last in Jangalmahal area, under the influence of the Maoists, Mamata secured mass support with her rhetoric of democracy. She promised the end of repression, withdrawal of joint forces from Jangalmahal and redressal of people's problems.

In one of the public meetings in Lalgarh, along with Swami Agnivesh, who had been demanding a CBI inquiry into the fake encounter of Azad, the spokesperson of the CPI (Maoist), Mamata had left everyone behind, calling it a cold-blooded murder by the Center. All these right kinds of noises layered her "struggler" profile with democratic polish and won her state power. Once she made it, she made a complete volte face.

Contrary to her promise to withdraw the security forces from Jangal-mahal, she escalated the attack and brutally eliminated Kishanji, like the killing of Azad (widely believed to be in a fake encounter), which she had condemned just a short time earlier. A potent people's movement there was systematically decimated. The promise of democracy precipitated into curbing of dissent and poribortan became more of the same thing. The Trinamool Congress has quickly replaced the CPM in the nexus between police and local goons, which are said to be mostly the same people in changed garb.

This poribortan began bulldozing slums in Kolkata, throwing thousands on the roads and cruelly throttling their voices to "regain the past glory of Kolkata" or make it a city like London. But it largely passed by the mainstream media, which only woke up when it touched the middle class. A chemistry professor of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Ambikesh Mahapatra, was arrested for forwarding (not creating) a cartoon (rather, a comic strip) of Mamata Banerjee on e-mail. He was duly thrashed by the Mamata brigade before being placed in police custody. Despite public condemnation and a media outcry, Mamata persisted and slapped many cases on him. Fortunately, he got bail the next day.

But nothing would shame a power-drunk politician. She would shift her stand in justification, saying sometimes it was character assassination, sometimes a cyber crime and even a murderous code as her spokesman, Derek O'Brien, recently voiced. The world was aghast at this brazen display of autocratic power in the world's biggest democracy!

While this episode rightly brought forth the issue of freedom of expression, cartooning or comment in the media are still largely confined to the middle classes. For the vast majority of the people, agitation on the streets is the real mode of democratic expression. In neoliberal India, this mode is almost destroyed and delegitimised among the middle classes by the rulers.

Except for the ritual of people periodically going to voting booths and choosing one of the bidders to loot the country, what is left of democracy in India?

Not shaken a bit by the ignominy of the cartoon episode, the Mamata Banerjee government arrested a series of activists who had taken up the cause of slum-dwellers at Nonadanga in Kolkata that was being cleared for big builders. It would have been a subdued affair in the media without the intervention of notables like Noam Chomsky and Aruna Roy, seeking the release of a young professor of microbiology, Parthasarathy Roy. He was among those arrested for having participated in the rally that was stopped by the police on April 4, 2012, at Ruby Crossing in Kolkata. His own plea that he was 70-km away from the spot of agitation did not cut ice. Under huge public pressure, he is out on bail but not without spending five horrendous nights in jail. Other activists are still languishing inside.

The Ambedkar cartoon affair is a different kind of case but fundamentally concerns the same issues and in a far-reaching manner. The cartoon was drawn 63 years ago by the noted cartoonist Shankar Pillai and it was included in the political science textbook for Class XI in 2006 under the "model curriculum" instituted by NCERT. No one noticed it during the past six years. It was suddenly discovered as being derogatory of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The cartoon depicted him sitting on a snail with Jawaharlal Nehru holding a raised whip behind, all in public gaze.

Apart from the central theme of the cartoon—that the pace of drawing up the Constitution was too slow for Nehru to take, it was susceptible to multiple interpretations that could be taken as derogatory to Ambedkar. One, Nehru was driving Ambedkar in drafting the Constitution; two, the mount of the snail resembled a shell, a brahmanic symbol, which could be mistaken to mean that the entire Constitution was a brahmanic project futilely presided over by Ambedkar.

In view of these possible (mis) interpretations, one may say that it could have been wisely avoided in the textbook. But the fact remains that it was around for six long years and had not created any discomfort among either the students or teachers for whom it was meant. So how is it that suddenly it became so objectionable, and that too, for politicians?

The controversy was raked up by Mayawati in Parliament, who badly needs to reconsolidate her core constituency of Dalits in the wake of fissures apparent in the last assembly elections in UP in order to be prepared for the general election if held before 2014. It has been the core stratagem of the BSP to make creative use of Dalit "icons" to create and maintain its constituency.

Not to be left behind, all other Dalit leaders, particularly the more unscrupulous ones like Ramdas Athawale (Republican Party of India leader in Maharashtra who struck an alliance with the anti-Ambedkar Shiv Sena and communal BJP combine) and Thol Thirumavalavan (leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal or Dalit Panthers of Tamil Nadu, who switches from DMK to AIADMK to DMK with ease as per electoral prospects), raised their angry voices.

As the grammar of electoral politics mandates, Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, with extraordinary sensitivity, apologised and asked NCERT, the creator of these textbooks, to withdraw the cartoon on April 26 itself. However, the controversy kept escalating and culminated in some Republican Panthers activists ransacking the office of Prof Suhas Palshikar of Pune University, one of the advisers to NCERT on the textbook. This attack hogged headlines and made prime time on all the television channels.

This episode clearly depicts how the Ambedkar-icon is exploited to manipulate Dalit sentiments by vested interests for their selfish ends. The Ambedkar-icon has been constructed to project Babasaheb Ambedkar in a particular way—as a caste-based reservationist, liberal constitutionalist, anti-materialist and mind-centric Buddhist—as against the real him as an iconoclast, painstaking truth seeker, fearless fighter for the cause of the oppressed, and a universalist dreaming of a world sans exploitation and humbug by middle class opinion leaders among Dalits. It came in handy for politicians to keep Dalits at bay from the real issues that impinge upon their lives. Soon, the entire Dalit movement was reduced to emotionalism around this Ambedkar-icon in the name of Dalit self-respect, to the detriment of all other things.

Of course, reservation, which is of their (both the Dalit elite and the ruling classes) interest, is the exception. Reservation by design was not meant to benefit the wider Dalit community but was projected as an Ambedkarian panacea. This was forged into a veritable weapon by the ruling classes to cut the masses asunder.

Such is the power of the Ambedkar-icon that even an outfit like the Republican Panthers, a radical non-parliamentary outfit that has attracted the attention of the overzealous state of Maharashtra to mark some of its members like Shantanu Kamble, Sudhir Dhawale and others as Maoist sympathisers and incarcerate them, succumbs to such sentimentalism. This icon has effectively shielded the misdeeds of Dalit politicians and disoriented the Dalit movement.

The controversy has lent the Ambedkar-icon to be misused by politicians for decimating public dissent. The government has gone ahead and ordered the perusal of all textbooks with such cartoons—effectively make-up cartoons subject to politicians' review.

The very nature of political cartooning as an art of subtle commentary on the idiosyncrasies of power and politics will make such cartoons taboo. The prowess of political cartoons goes far beyond written words as their allegorical statements can easily defy political vigilance. This prowess is not adequately reflected in the media debate.

Political cartooning is a medium which is a combination of the political, the artistic and the journalistic, which allows social commentary beyond the boundaries of the written word. Relying on symbolism and caricature, experimenting in fresh imagery, political cartoons help ordinary people think about politics. Whether their purpose is to promote the status quo, raise social concerns, or spur people to fight hard for change, political cartoons, as one political scientist (Dr Paul Parker of Truman State University) observed, have changed the face of history.

It is not a matter of cartooning, which, anyway, is a dying art in the absence of an appreciative public in this country. Essentially, it relates with any expression that is critical of the rulers, thereby negating democracy itself. But a cynical view may beg the question of whether there is anything left of democracy in the country.

The equation between money and political power is so well entrenched that India is already an ideal plutocracy: the rule of the rich. Where the poor are fighting to protect their habitat are termed terrorists and maoists and gunned down with impunity, where people expressing any dissent are charged with sedition, the discourse on democracy or the talk of freedom of expression is a mere chimera.


Vol. 45, No. 3, July 29-August 4, 2012