Red Herrings, Red Rags and Red Flags – Once More on the Cartoon Controversy

With the recent article by Prabhat Patnaik, the controversy over the ‘Ambedkar cartoon’ issue has now moved into a different terrain. In this important statement, Prabhat undertakes the task of pointing out the numerous red herrings that have entered into the debate. These include  ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘sense of humour’ and the question of  whether Ambedkar had actually seen and let pass this cartoon. Prabhat’s point about the changed sensitivities and increased audibility of the dalit movement today is also well taken.

We must also be thankful to Prabhat for stating his views so candidly over the past few years, on a number of critical issues ranging from Nandigram and the electoral defeat of the Left to the ongoing cartoon controversy. We must thank him because  because in my opinion, all his positions on these disparate sets of issues are of a piece and take us to the very heart of the impasse, not merely in the Left but in our politics itself. But before I respond to some of the issues raised by Prabhat, let me restate my positions on some aspects of the ongoing controversy. This is also necessary in order to identify what exactly it is in Prabhat’s piece that is so disturbing.

 Dalit Response and Hurt Sentiments

In its initial phases, the cartoon issue was certainly a ‘dalit issue’ – even if it was raised only by a section of the dalit political leadership and intelligentsia. Very soon, however, it became clear that there was a more cynical game being played where the most corrupt and compromised sections of our politicians – especially those in parliament – were using Ambedkar as a shield, in order to deflect the blows that were actually aimed at them. The amazing unity of purpose and determination displayed by the parliament has rarely been seen in recent times; nor has the love for Ambedkar ever been expressed with such vigour.

These circumstances give enough reasons to suspect that the game had already changed by the time it reached the parliament. Not many people may have noticed but it was a Congress MP (an official spokesperson in Madhya Pradesh) who raked up a long dead issue of the book by Arun Shourie (Worshipping False Gods), demanding that it be banned.Notice that the demand was not raised ever by the dalit leadership or intelligentsia. In fact, the dalit intellectuals had countered the book by writing their books and articles. Also worth remembering, parenthetically, is the fact that this really cynical style of playing with ‘sentiments’ is a strategy that that the ruling Congress has perfected over the decades. After all, the question of Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival was raised not by Deoband, but by the doddering Congress leadership. Just in case we have forgotten, let us rewind to 2001, when the NDA government was in power and a wholesale tampering with textbooks was undertaken. No less than the prime minister, AB Vajpayee had justified the deletion of ten passages from NCERT history textbooks. That seems quite understandable, given Hindu right-wing politics. But there was one curious deletion that had to do with the narrative on the execution/ martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in the class XI textbook on Medieval India, written by Prof Satish Chandra. Let me cite here from an article written by Prof Sumit Sarkarat that time (Times of India, 2 December 2001):

 “The passage in Satish Chandra’s book about the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, which no one had objected to even at the hight of the Khalistani movement, suddenly comes under attack, and sadly, first of all from the Delhi Congress – just on the eve of the Punjab elections.”

We could go on producing such evidence of the way the Congress has perfected this strategy to a fine art, always with the certainty that secularists and/or those whose sentiments are ostensibly hurt will fall for the bait. However, we will let these instances suffice for now.

Nevertheless, it also needs to be stated here that the question of  hurt sentiments on the cartoon issue as raised by a section of the dalit movement is not something to be dismissed easily, at least, before the Congress and Kapil Sibal entered the picture. After all, that has to do with a longer term memory of how dalits have been represented or portrayed within the domain of knowledge – a clearly brahminical domain in India for millennia. I would even go so far as to say that even though I read the particular cartoon in question very differently, we need to recognize that others may not – and that readings may be coloured by our respective locations.  The issue therefore is sensitive and we should recognize this even though we may be uncomfortable with the direction that the attack has taken.

But matters do not end here. As Prof Gopal Guru put it in his characteristic style in a recent talk at JNU, it is presumptuous to assume that dalit intellection is merely about hurt sentiments and emotions, devoid of all faculty of critical reasoning. That there is a vibrant tradition of critical/ rational intellectual argument within the movement is something that that Guru was at pains to underline. My own sense of Ambedkar himself is that almost all his writings are scholarly rebuttals of his adversaries’ positions, without rhetoric and demagoguery. Ambedkar meets his adversary on his own ground and in his speeches and interventions in the Constituent Assembly too, it will be difficult to find fault with him on this score. He speaks with the authority of a scholar, not merely in the name of his identity. Even when the question of identity is articulated, it is always presented as a question of a constitutional imperative, as an imperative of the logic of equality – for example on the issue of ‘safeguards’ and minority rights. It is, I presume, this tradition that Guru was referring to and to be sure, this is a formidable legacy to live up to. That is what the critical voices that have come up lately seem to lay claim to.

Given this, it is also time to explore possibilities of debate. Clearly, there can be no single meaning that supposedly emanates from the cartoon in question – as indeed from any text. And matters certainly become more complicated and volatile when it comes to visual representations. But to say that the cartoon is open to multiple interpretations is not to suggest that meaning is entirely independent of it and lies only ‘in the eyes of the beholder’. If there has to be any rigour in the argument for or against, we must be able to at the very least account for the various elements in the cartoon/ text. If we simply wish to focus on one whip where there are two, we are clearly doing a selective reading. All our interpretive energies are spent on that single whip and the fact that its wielder is the brahmin prime minister, without any reference to the other elements of the cartoon. Similarly, if we simply ignore the fact that the snail represents the Constituent Assembly that comprises largely upper caste people, and Ambedkar actually has its reins in his hands, whipping it when necessary, while sitting on it, are we actually being true to the ‘text’?  Perhaps, those who are opposed to the cartoon should undertake an analysis of all the elements of the cartoon at some point. Else this criticism is destined to remain at the level of pure rhetoric.

And while we are at it, let us also look at the larger text or body of texts within which this cartoon appears. This demands, at the very least, a study of the points at which the series of textbooks produced in 2006 are different and make a significant break from earlier textbooks. Are these textbooks moving towards doing away with the biases in the way history, politics and such subjects were taught earlier? Let me just give two illustrations from the Social and Political Life Part I and Part II textbook for classes VI and VII respectively, produced as a result of the exercise following NCF 2005. The very first Unit of the first textbook (Part I for class VI) is entitled ‘Diversity’. The second chapter of this Unit, ‘Diversity and Discrimination’ discusses notions such as ‘prejudice’, ‘stereotypes’ and the problems of inequality and discrimination. This section (pages 19-23) discusses the term ‘Dalit’ – who are dalits, why they reject terms like ‘untouchable’ and then goes on to say this about Dr Ambedkar:

“Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the great leaders of India, shares his first experience of caste-based discrimination, which took place in 1901 when he was just nine years old. He had gone with his brothers and cousins to meet his father in Koregaon which is now in Maharashtra”

(p. 19, after which follows a moving four para description of the experience  in Ambedkar’s own words.)

The class VII textbook on Social and Political Life II, has a long extract from Joothan where Omprakash Valmiki narrates how he was made to sweep the floor or clean the school premises while others studied. This description in Valmiki’s own words is followed by these words:

Omprakash was made to sweep the school and playground for the next couple of days and this only came to an end when his father who happened to be passing by, saw his son sweeping. He confronted the teachers and then walking away from school holding Omprakash’s hand he  said loudly for all of them to hear, “You are a teacher…so I am leaving now. But remember Master…(He) will study here…in this school. And not just him, there will be many others coming after him.” (pp 7-8)

These are snippets from two books, but it did not happen accidentally. This kind of presentation was the outcome of the debate on critical pedagogy that posed and dealt with difficult questions like how should textbooks be written that bring out, rather than hide questions of exclusion and discrimination rampant in our society? How do we write textbooks and orient classroom discussions once we give up the unspoken assumption that classrooms are only full of upper caste Hindus? Things may not yet be perfect but a reasonable criticism of this novel effort must situate it in the context of what it was battling against. It must analyze what kind of textbooks were in circulation before this exercise was undertaken. Any such informed criticism will, it seems, make a very different case, even if one still wants to argue that the “Ambedkar cartoon” hurts dalit sentiments.

Accountability, Legitimacy and Democracy

Having said this, let me now turn to Prabhat Patnaik’s continuing diatribe against intellectuals and his reassertion of the ‘supremacy’ of the parliament in this context. What is clear is that we are no longer debating the right and wrong of the particular cartoon in question but the political leadership itself, whose credibility today is that its lowest ebb. That is the precise point at which Prabhat locates his intervention.

It was this supposedly ‘beleaguered’ leadership that jumped at the cartoon issue, making  in the process a vital claim: any questioning or criticism of the political class (and I shall explain in a moment what I mean by this term) is tantamount to raising questions about democracy itself. It was argued that such criticism  weakens the faith of ‘impressionable’ students in democracy. And this aspect of the defense of the political class is inextricably linked with the other issue – what we might call the legitimacy question. Briefly put, it is a question about what gives legitimacy to intellectuals or any group of individuals in society to criticize politicians for what they are.

For Prabhat, the matter seems already settled: the MPs or MLAs are elected representatives; legislatures therefore are by definition the sole legitimate arena of decision making on any matter – from textbooks to economic policy. Intellectuals (and you can substitute any nonparty group or movement here), on the other hand, are only self-appointed guardians of what they consider proper. They are accountable to nobody but themselves. And this is precisely the question that Prabhat Patnaik has been raising ever since his strident attack on those he chose to label ‘anti-left intellectuals’ during the troubled days of Nandigram. Who are these ‘intellectuals’, he had asked then, to challenge the Left parties and their wisdom. The Left parties were after all, progressive a priori; their signboard said so. And they were elected to boot. But the intellectuals? They were ‘messianic moralists’ who had pitted themselves against the Left.

This time round, Prabhat has made a further move: intellectuals associated with the writing of textbooks have been subsumed within another more easily identifiable anti-democratic category, that of the ‘expert’. These intellectuals who wrote these textbooks are merely ‘experts’ in their fields, says Prabhat, who were entrusted with the task of writing textbooks by the state.

Parliament’s Prerogative

Since Prabhat Patnaik makes much of the right of the parliament to have its say in the matter of textbooks, let us state this very clearly: Ours is not a criticism of the right of the parliament to debate and give its considered opinion. Our criticism is precisely that the parliament is not exercising its prerogative; that it has ceased to be a deliberative body, that serious debate hardly ever takes place there  – except when it comes to defending their so-called parliamentary privilege.

We have not forgotten that the Special Economic Zones Act was passed in parliament in just twenty minutes. One only has to look at the recent volume, The Indian Parliament: A Democracy at Work (BL Shankar and Valerian Rodrigues, OUP 2011) to see that important issues – like mass displacement, the Sardar Sarovar dam, (or the NBA movement), ecological issues, the pros and cons of nuclear power – have been singularly absent from the concerns of the parliament. One would be hard put to find a single reference in this 412 page volume to any of the vital issues that have become matters of intense political debate outside parliament over the past two decades or more. And this is not a failing of the book  but rather of the parliament whose workings it diligently describes.

So where is this debate actually taking place? Well, among the experts – scientists of the nuclear establishment, hawks of the national security state, the scientific experts on big dams and lobbyists of various kinds. And Prabhat himself knows too well that on matters concerning economic policy and liberalization too, there has been no debate in parliament – the matter was settled outside, among economists and representatives of global financial institutions – and the parliament has accepted without debate most such positions as fait accompli.

About the only time a serious debate took place in parliament in recent times was when the Anna Hazare movement challenged it, and then it was about parliamentary privilege. Here’s my argument then for using the term ‘political class’ – the elected representatives have acted only in their self-interest, and acted swiftly when their ‘parliamentary privilege’ was threatened. Where other matters of supreme importance are concerned, they have had no opinion – for they have already, long before Prabhat wrote his piece, ceded the territory to the ‘experts’.

It is twenty years too late, alas, for Prabhat to advise that “Parliament must consult ‘experts’ but must not cede its jurisdiction to ‘experts’.”

What is this ‘accountability’ that the parliament apparently has – definitionally, almost as an a priori? Perhaps Prabhat can enlighten us about what kind of accountability was ensured by the sheer fact of being elected when the Babri Masjid was demolished; when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in 1984; when thousands of Muslims were massacred in Gujarat 2002? In my perverse view of things, it was the immunity provided by being elected representatives that enabled the destruction of every value that Prabhat himself perhaps holds dear. Had it not been for parliamentary immunity, had an LK Advani, a Jagadish Tytler or a Narendra Modi been an ordinary citizen (‘accountable to no one’) justice might have been dispensed much faster.

Citizens’ Interventions

In short, no political party in parliament has thought it worth its while to examine any of the issues of vital concern for different sectors of the population,  and it is concerned citizens’ groups who have actually made these issues matters of serious public debate. Is it Prabhat’s suggestion that citizens in a democracy have no business to meddle in the task of governance and policy-making beyond casting votes, once every five years? In part, I suspect, his diatribe in this case, also has to do with the fact that he seems to have no understanding of the actual process through which the textbooks came to be produced. Prabhat seems to believe that some academicians were commissioned ‘by the state’ to produce textbooks.

This is not only entirely misleading, it also refers to an earlier style that was perfected during the days Congress-Left bonhomie (initially it was the CPI, later the CPI(M) too found a place in this dispensation). When the NDA government came to power it  simply replicated the same style, giving the contract this time to their handpicked academics. By and large, this had meant, in both cases, that the books produced were highly ideologically laden, with certain preferred narratives and facts to fit those narratives. Pedagogically boring, the Congress period books too, relied on giving ready-made nuggets of information to students, rather than encouraging them to ask questions. The  main difference during the NDA period was that alongside a much more virulent ideological baggage, those books were produced by academics of little worth.

What had happened during these long decades of state control was that citizens’ groups and organizations concerned with education like Ekalavya began working on alternative pedagogies and producing textbooks for science and social science disciplines, working along with communities of learners. When the 2004 elections came – at the end of six dark years of NDA rule – a kind of ‘natural alliance’ took shape between these groups, social movements and a Congress chastened by years out of power. The return of the Congress in those elections was not a simple return of the old Congress: supported by social movement groups and with the political support of the Left, the UPA I represented a new constellation. On a number of policy issues, new channels of discussion, exchange and consultation had opened out. Thus when the matter of producing the new textbooks came up, it was clear that this time, despite the pressures to simply restore old textbooks, the process would be radically different. What ensued under the stewardship of Prof Krishna Kumar, the newly appointed Director of NCERT was a veritable movement. The ‘state’ had perhaps no clue to who these hundreds of academics were who were involved in the production of these textbooks at different levels. If anybody had visited the NCERT premises in those days, it was a campus buzzing with activity, with teachers from all over India, different groups meeting in different parts of the campus, discussing successive drafts of the books.

One of the key ideas that  governed the production of these textbooks was that these should not become reflective of any specific ideological position. That is not to say they should not be political. On the contrary, precisely because they should be political, because they should be able to discuss political questions, they should not treat any issue as a matter beyond debate. It was part of the overall pedagogical approach to open out questions as debates rather than as issues settled once and for all. In fact, one of the critiques of the new approach from defenders of the older system was that it dissolved categories like the “nation” by bringing up dalits, tribals, minorities as separate and discrete entities – and many of Prabhat’s comrades were in the front ranks of that critique. Nonetheless, the sheer force of that new energy was such that eventually many of the critics too joined in – if haltingly and hesitatingly.

It might be well to remind ourselves that this was a movement for pedagogical transformation – inspired by and drawing on the experience and inputs of  assertions by dalits, women and other sections struggling for justice, attempting to bring into the classroom  the lessons learnt from them.

It would be a shame if the gains of this movement were allowed to be subverted in the long-term interests of the ruling elites and the political classes.

23 thoughts on “Red Herrings, Red Rags and Red Flags – Once More on the Cartoon Controversy”

  1. None can challenge Aditya Nigam in spitting venom against the organised Left, of any kind! That’s bound to be the case for Nigam specializes in nothing else! Now its Prabhat, Earlier it was the rumour of Maoism! Even earlier was that piece in which Nigam documented both his fears and the relief.. To quote him..

    “fear at the sight of these hundreds of little Stalins crawling out of the woodwork, and sheer relief that they will never be able to rule over us ever again.”
    Hundreds of little Stalinists! They must be Indian Citizens as well, ain’t they? They must have their right to form associations and hold meetings guaranteed by the Indian constitution itself? Don’t they? After all, whatever the argument of some of the organizers of MR, MR did neither issue a call for any sort of violence nor did it stop anyone else, including Nigam, to hold their WSF! Seems the term ‘Stalinist’ has gotten a whole new meaning!

    Let’s come to the ‘diatribes’ of Prabhat that Nigam is so scornful of! Prabhat’s article had made a lot of sense to me, and it in my view represented the best possible stance the Marxists, of any kind, should had taken in this ongoing war of positions! Well, one can as well add Laltu’s article that was published in Jansatta in the same league. Now, before someone jumps into some conclusions and/or discoveries, I have always been opposed to CPIM’s political line all my life and have belonged to the ML camp. I have found many of Prabhat’s positions highly problematic, including the ones he had on Nandigram.
    But what is wrong with Prabhat’s argument here?

    He definitely is not treating the Parliament as some sacred and sacrosanct institution that is beyond any critique. He, quite on the contrary, is making it very clear that the Parliament will have to earn the respect it wants. All he is arguing is that the Parliament is a reflection of the collective will of the people and how deficient or efficient it is, is beside the point. He also argues that the power to make decisions cannot be abrogated to any other group that is not accountable to the people unlike the parliament! Is there any problem with that?

    Nigam might be well in his right in locating all the Debates that are happening on issues ranging from the Nuclear Bill to Right to Food to the drawing room discourses of these EXPERTS of Prabhat whom he chooses to refer to as Citizens, but then who are the people who are waging their own wars on the grassroots? Are they all really so peripheral to the debate as Nigam makes them out to be? And mind it, I am not talking either of the erstwhile Harmads of the CPIM nor the Little Stalinists! I am referring to struggles like that of the MKSS in Rajashan to the one against Posco in Odisha. They might not be intellectuals but is it so easy to write them off altogether as Nigam finds it! Ah, Nigam did refer to his ‘perverse view of things’, albeit in a different sense, didn’t he?

    Perverse. That is the word that defines rather amusing ‘evidence’ of Atal Bihari Bajpeyi justifying the deletion of ten passages from a book that Nigam uses to establish the expertise of Congress in such affairs. And all this while we thought that Bajpeyi belonged to the Bhartiya Janata Party and not Congress.

    Apart from maligning all the different strands of Left, Nigam excels in one more thing, that is parrying the real questions away. Prabhat did not merely focus on the rights, and the wrongs, of the parliament. He had scrutinised a few other things as well. For example, the very first thing he argued was that the issue is not about ‘freedom of expression’. Then he buttressed the fact that this is not about any sense of humour either. He also touched upon the issue of sensibilities and how they develop into organised political actions. Yes, the cartoons might not have drawn an immediate protest but then the reasons for that can be located in the strength of the then Dalit movement. It could also have something to with the vocabulary, rather the lack of it, it had.

    Even though Prabhat avoided using the classical categories like class and caste, he hinted at the composition of the experts (Citizens for Nigam) being so terribly schewed in favour of the so called upper castes and classes. Now, socialisation does has a role in shaping our sensibilities and perceptions, doesn’t it? Nigam decided to parry this question away as well. Why? For it is not that easy to fault someone on that account. Also, it is far easier to do an Anna Hazare than engage in the rigours that organised Left is all about. Doing Anna Hazare comes with its own middle class benefits is beside the point.


  2. The sentiments of Indians are so fragile that it can be hurt by anything and every thing. We can find one section or the other always creating ruckus over their “hurt sentiments”.


  3. Prabhat Patnaik’s understanding of parliamentary democracy can be demolished by a class IX student who reads the political science text on understanding democracies. So perhaps its as well that those books might just go.

    It seems naive to say this after all the discussion and words that have been expended on this, but perhaps everyone in the debate should at least begin to read the books. A whole lot of questions regarding who is mentioned or not, who dominates the cartoons, who has a minor place in the text, whether diverse experiences are accounted for, can be answered through such an exercise which is admittedly time consuming. This is not to claim that the textbooks are perfect, but I am appalled by the refusal of those in the debate to read the texts concerned. While this piece quotes from other texts on social studies, the class XI textbook itself draws from the lived experiences of marginalisation and exploitation to interrogate the workings of the constitutional provisions.

    Gopal Guru’s argument is an important one, and it is indeed striking that there is absolutely no engagement with the arguments made by the dalit intellectuals who do not read offense into this cartoon and who raise important questions from within the dalit movement. I am yet to see anyone who talks about the offensive nature of the cartoon actually engage with these voices. Is this not casteism as well where dalits are treated only as homogenous and monolithic.


    1. “Prabhat Patnaik’s understanding of parliamentary democracy can be demolished by a class IX student who reads the political science text on understanding democracies.”
      — Oh really? Please do enlighten us lesser souls too. “Those constituting Parliament are there because of a system, “one-person-one-vote”, which constitutes the negation of millennia of institutionalised inequality. Any denigration of Parliament, any curtailment of its powers and jurisdiction in favour of “experts”, amounts to a negation of this negation, a rolling back of this negation of institutionalised inequality”, as Prof Patnaik puts it. Of course, the chatteratti wouldn’t be happy that their privileges are not considered sacrosanct.

      The fallacy that “experts” like Nigam have committed is to assume that classroom are spaces where “rational” discussions take place, unmediated by power relations and prejudices. In a society in which certain castes are dominant and caste prejudices are deeply entrenched, the discussions that happen in classrooms will reflect these power imbalances and prejudices. The teachers who will lead the discussion cannot be expected to be free from prejudices either. The kind of teachers who made Omprakash Valmiki sweep the school and the playground exist in vast swathes of this country. The students are not angels either. Many of them are taught caste prejudices at home. The problem with the cartoon is not that it is meant to denigrate Ambedkar – in fact I’m quite certain that Shankar did not meant it that way. The problem is that it can be interpreted in that manner. Perhaps by the teacher, perhaps by some students in the class, where Dalits are likely to be a minority. Taken together, there is a possibility that the “common sense” conclusion of the discussion would be less than charitable towards Ambedkar, which is sufficient as an argument against the inclusion of the cartoon.

      It is nobody’s case that the NCERT text book under discussion is not well-written. Criticising the inclusion of the cartoon in the context of the reality that exists in our society does not mean that the book or even the cartoon is bad. Retain the book, by all means. Take away the cartoon. There is nothing so great in the cartoon that would outweigh its possible unpleasant consequences.

      The procedure that was followed was indeed objectionable, as Prof Patnaik points out: “What is required is a procedure in place for handling them, and not ex cathedra pronouncements of Ministers on the spur of the moment under political pressures of various kinds. For instance a committee of academics can be set up in each case to give an opinion and recommendation, not just a verdict but, if need be, an informed interpretation that helps to assuage feelings.”

      Finally, most of us hold Gopal Guru in high esteem, but that doesn’t mean he is the sole representative of the Dalit community, or even that of Dalit intellectuals. There are other Dalit intellectuals who have taken a different view of the issue altogether, as has been pointed out in other comments here.


      1. Samson, if you think the procedure followed was indeed objectionable, then how can you support the deletion of the cartoon at this juncture? Ofcourse you and everybody who has a problem with the cartoon has all the right to articulate it. But if the demand of deletion is met with a response like that of our Parliamentarians, which you would also agree, denigrates any deliberative and democratic process for a thorough discussion and rides conveniently on sentimentality, then shouldn’t all social movements rally together to say collectively, that “We will debate the merits and demerits of the cartoon, ONLY if a legitimate process is put into place where all social movements can have a proper and deliberative exchange with the textbook writing process. Such arbitrary judgements and reviews and banning, that the government is undertaking, is unacceptable.” For if we today, in our quest for deletion, ratify what Sibal is doing, we are actually consolidating the government’s power to intervene in any thing with impunity and no concern for due process. Shouldn’t the Dalit movement today, rally alongside the textbook writers to stop the arbitrary ways in which the government is functioning?

        Also, about Gopal Guru, again, the only argument that is doing rounds is that he is not the only spokesperson of the Dalit movement. This is like countering an argument that was never made. Everybody knows this. Ofcourse he is not the only one. The question is if you have any answers to the questions Gopal Guru has raised, that Aditya Nigam has pointed out in this piece.

        Which brings me to the question about why you believe Nigam does not know about the classroom. Where in the piece is this written? To quote Nigam on the contrary, he argues that the textbooks were made with conscious questions like the following “How do we write textbooks and orient classroom discussions once we give up the unspoken assumption that classrooms are only full of upper caste Hindus?”

        Nobody in India, “expert” or not, assumes that classrooms are casteless rational public spheres. I see no point in these accusations that textbook writers or its defenders ignore the space of the classroom. It is first of all untrue. And secondly if the classroom is truly your space of activism then you have a much longer and difficult process to be part of, rather than feel politically smug by deleting one cartoon here.


  4. and it is not casteism that u are referring one of the best academician in India as a dalit academician whereas u remain surname less and thereby rational indian !!!


    1. This kind of a comment only vitiates the debate further. I think your comment wants to only attack Janaki and therefore will use any argument that comes in handy. Had her argument ignored Guru’s stature as a dalit intellectual, you would say this too is a rational uppercaste way of ignoring caste. This is not an argument, but a mud slinging match then. And the mud being the identity of those engaged in the debate.

      And if you had any concern for the Dalit movement, you would instead make clear what you really think of Gopal Guru’s arguments. I was myself present in that meeting, and I believe Gopal Guru threw a difficult and challenging question to the Dalit movement, which the likes of you are only interested in ignoring by making use of the identities of those talking about Gopal’s argument. Maybe you don’t have an answer to Gopal’s arguments after all.

      If you really do not believe that the movement is homogenous or monolithic, why don’t you address the problems with the discourse of ‘hurt sentiments’ to which Dalit movement is being reduced by the likes of Kapil Sibal.

      I can only hope that instead of using the easy formula of caste background = casteist or not casteist , people began engaging in a serious debate about the issues involved. Not that our backgrounds don’t shape us, but if that were all that always constituted us, then the very rationale for social movements will come to an end.


      1. Hi Parth,
        You have posed some questions to the Dalit movement. They are well taken. Simultaneously, one should understand that there is an argument about dalits that passion is so innately placed amongst dalit intellectuals/activists/thinkers that one cannot have a rational dialogue with them. May be that is true! But dont you think that the ‘dispassion’ that evokes amongst the ‘upper caste’ rational intellectuals is also a form of passion and is caused by a specific location of a those individuals. This ‘dispassion’ of our expert scholars have caused an conspicous absence of Ambedkar and anti-caste movements from our NCERT textbooks for so many years. If one has no knowledge of Dalit movement, they would continously throw a diatribe against them as to how illiterate they are or how irrational they are. I would say that the Dalit movement is about knowledge and struggle. And nothing more than that! Go through the countryside and have a dialogue with dalit activists. One would feel embarassed after getting exposed to the knowledge and understanding of society of that particular activists. Yes, Gopal Guru is not a single voice in the dalit movement. I think like in every democratic social movement there are different voices. I think one need not have to prove that. And that is not a bad or evil sign of any movement. When Ambedkar decided to convert to another religion, he had to discuss and deliberate with the Dalits. After having convinced them, he decided to go for mass conversion. There are many questions coming in my mind…. But for time being, I think i should stop here…


  5. dalits never claimed that they are homogeneous community and will think same on every issue. If there is gopal guru, then they are some others too who might not think like him and may differ. so just because gopal guru according to u is a “Dalit” scholar, others who think differently, must listen to him just because of his caste …brilliant understanding !!!


    1. Have you been following the debate? A lot hinges on the offense felt by all dalits on this cartoon. I am not getting into the question of whether it is offensive or not. But if there are voices which contest or problematise the offense from within the community and from within a very important and vibrant scholarship in indian social sciences, they should be engaged with. Or not?


  6. @Aditya Nigam and Janaki
    A debate that is taking place mostly in English may or may not be followed by Dalits as a community for structural reasons but you definitely are not following it folks. You cannot for Gopal Guru will always be a Dalit intellectual for you whereas Aditya Nigam will not be ‘savarna’ intellectual! Locational politics has its own dynamics!
    In fact, this is what explains Aditya’s dogged avoidance of the central question that Prabhat asked! The question of the class/caste location of these intellectual’s that so effortlessly turn into plain and simple ‘citizens’.
    Anyways, here is an opinion from another intellectual, Dalit or not I don’t know, but even if I had known that i would not have used the label. His name is S Anand, the publisher of Navanya.
    “What rankles is how liberal and even left intellectuals, who claim to be fellow-travellers of Dalits, have imposed moral pressure on Dalits and Dalit intellectuals to come out and stand in support of retaining the textbook in all its sanctity. Dalits have been portrayed both in big media and alternative media such as the blog Kafila, as “emotional-devotional” fanatics, who lose all “rationalism”— something non-Dalits gleefully point out Ambedkar stood for.”
    Here is the link for his full article that published in today’s Indian Express, that is if you bother to read a ‘Dalit’ intellectual who has taken a stance that contrdicts, and problemetises, yours.


  7. Subtext of Prabhat Patnaik’s article: The only good intellectual is a declassed intellectual, the only good expert is RED AND expert. Long live vanguardism.


  8. Anand’s article about imposing ” moral pressure on Dalits and Dalit intellectuals to come out and stand in support of retaining the textbook in all its sanctity” is utterly patronising and devoid of any understanding or engagement with how any productive critical discourse develops in public sphere. There is no monolithic voice which is emerging here amongst either the upper castes or the dalit community and that is precisely how it should be.Is any dissenting voice now condemned to be one which emerges under ‘left liberal pressure’ and hence not be engaged with?
    As someone whose intellectual understanding of ‘neoliberal economics’ and the ‘forces of imperialim’ is so deeply indebted to Prabhat and who owes so many other intellectual debts to him, i would beg to differ on a few counts here. Prabhat’s article while raising some important issues, at the same time conflates any understanding of the working of a political democracy and its accountability with the parliament itself. Further it collapses the parliament itself with the state which is now ‘democratic’ also on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle and hence the sole arbiter of democracy and the voice of the people. This is a very problematic understanding of the diverse institutions and structures which are the sites of political agency, engagements and accountability in a democratic polity .


  9. It is not surprise to see the so called left intellectuals and some brahmins have suddenly become the messiah of dalits. There is a trend that is as follows

    First, since the left has historically kept mum on caste questions and betrayed dalits and bahujans in the past , now it cant critically engage with caste question because of the fear that it may be named again as anti dalits, therefore, it just kowtows any line taken by any body on caste without questioning the context.
    Second, the question is how come the entire congress and BJP become messiah of dalits, it was arun shorie who wrote damaging and poisonous book against Babasahib Ambedkar, and similarly it was Kapil Sibal who took the pledge that he would get rid of the reservation, which he has been doing in subtle way, however now became messiah of dalits, whereas people like Yogendra yadav became castiest…

    Now, the issue is not just about the cartoon in controversy, it is about the whole book series of NCERT, which contain scholars say lot of cartoons against congress and indiragandhi in particular, can one argue that congress is using ambedkar as shield to protect itself which it did historically…


  10. “”We face problem when we have to treat those, who served under us, as dignitaries.”- Mulayam Singh Yadav. about bureaucrats holding constitutional posts

    Now, who are these “we”? Can’t say “political class” because “an implicit denigration of Parliament and hence by implication, of the centrality of the role of one-person-one-vote”.


    “”The same cartoon in a newspaper may well be acceptable but the same cartoon or a series of such cartoons attacking the political class or a community in a textbook which has a tendency to influence impressionable minds may well not be acceptable”- Kapil Sibal

    So here is an honorable parliamentarian who himself is implicitly denigrating the parliament. Small people like us cannot help but follow our elected leaders.

    And a final quote:

    “The facts of democracy must not make us lose sight of a circumstance, often overlooked by bourgeois democrats, that in the capitalist countries representative institutions inevitably give rise to specific forms in which capital exercises its influence on the state power. We have no parliament, but then there is no end of parliamentary cretinism among the liberals and of parliamentary licence among all the bourgeois deputies.”


  11. Here is one news item appeared in Times of India on 21st may 2012.
    Link of the news also given here.
    This news item gives one reflection on the cartoon issue and response of Dalit community although not of whole community but definetly of section of Dalit in Punjab. This same group was fighting in Gohana too in 2005. Organiser of AADI DHARAM SAMAJ Sh. Raavan ji wrote and published a book ” Ambedkar se vimukh, Safai kamgar samaj”

    Cartoon row: Adi Dharam Samaj extends support to ex-NCERT adviserI P Singh,TNN | May 21, 2012, 04.16AM IST
    JALANDHAR: Though there was a lot of noise in the Parliament on the issue of Dr Ambedkar’s cartoon in a NCERT text book as MPs used their lung power to project themselves as true champions of dalits, but ground situation appears in stark contrast with Adi Dharam Samaj (ADS) – one of the biggest and radical organization of Valmiki community – gave a “signed blank letter of support” to Yogendra Yadav, who was NCERT’s chief adviser and resigned after the controversy erupted.

    It was not just that ADS leaders and activists led by its founder Darshan Rattan Rawan expressed blind faith in Yadav by handing over this “blank and signed letter of support” to Yadav, but dalit students and activists too were jostling with one another to get themselves photographed with Yadav on Sunday.

    Yadav, better known as a psephologist, was the main speaker at a seminar on “Indifference towards education in Valmiki/Mazahbi community” organized by ADS in Jalandhar on Sunday. Yadav said the day he resigned, he received a text message from Rawan extending his support. “After I received the message, I stopped worrying and I knew the dalit community was with me,” he said in his address.

    He added that he was not afraid of any reaction from the dalit community as he had been working with them all this while, but was rather surprised to see how the Parliament was taken by storm.

    “Instead of discussing serious business, the politicians wasted so much precious time over a cartoon,” he added. The population Valmikis is in lakhs in Punjab, whose 33% of the total population belong to the dalit community, the highest in the country.

    It emerged in the seminar that though the community was second largest dalit community in Punjab, it was much behind the other major dalit community – Adidharmis – in education and in jobs. The speakers said that in place of finding fault with any other community their own should introspect. It also came out that the community lacked organized effort focusing on guiding the students.

    Rawan held that there were several customs in the community which should be shun without any delay and were responsible for keeping the community at the lowest social and economic strata.


  12. @Parth Shil (I couldn’t find a reply button below your reply to my comment):
    At this juncture, the need is to take into account the reality of the classrooms in our country which are dominated by caste prejudice. The need to ensure that the textbook is a more appropriate one in view of this reality would take precedence over concerns of procedure. The critique of the procedure adopted will remain, and will have to be maintained if the same procedure is followed again in future, but the degree of opposition cannot be the same at every instance of procedural impropriety, and will have to be calibrated as per the requirements of the situation and issues concerned.

    In a country where blatant anti-minority vitriol masquerades as “education” in RSS-run schools, I believe that the legitimate authority of the state to regulate the content of text books needs to be asserted and even extended. A situation where every school is free to choose what to teach and what books to use might satisfy some smug (to use your own term) intellectuals, but its consequences would be disastrous. The classroom is indeed a space where democratic intervention is necessary, and the ability of the state to intervene there contributes to the ability of society to carry out such interventions. That a free-for-all situation implies a considerable narrowing down of the space to carry out such interventions should be a no-brainer.


  13. A pernicious campaign over email and on Facebook is accusing us of censorship. This is my personal response to it as one of the seven admins of kafila.

    First of all, please take alook at our comments policy, which has been up for years on our About page.

    Moderation of comments is our prerogative. Our comments policy clearly says this. The last word on comments is that of the author of the post or of the kafila member who posts a guest post. Sometimes this may be done in consultation with the small group of admins. Comments may be not published for a variety of reasons – because they are ad hominem attacks or nasty in tone or off-topic. But one important reason is also content. If kafila has served any role at all as a place where rich debates take place within a broadly Left spectrum, it is because we act as editors of the debate. No publisher will publish every manuscript submitted to her/him, even if it is of the highest quality. Just as with a publisher or a journal, every kafila author has an idea of how a debate should go, and that is unavoidably a subjective decision.

    Our comments policy says: “We want Kafila to be a forum in which we can explore complex ideas together. Polarised for/against debates or Big Fight-type slanging matches do not help us develop our ideas, but freeze us into unalterable positions.”

    To term this kind of curating and editing of a debate, “censorship” would hold some merit if Kafila did not give space to different and opposing points of view, which in fact, it does. Not only in comments but also through solicited and unsolicited guest posts.

    We are thus committed to giving space to a variety of views and subjects, even those we do not agree with. This “we” here refers to individual authors on kafila because there is no “kafila line”, which would be evident to anybody who has read kafila regularly, because kafila authors themselves debate and disagree with one another through comments and separate posts.

    On this particular debate, it would be evident that all the posts have comments that express a variety of views, including links to important contributions to the debate in other forums, that completely disagree with the opinion expressed in the kafila posts to which they were comments – for example, Anoop Kumar’s post and the Savari post are both linked in comments to the Critical Pedagogies post.

    As a policy we do not generally re-post pieces that have already appeared elsewhere in print or on-line, but only link to them. Only a kafila author her/himself may re-post on kafila pieces they have published elsewhere, but we do not generally do this with guest posts.

    One particularly egregious allegation is that we sat on one (unsolicited) guest post submission (a statement by two political organisations) for two days and then we posted it as a comment. In this particular case, while we were taking a call on the submission, the writer of the statement herself decided to post it as a comment on a subsequent post by a kafila member, and we approved it. One would again like to emphasise the prerogative of Kafila members to decide if and when they want to publish (unsolicited) guest post submissions. We try our best to find the time to respond to all unsolicited submissions, but we also expect people to be aware that nobody on kafila does this as a full time job and we will take time to reply to submissions.

    The suggestion that if we do not publish every comment and unsolicited guest post received, we are censoring views, is ridiculous. Kafila is a team blog with 22 members and it is their right to publish what they like on their blog, just as it is your right to decide the content of your blog or Facebook, or the books you publish.


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