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Cartoon row: Why our MPs don't get the joke

Last updated on: May 17, 2012 11:49 IST

Since governance in this country is increasingly tyrannical, ruled by bans and censorships, and intolerant of any criticism, the parliamentary committee on textbooks is almost certain to pander to politicians, feels Sherna Gandhy.

It's taken them 60 years, but thank God, at last, our parliamentarians have come to realise that humour is very, very bad for children.

It has just been discovered that some fellows at the National Council for Education Research and Training have been insidiously inserting cartoons into children's textbooks in an effort to make the lessons interesting or open up new avenues of discussion or make a point.

This is scandalous. Children are meant to learn their lessons 'by heart' and not understand them. They are not meant to ponder or -- God forgive -- smile at a humorously depicted situation in history that will probably stay in their minds longer than the dry text.

The classroom is not the place for smiles and jokes. All that they can see in films where there are those really hilarious scenes of people chucking food at one another, or making fun of someone's limp or stammer.

It was the sharp eye of one Shri Thol Thirumavalavan who belongs to a party called Viduthalai Chiruthaigal that spotted this lamentable tendency to be humorous in an NCERT textbook.

Never mind droughts in the country, child malnutrition, female foeticide (the country was galvanised by this issue that week, but Parliament treated it with superb indifference), police atrocities on women etc, Shri Thirumavalavan stood up and lambasted the presence in a textbook of a cartoon showing Babasaheb Ambedkar, the father of the Constitution, sitting on a snail and being egged on by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The cartoonist was commenting on the fact that the Constitution was rather a long time in the making -- three years, if I'm not mistaken -- and prodding Ambedkar to hurry it up. At least that's how most of us, including said school children, would have seen it.

Shri Thirumavalavan, however, saw more. He saw a Dalit (Dr Ambedkar) being pushed around by a high-class Brahmin (Nehru).

Their years of subjection and oppression at the hands of higher castes have naturally made Dalits sensitive to such issues. Since we are not a nation noted for our sense of humour (except for the kind depicted above), Shri Thirumavalavan could not be expected to see it in lighter vein. He saw it only as another instance of caste oppression.

Once Shri Thirumavalavan had highlighted the issue, everyone jumped onto the bandwagon. Taking their cue from the stick wielded by Nehru in the cartoon, members of some Dalit outfit in Pune wielded their danda to trash the office of Pune University's Suhas Palshikar, one of the advisers for the NCERT textbook. Thus setting a very good example to the school children they claimed to be protecting.

If you think a mountain is being made of a molehill, you think wrong.

Our parliamentarians, who have been warming their seats for the last 60 years (as we were reminded ad nauseam on Sunday during the special sitting of Parliament to mark its 60th anniversary), took this opportunity to go on the offensive.

They declared that not only the Ambedkar cartoon, but several others in school textbooks -- and in fact the texts themselves -- are injurious to the health and well being of politicians (not a word though about the health and well being of poor Professor Palshikar).

One of the cartoons the honourable MPs have objected to shows a favourite theme of that pre-eminent cartoonist, R K Laxman: Politicians begging in front of the electorate before the elections and the electorate begging before the mighty politicians after the elections.

Naturally, this sort of thing cannot be allowed, netas being holy cows you should not criticise or laugh at.

Kapil Sibal, that oracle in the human resources development ministry, thundered (he never just speaks), 'I am of the mind that a large number of depictions in these cartoons are offensive and inappropriate for textbooks.'

'These textbooks are poisoning young impressionable minds,' was the verdict of one Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Akali Dal MP. Sonia Gandhi is said to have banged the table in approval when she heard that.

BJP MP Yashwant Sinha is afraid that such textbooks will 'mould the minds of students to hate politicians, politics and endanger democracy.' Students don't need the help of textbooks to do the first two, but that's another story.

These horribly seditious textbooks, by the way, have been in circulation since 2006 (and the Ambedkar cartoon since 1949), but no longer if the honourable members of Parliament have their way.

A six-member committee has been constituted to go into how all this anti-politician stuff has been allowed in textbooks, find out who is responsible, and how we can ensure that a nice, sanitised, uncontroversial and pro-neta version of all events in our history is presented to our younger generation.

Since governance in this country is growing increasingly tyrannical, ruled by bans and censorships, and intolerant of any criticism, the committee is almost certain to pander to the politicians.

So, are we staring at the demise of the Political Cartoon? No future Shankars, Abus and R K Laxmans?

Not yet.

One national newspaper at least carried a cartoon of a white-topied neta riding a snail heading in the direction marked 'Public Welfare', while the next frame showed the same neta galloping on a horse in the direction signposted 'Useless Emotive Issues'.

The condition of Parliament in its 60th year should provide rich material for anyone wanting to take the mickey out of this group of self-important, self-serving, and, when it comes to education, very ignorant, 'representatives of the people'.

Finally, it's ironic that the man who gave us the right to free speech and expression should be the unwitting means of muzzling both.

Sherna Gandhy