New Delhi-based NGO organised a cartoon demonstration and hosted a public forum against Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal's intention to eliminate all political cartoons from NCERT textbooks. Abhishek Mande listens in.
The mood is that of anger. Sleeves are rolled up and fiery speeches are being made. A small crowd has gathered in a small air-conditioned room at the Press Club of India in New Delhi and is listening in intently to what is being spoken.
You know it is an important event because there are over a dozen camerapersons standing on the other side of the room and each time a speaker walks out, they follow and thrust a microphone at them.
The crowd is floating -- prominent social theorist Dr Ashis Nandy has travelled from his Nizamuddin apartment to show his support, as has publisher Chiki Sarkar of Penguin India.
At the centre of all this action is a cartoon. Dr B R Ambedkar is sitting on a snail and trying to whip it into moving and Jawaharlal Nehru is standing behind them, holding another whip and trying to do the same. The snail, the cartoonist Shankar tells us, is the Constitution and the cartoon created in 1949 is suggestive of the pace at which it was being formulated.
It is an innocuous cartoon or at least was one till a few weeks ago when it became a centerpiece of political debate as the Republican Party of India-Athavale group demanded a ban on a Class XI text book by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, saying it insulted Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Ramdas Athavle has held a press conference and burnt copies of the page from the book in the political science syllabus and asked for the resignation of Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal, who is also the president of the NCERT board.
Matters have since then turned ugly with Sibal expressing his intention to remove cartoons on the political science class in textbooks since they influence impressionable young minds.
The motley crowd gathered at the Press Club is up in arms. There are some prominent names in the speakers' list but a lot of young women and men are busy sketching cartoons in order to protest.
The speakers include senior journalists Aniruddha Bahal and Rajdeep Sardesai, activist Madhu Kishore and Professor Yogendra Yadav among others.
Yadav along with Professor Suhash Palshikar were NCERT's chief advisors for political science till recently when they stepped down following the controversy.
At the Press Club, Yadav refrains from making long speeches. He simply points out that none of the parliamentarians who were debating the issue in the Lok Sabha had read the book and choose instead to read the text around which the cartoon was embedded to make his point -- there was no molehill in the first place to create a mountain out of!
Yadav recollects the time when the word first got out. "I received many calls asking me how I was feeling," the soft-spoken political scientist says, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm. "And I said I was grateful that a text that came out six years ago and no one noticed."
He adds that while there isn't any reason to be apologetic, he feels that there is no need for the cartoon to be flashed.
If I were given a choice to pick a right, he says, I wouldn't pick the right to freedom of speech but rather the right to be read.
"None of the MPs in the Lok Sabha have read the book," he assures the audiences. "(At least) read what you're criticising."
When I caught up with him later, Yadav refrained from commenting whether we as a society had lost our sense of humour and if it was just a sign of an increasingly insecure political class.
"I was associated with the book," he says.
Rajdeep Sardesai however isn't as diplomatic. He spells out what Yadav may have been apprehensive of saying. "This is an insecure government trying to control the monster called media," he says in the forum adding that it is ironic that the protests should have started from Maharashtra that has a strong culture of humour and political satire.
"To see the RPI attacking it (the cartoon) was ironic," he adds.
Pointing out that 'the culture of intolerance is expanding' he suggests that many politicians use surreptitious methods to hit back against negative stories that journalists report about.
In what is perhaps the most shocking confession, Sardesai suggests that his network couldn't report against Nationalist Congress Party strongman Chhagan Bhujbal since he had a strong control over the cable operators in the state.
"Our Marathi channel (IBN Lokmat) was banned (once, in several parts of the state)," he tells the audience.
Social activist Madhu Kishore also points out that to be ruled by people with low self-esteem and low self-confidence is a dangerous sign. "It gives them the power to do a lot of harm," she says in her short speech where she adds that the only minority group that these days seems to have little or no voice is the women of India who seem to be at the receiving end of all atrocities and indecency.
While all the speakers protest against the move and lament on the lack of the freedom of speech and expression, the finest comment of the afternoon comes from a man who preferres not to step on to the dais and rather be part of the audience.
Just as he was about to leave, I couldn't resist asking Dr Ashis Nandy what his thoughts on the matter were. Tongue firmly in cheek he said, "I entirely agree with (artist) Jatin Das. It is a case of cartoons taking decisions on cartoons."