Violence and laughter: The Ambedkar cartoon controversy

The cartoon from the 1950s by renowned cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai, featuring then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Constiution, which became the subject of a major political controversy earlier this month, forcing the Government to withdraw it from the NCERT Class XI political science textbook.
The cartoon from the 1950s by renowned cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai, featuring then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Constiution, which became the subject of a major political controversy earlier this month, forcing the Government to withdraw it from the NCERT Class XI political science textbook.

Earlier this month, I signed, with some disquiet, onto this petition. Initiated by some members of the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, the petition protests against the Government's decision, in the wake of the Ambedkar cartoon controversy, to withdraw the cartoon from the NCERT Class XI political science text book and review all NCERT political science and social science textbooks for Classes IX-XIII. It also seeks to defend the "gains of the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005".

One reason I signed the petition was because it seems to me urgent that we try to save the NCF 2005 textbooks. They are, quite simply, amongst the most superb provocations available anywhere to critical thinking for young minds. I have over the years read them with my two children, and I would be very disappointed if other children were deprived of the same experience. 
There were other reasons too: I share the petition’s criticisms of the government’s arbitrary way of making its decisions about the textbooks, and its demand that textbooks be produced by an "academic, collective, democratic and inclusive process" that excludes any "direct government intervention".
But even though I would sign it again today for the same reasons, I continue to experience a deep disquiet about the petition, and especially one paragraph in it. Nor am I alone in this—other signatories have been disquieted by parts of it. (Indeed, this essay began as long e-mail exchanges with one other signatory in particular, Janaki Nair, who shares much of the disquiet articulated below. Many of her responses and extensive comments are almost verbatim part of this essay).
In the petition I signed (and which therefore I cannot disavow, which is therefore as much my voice as this piece, even if it is a voice I am uncomfortable with), the paragraph that made me most uncomfortable was this:
"...the fear of cartoons is not unimportant. It tells us a lot about the democracies we now inhabit. Jawaharlal Nehru told Shankar Pillai ‘Don’t spare me Shankar’. B.R. Ambedkar saw the cartoon that is now being seen as ‘offensive’. He had no problem with it. Nehru and Ambedkar, and great democrats like them, were aware of what cartoons mean. They were aware that creative cartoonists like Shankar or Laxman can encourage us to question what is taken for granted, reveal the ambiguities and contradictions of individuals, persuade us to see things in a new light. India has a long creative tradition of satire and irony. The productive power of laughter has been used not only in movements for social justice, but in children’s literature as well. If we celebrate this tradition, we celebrate democracy. Only in non-democratic countries is there a fear of cartoons."
The CHS petition is not alone in this kind of emphasis. A statement by faculty members of the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Calcutta (CSSSC) notes that "India has a long tradition of producing social and political commentaries in the form of hilarious visuals and words". It also notes that the "emerging trend of automatically equating lampooning with character assassination cannot but result in undermining the nation’s democratic charter". The concluding paragraph of that statement said:
"It is on behalf of the ‘little men’, from whose perspectives the celebrated cartoonists dared to make light heavy-going matters, that we condemn the somber Indian politicians’ and their lathi-wielding goons’ zeal to persecute persons committed to the cause of irony, irreverence and critical humour in public life."
What is puzzling about both these documents (and all the more so since the CHS and CSSSC faculty know and have in some instances argued for everything that I am about to say below) is their failure to acknowledge (I hesitate to say "understand"–how can they not understand this!) that there can be a genuine sense of hurt amongst Dalits and others about the cartoons. That the hurt is to some extent manipulated by "somber Indian politicians and their lathi- wielding goons" I have no doubt. That it is sometimes a smokescreen being used by MPs to protect themselves–this again I have little doubt about.
Yet, unless we are willing to go back to that old narrative of pliable masses and manipulative leaders, surely the hurt is more than just this?
But during this controversy we in the Indian academic community seem to have had, with some very important exceptions (such as this essay by Aditya Nigam), the greatest difficulty admitting that it is more. Both petitions are silent about this hurt. They do not deal with the uncomfortable question of pedagogical strategies which may intend to use cartoons, images and texts in order to illustrate deep and unequal hierarchies from which we think we have distanced ourselves today, and which may yet be construed as a re-assertion, as a re-enactment of those very powers and hierarchies. That a group which includes Partha Chatterjee—whose writings have for long been teaching us to question an emphasis on elite manipulation, as also to question "civil society" (the preferred equivalent in the NCERT textbook is "public reason", a phrase that occurs in the text right beside the cartoon)—should ascribe the opposition to "somber politicians and their lathi-wielding goons" is especially striking.
This refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the opposition to the cartoon is widespread. In a recent essay, for example, Nivedita Menon (from whose profoundly insightful criticisms of "civil society" we have learned much) writes: "Dalit intellectuals have unwittingly, I believe, played into the strategy initiated by MPs and politicians, both Dalit and non-Dalit – that of stifling democratic critique of the political classes". 
Shiv Viswanathan (one of the earliest critics of the categories of civil society) has in this instance succumbed almost entirely to those very categories, and contrasts the "gentle chiding" of Shankar to the violence of the Danish cartoons (he forgets, in the process, that meanings do not inhere in texts—texts are read). He goes on to suggest that the reason for the outrage is that "Ambedkar is now an iconic figure and to treat an icon to the irreverence of a cartoon is to insult him". 
Such an explanation, needless to say, refuses to consider the possibility that there may be legitimate intellectual and political reasons for Dalit outrage.
The point I wish to make is only this: thinkers who have been on the forefront of the critique of humanist categories—the critique in other words of that complex of categories which includes secularism, the public sphere, civil society, public reason—seem to have mostly agreed that opposition to the cartoons is misplaced, manipulated, illogical, and so on. In a strange way, at this moment, they seem to have fallen back on the very humanism that they usually criticize. 
Perhaps nothing is more symptomatic of this than the way both documents are framed by a narrative about the decline of democracy and the public sphere from Nehruvian times to the present.
Why should this falling back on humanist categories have happened? It would obviously be quite misplaced (and also intellectually shallow) to bring up in these cases charges of upper caste privilege. Besides, it is not as though Dalits are a homogenous group who are uniformly hostile to the cartoon—Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, for example, is amongst those who seems to find opposition to the cartoon misplaced.
What is at work rather, it seems to me, are two categorical difficulties. First, there is the difficulty of perceiving hurt and humiliation from within the categories of civil society. Second, there is the even greater difficulty of thinking the other reason or other civility that is required to address this violence.
To attend to the first difficulty, we could begin by contrasting, in the spirit of Gopal Guru’s argument, the experience of violence as oppression and as humiliation. Within the categories of civil society, violence is usually understood as a matter of oppression. Putting it simply, even simplifying a bit, oppression is seen as external and measurable, something from which the oppressed can free themselves by calculating their struggles correctly. The language of oppression does recognize that violence is sometimes experienced as humiliating, or as a wound. 
But within its terms, humiliation and the wound are the pre-rational or non-rational experience of oppression. It is precisely by converting that experience into the rational terms of oppression that there can be a successful struggle against that violence. Here, oppression is the real violence, and humiliation merely the secondary manifestation of that violence. Justice in this struggle against oppression, relatedly, is conceived as realizing a society organized around an equality that is not just abstract but also substantial. It is because of the pervasiveness of the thinking of violence as oppression, dare one say, that the cartoon controversy seems to so many like a diversion from the more pressing and real issues.
In contrast to this is the thinking of violence as humiliation, as a wound. Perhaps we can approach this thinking tangentially, by attending to the common strategy adopted by both petitions to deflect concern with hurt or the wound. Both documents affirm a humour that is firmly within the realm of state and civil society. Even if the spirit of "little men" is invoked, the fight is in order to make sure that they have a place in state-sponsored school textbooks. Good democracies have states that invite laughter from civil society, and they have civil societies where laughter flourishes. In laughing in the right manner—a laughter that is constructive, that is what Shiv Viswananathan has called a "gentle chiding"—what is taught is the dissent proper to civil society.
But here, in the cartoon controversy, we have a problem: many in the margins are not laughing. Instead, they seem even to be hitting out at the laughter.
This should not be surprising. It is now well understood, in significant part because of the work of those associated with CSSSC and CHS, that the unmarked public sphere has, to the extent it has existed, been constituted by the exclusion of non-elites. And as those from the margin have increasingly come to participate in this sphere, the sphere itself has changed, in some cases even come close to disintegration. For those on the margins, the neutral language of the public sphere is on occasion deeply wounding.
It may in other words be irrelevant that nobody found the cartoon offensive at the time, that Ambedkar too is holding a whip, that both Nehru and Ambedkar are flogging the snail, and so on and so forth. What we must not fail to recognize and acknowledge is that irony, irreverence and critical humour, even when it sets out to question the dominant and the powerful, may also inadvertently hurt those who have suffered historical wounds that make humour about some issues difficult to perceive. This difficulty that they experience is not even necessarily wilful—it is rather a wound that festers, or a wound whose hurtfulness cannot be controlled by the wounded.
To think of violence as a wound or humiliation, in other words, is to name the way in which even though the experience of violence is always between self and other, it is yet never experienced as only external or measurable. Rather, it is incalculable, and is inscribed on the self of both dominant and subordinate. It is this experience that Frantz Fanon perhaps refers to when he says that the dreams of the colonized are muscular dreams. (If indeed Fanon is such an unavoidable thinker, this is because he most emphatically breaks from the understanding of violence in terms of the categories of public reason.)
From within the categories of civil society or public reason, as I suggested earlier, an emphasis on violence as humiliation, hurt and wound seems to lead to very dangerous and messy territory. The Gujarati Hindu middle class, for example, has a deep sense of historical hurt, and we know where that has led and is still leading. Perhaps indeed one of the reasons why the idea of a public sphere exerts such a powerful influence is because there is no such messiness here—only the conversion of humiliation into the rational language of oppression, into questions about abstract and substantive equality.
But when we adopt the language of oppression, we treat hurts, wounds or humiliations as pre-political. I should indicate how I here invoke this term ‘pre-political’. By now, there is widespread recognition of one sense of politicalness—the one that emphasizes that power is at work in all human relations. Very few on the left today would treat any relations of caste, class or gender as pre-political in the sense of being unmarked by power.
Still, another sense of politicalness remains obscured. Even where the categories of public reason recognize the experience of humiliation, the assumption is that this experience belongs to the realm of sentiment and feeling, and is incapable of articulating its own thinking of reason, civility or justice. Reason, civility and justice are always assumed to be external to the experience of humiliation; these are to be provided by the language of oppression. Within this problematic, humiliation may have voice, but it lacks speech.
Here the pre-political is always subordinate to the political: it can be spoken for, but it cannot speak; it is the object of humanitarian intervention by those who can speak. And when we treat humiliation as pre-political in this sense, we are left only with those very concepts—such as "due process", "public sphere", and "civil society"—which we on other occasions critique. This is the profound violence that marks the categories of public reason, a violence that is always invisible from within these categories themselves.
Perhaps this is the moment to attend to the second difficulty, and ask: what would be a politics that tried to inhabit and appropriate the reason, civility, and justice secreted by the wound or humiliation?
Let us begin with this recognition: crucial to this politics would be another equality. I say another equality because it is not enough to simply extend the equality of speech to others—there will always be those excluded from such equality, who are constitutively subaltern, who can at best be spoken for. One categorical name for those so excluded is "animal", and the line between the animal and the human will always pass through the human. In order to think an equality that is more inclusive, in order to destroy the very possibility of the pre-political, we cannot simply expand the concept of equality we have; we must venture on the thinking of another equality.
The thinking of this other equality moreover cannot proceed only through an affirmation of what some time back might have been called carnivalesque laughter. There is much that is distinctive about that laughter. Unlike the "unhurtful" laughter of civil society, carnivalesque laughter can be as well directed by the subordinate to produce critiques of dominant power.
But we must not forget that carnivalesque laughter, and more broadly the laughter outside civil society of which it is the most prominent example, can also institute and sustain the most violent hierarchies. Gopal Guru notes a phenomenon which may be relevant in this context, pointing out that humiliation is "comic for those who are alleged to have deployed untouchables for the job which produces 'dark pleasure' for the former. It is also comic in another sense: the Hindu upper caste person is doubly pleased with the minority person’s confirmation of the ideology of purity-pollution".
Indeed, it is partly in response to the violence outside civil society that the secular public sphere, with its abstract equality, is instituted, and even demanded by the subaltern. When Chandrabhan Prasad says that the British came too late and left too early, is not this remark organized in part by the association of the British with the institution, howsoever flawed, of a certain abstract equality? And yet, as the all-too-quick review here of the categories of civil society already suggests, abstract equality is by itself never enough, least of all for redressing humiliation and the wound.
We are thus here in a situation where we must equally question carnivalesque laughter and the "unhurtful" laughter of secular civil society—both are organized around a profound and constitutive inequality.
To think this other civility and equality is not at all to embark on a new task. Amongst the most profound and original twentieth century thinkers of this other civility and equality are Ambedkar and Gandhi, who in their thinking of this question are abysally separated from and yet abysally close to each other, who at times seem to infinitely mirror each other (and what is mirrored, lest we forget, never converges).
One word, though by no means the only one, to describe this other equality and civility would be "religion". That is the word that both Ambedkar and Gandhi invoke to translate two abysally similar concepts—dhamma and dharma.
What is being described by them as religion has nothing in common with the metaphysical concept of religion (let us call it theological religion as a shorthand). The latter has dominated our societies for millennia, and reaches its highest point, its contemporary culmination, in today’s secular concepts. (This argument about secularism as itself the culmination of theological religion has been made by many thinkers: it already marks some of Nietzsche’s writings, is formalized in the writings of Carl Schmitt, and finds forceful postcolonial articulations in the work of Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood.)
What is being described by Ambedkar and Gandhi as religion rather is another thinking, one that is coeval with theological religion but entirely opposed to it. To approach this thinking of another equality and civility perhaps we can take some cues here from Ambedkar. Already in that never-delivered address of 1936 to the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, he declares that he has decided to change his religion. With this announcement begins the trajectory that culminates, if one can use that word, in his embrace of Buddhism, and in the posthumous publication in 1957 of The Buddha and his Dhamma. Is it too much to say that during this whole period (and perhaps before 1936 too, for that is only the year in which his ferment leads him to the decision to change), the question of religion can never have been far from him? That it takes him so long to work through the question of religion precisely because the question is so close to him?
And yet, during this period, he also plays a crucial role in writing the document that the cartoon controversy is about—the Constitution, a document that institutionalizes the secular public sphere, or what the NCERT textbook calls "public reason". Is it too much then to say that, in Ambedkar’s thinking, both before and after the Constitution there is a certain thinking of religion?
What is this religion? Clearly, it cannot be a private religion of the sort that public reason celebrates—by the terms of public reason, such a private religion is apolitical and subordinate to the state, and the change of or to a private religion would scarcely merit announcement at the Mandal. Clearly also, his religion cannot also have anything in common with what defenders of civil society call for in demanding a "return to reason"—then he would not have needed a religion after the Constitution; he could simply have affirmed the Constitution and the secular public sphere in a theological spirit, as perhaps Nehru did and as so many secularists have in the decades since.
Rather, in Ambedkar’s dhamma, we see one way of thinking a re-turn of reason. (A re-turn of reason along another way is at stake also in Gandhi’s satyagraha, which he regards as a deeply religious activity. For Gandhi, though it must be initiated only after public reason fails, satyagraha is nevertheless utterly reasonable.) It is a re-turn of reason because of the way that religion now comes to be the way of thinking another equality and civility.
What is involved in this other civility, this re-turn of reason that also goes by the name religion for both Ambedkar and Gandhi, could be briefly indicated here by considering how it might proceed to address the cartoon controversy. If the cartoons had been circulated without the involvement of the state, then this other civility might simply have limited itself to concurring with public reason, which already gives us the resources to oppose every effort to muzzle the right to free speech, however offensive and hateful that speech might be.
What leads to the divergence from public reason is that these are textbooks—or books that are assigned the unavoidable task of speaking for the vision of public reason that founds Indian civil society and state. (It is very apposite in this sense that the controversy should be over a textbook on the Constitution).
From within the vision of public reason, "good" textbooks are produced by widespread consultations with independent professionals and professional organizations that can speak for civil society. Within its terms, ire over the cartoon must be submitted to the scrutiny of public reason, which alone must decide what is included and excluded. This is why public reason can and must be searingly critical of the exercise of unilateral executive discretion in removing the cartoons.
By contrast, while this other civility would entirely concur in public reason’s criticisms of the government, it would insist also that a festering wound, the experience of humiliation, has given rise to the ire with the cartoon. And this injury, given its political context, demands redress. Such redress might even require that some cartoons be excised. Within its terms, this is not censorship or even self-censorship. It is rather the civility of trying to engage with the humiliation and the wound created by domination without further perpetuating that violence. (That this happens all too easily is well indicated in this essay by Anoop Kumar.)
Of course, this other civility need not always and everywhere take the form of dropping whatever causes a wound. We can easily imagine a situation where, faced for example with the Gujarati Hindu middle class sense of hurt, this other civility might feel compelled to resist and question. But that resistance would not proceed in the name of the private sphere and its laughter. Rather, it would resist by drawing on the civility and equality proper to the wound.
For Gandhi, we know well, satyagraha is the name of this other civility and equality, and satyagraha involves civil disobedience or savinay bhang. What is less often recognized is that Ambedkar’s The Buddha and his Dhamma also suggests a profoundly complex if elliptical thinking of civil disobedience, a thinking that diverges intriguingly from Gandhi’s especially over the question of the relation to public reason.
Thus, acknowledging the wound as a political phenomenon does not mean that there is no politics involved in deciding how to respond to them—which wound to feel responsible for, and how to civilly contest and challenge those wounds.
Also, as my remarks above suggest, this other civility has an extremely complicated relation with the calculable relations that constitute the secular public sphere. On the one hand, the NCF 2005 exemplifies, if not in its details then its concept, what one cannot not want: it provides the education that creates citizens capable of exercising their rights, of calculating correctly how to fight injustice and oppression, of demanding the abstract equality that marks the public sphere. As such, this other civility must defend and even enforce the Constitution, and more broadly public reason.
On the other hand, to inhabit this other civility is also to refuse to treat the secular public sphere as the telos of NCF 2005. To inhabit this civility is rather to treat the NCF 2005 as an opportunity to think critically about critical thinking, about and against the secular public sphere. And yet, this must be done reasonably—through a simultaneous affirmation and reading otherwise of the Constitution that Ambedkar played such a crucial role in drafting.
But how is this provincialization of public reason to proceed? What does this other civility and other reason entail? What concepts constitute it? What is the laughter proper to it? These questions, and the struggle to answer them, the divergences and forks in that struggle, are perhaps what is most strenuously demanding of thought in the inheritance of politicalness we receive from Ambedkar and Gandhi amongst others.
(A slightly different version of this essay was published earlier on Kafila.)
Ajay Skaria
Ajay Skaria
Ajay Skaria is a historian at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of "Hybrid Histories", and is currently completing a book on Gandhi, "Immeasurable Equality". 
Before turning to academics, he was, while studying for his BA and MA, a journalist with Indian Express at Vadodara. After completing his MA in Medieval Indian History at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in 1988, he took a Ph.D. in History from Trinity College, Cambridge, United Kingdom in 1992.
His areas of interest include Post-colonial studies/theory, Intellectual history, 19th and 20th century South Asian nationalism, Adivasi and environmental history, and Democratic and minority politics.
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