There can be little doubt that one of the worst abominations of Indian society is caste-based discrimination. And although this discrimination is banned under the Constitution, its roots go back so far into the past that 60 years of changed laws can hardly grapple with ingrained prejudices. The problem is in mindsets and societal insult, both blatant and subtle, as much as in legal obstacles. The belief in caste runs so deep that people apparently even ask for preferences when they go to sperm banks.
Nor do many Indians feel any shame or embarrassment when they do this — the caste factor it seems is so deeply ingrained, that discrimination is just shrugged off as acceptable behaviour. This disdain for the “lower castes” is seen at its most despicable when the argument about reservations comes up. Almost the entire middle class components of the upper castes — higher than the listed Scheduled Castes and Tribes at any rate — rise in revolt and to be honest, in a revolting manner. Words like “merit” are thrown around as if there is no way there can be any “merit” in a lower caste person.
Under these circumstances, two things seem to have happened. The lower castes have banded together as a political group to gain whatever they can out of the system. And they have created their own mythologies to counter the established legends of the upper castes. Dr BR Ambedkar therefore is now no longer a brilliant mind and the “Father of the Constitution”. He is the symbol of both Dalit oppression and Dalit pride and consequently has now gained prophet status. Any seemingly derogatory remarks about him constitute blasphemy.
And this is where the Dalit argument about Ambedkar runs into its biggest obstacle — Constitution. This is where Ambedkar’s liberal ideas saw their best expression. In his writing he talked about the importance of freedom of thought and was scathing about the human propensity to create and worship idols. His open-mindedness was refreshing especially in a political climate still grappling with the aspirations of new India and the shackles of the past. In his modern outlook, in a sense, he challenged both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were quite the thought leaders of their time.
By demanding that a cartoon which is seen to denigrate Ambedkar be banned from textbooks, his followers have attacked Ambedkar’s own ideals.
It’s a slippery slope from here on and unfortunately, the political classes have capitulated. Of course, while it is unfortunate, it is not unexpected. The idea of freedom of thought and expression is in practice terrifying to all those in power because it suggests dissent and rebellion. Politicians may pay lip service to the concept of freedom but they do whatever they can to monitor the way people think.
The official reaction to the “anger” over this 60-year-old cartoon by the renowned Shankar has been even more disturbing. First, in the withdrawing of the textbook where this apparently insulting cartoon appeared. And secondly, in deciding that cartoons have no business being in textbooks as either, they are too frivolous or they need mature minds to understand them. And no one, presumably, is allowed to comment on the contradiction in these two arguments.
This means that Class XI students can understand the intricacies of political science but do not have the brain capacity to understand satire. One can only assume that politicians speak from their own experience of when they were students of limited comprehensive abilities.
As a result of this, the Dalit movement takes a few steps back from modernity — not what Ambedkar would have wanted — and the politicians of India have demonstrated once again their contempt for democracy. And the government, as is now customary, has shown its inherent cowardice when faced with a crisis.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona