THE HOUSE OF DARK ARTS
Asnail. A whip. Dr Ambedkar. Pandit Nehru. And a House on fire. It has been a textbook case of a nation surrendering its mind to the caretakers of endangered icons. A little fact mars the script: Shankar’s cartoon, first published in 1949, does not blast the icon, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It only shows the slow progression of the framing of the Constitution and the impatience of Ambedkar as well as Prime Minister Nehru. But an Ambedkar riding a snail? And a whip- lashing Nehru behind him? That is blasphemy too large to be contained by the easily insulted Parliament of India. The offending cartoon and more of such attacks on the iconography of the Republic will be banished from the textbooks of India, the minister for Historical Cleansing and Political Purification has already assured the House.
What’s really amazing is the unity of the offended. Petty divisions of party affiliations have disappeared in the collective rage against the “art of insult”. What was at stake was not just the sanctity of Ambedkar; almost the entire political class stood up against the distorting, lampooning art of the cartoonist. They were all Mamata Banerjee that day. This solidarity of the insulted, though, tells a larger story about the danger the historical icons of India faces from— no, not the cartoonists— their self- appointed protectors. So Ambedkar should be nothing other than a marble statue in the park. The story of Gandhi and Nehru should not be redeemed from the official narrative of the Indian National Congress. Even the life of Aurobindo should not be rescued from the comfort zone of piety. The past has to be a perfection— no shadows, no grey. It has to be an idyll where future generations will picnic with an uplifting sense of national gratitude.
It is a political ideal India can do without. Only a nation built on lies and manufactured mythologies needs the divinity of heroes who soar beyond the questioning gaze of the citizen. History is a shifting site of readings and re- readings, where dead certainties continue to be swept aside. The politics of paranoia dreads the rustle of pages that questions the received wisdom. The House of Parliament is a people’s highest shrine of freedom in a democracy. And today it is from this House that we hear the shrillest voices against freedom. Listen to them and we realise how fragile is their confidence as stakeholders of one of the world’s most volatile democracies. “These textbooks are poisoning young, impressionistic minds….” “These are collections of the worst cartoons of politicians. And these books are going to mould the minds to hate politicians, politics and endanger democracy…” “Are these so- called scholars part of the conspiracy to defame the political class in this country?” I wish these were comments generated by some samizdat publications in Pyongyang or Havana.
These stray sentences are unlikely to save politics from the dark art of cartoonists. True, politics is not a bad word, even if we are paying the heaviest price for bad politics. Also true, every politician is not a venal creature. Politics gets calcified when its worst professionals close their minds and begin to take copyright over the mind of others. Such politicians want a sanitised history— and a textbook that mirrors it. Better they watch out. Someone out there, a student denied of his cartoons in the textbook most probably, is watching the live telecast on the Lok Sabha Television. Sadly those cartoons are hardly entertaining.
ONLY A NATION BUILT ON LIES AND MANUFACTURED MYTHOLOGIES NEEDS THE DIVINITY OF HEROES WHO SOAR BEYOND THE QUESTIONING GAZE OF THE CITIZEN. HISTORY IS A SHIFTING SITE OF READINGS AND RE- READINGS, WHERE DEAD CERTAINTIES CONTINUE TO BE SWEPT ASIDE.