Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cartoons, class and political insecurity

For the outsider, Indian politics is a mind-bogglingly confusing mess. A multitude of institutions, individuals and social groups seem to be locked in a permanent battle with an infinite number of fronts; the states and the centre  perpetually tussle for power, with the current swing being decidedly towards the states; competing interests lead to paralysis until, quite inexplicably, everything happens all at once and you're left reeling in confusion. Democracy in India makes the tortuous, ludicrously long US Presidential election look like a primary school egg-and-spoon race.

This makes it difficult for a foreign blogger, in the country for less than a year, to write anything vaguely intelligent on political issues, which is frustrating for me as someone who's followed politics in one way or another for may years. Every now and then, though, India's politicians throw me a bone by embarking on a squabble that manages both to dominate the headlines and yet be so silly that I feel like even I can get a decent grasp on it.

The current furore on the Indian political scene concerns cartoons. As Denmark knows well, cartoons have an extraordinary ability to upset people. Normally, though, the cartoons that cause offence are ones that are produced by bold, some might say reckless, modern artists who are willing to take risks to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. In this case, the cartoonists are not young. They are dead. And the the cartoons are not modern. They were drawn 60 years ago.

It all started with the inclusion in school textbooks of the following cartoon:

For those outside India scratching their heads, the man on the left is Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. On the right is BR Ambedkar, a quite extraordinary man who was born into a Dalit caste but became a renowned scholar and jurist, and was largely responsible for the drafting of the Indian constitution. He is, with a great deal of justification, regarded as an icon of modern Indian history and in particular as a hero by Dalits. As the cartoon shows, however, he was not immune to criticism.

When it came to light, however, that this cartoon had been included in school text books, all hell broke loose. An insult to Dalits; a slight on a national hero; derogatory; offensive; inappropriate for "impressionable young minds". Most of these howls of protest seemed to emit from the two houses of the Indian parliament. There were calls for the resignation of the Minister of Human Resource Development, who has responsibility for education in the country.

Not only that, but it transpired that there were other cartoons included in the text books featuring political figures who were portrayed in a demeaning or insulting way. The protests reached new levels of shrillness; now, the cartoons represented a "conspiracy to malign the political class"; young children were being "poisoned" by such images. Faced with such a cacophony, the Minister eventually announced that all "offensive" cartoons would be removed from the textbooks.

At this point I think I should add some context by sharing the text that accompanied the original cartoon in the textbook. It ran as follows:

"Cartoonist's impression of the 'snail's pace' with which the constitution was made. Making of the constitution took almost three years. Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why, do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?"

In other words, the point of including the cartoon is to encourage students to think about a key period in India's history and the writing of the nation's founding constitution, and to do so through the eyes of a contemporary political observer. The text book's use of the cartoon seems solely aimed at bringing an otherwise dry issue to life; giving students an accessible entry point into discussion and understanding of a remote but crucial point in India's past. 

I studied politics at school and remember our textbooks, and our teacher, making frequent use of such cartoons precisely because they bring issues to live in a vivid and engaging way. This, for me, is the strength of cartoons wherever they appear. Yes, they are often also used to mock and ridicule persons in positions of power. But this is secondary to their power to engage the reader in political issues. I don't recall my "impressionable young mind" being "poisoned" by all this. I do recall being made to think.

It would be easy at this point to sneer at India's politicians and their thin-skinned reaction. Good grief, says the cynical Brit in me, try being a politician in the UK, which has a tradition of mockery of its politicians that is probably unrivalled in its savagery anywhere in the world. If India's politicians find the image above so revolting, God help them if they ever remake Spitting Image over here. 

The general public seem a bit bemused by it all. I don't know if there are armies of Dalits out there outraged at the treatment of the man who did so much to raise them from subjection, and I could hardly be totally unsympathetic to them if there are. But judging by my friends' views, and those on the comments pages on the internet, this whole affair is simply political trickery; a distraction from the real issues that India faces and an example of a privileged class at the top of the hierarchy demanding not just power and prestige but also obsequious respect.

There's something in both of these accusations, I think. The sight of politicians, who live a life of unimaginable luxury compared to the average Indian, complaining about "conspiracies" against them does stick somewhat in the gullet. And of course the old watch-the-rabbit trick is a favourite of politicians everywhere (though manufactured crises are not usually based on such nakedly flim-flam material).

I have a slightly different perspective on this, though. Power in India is like a sand dune: it's constantly shifting, and while it might look as solid as a mountain it could be a completely different shape in a short length of time. Lower castes and other excluded groups are asserting themselves more; new alliances are springing up; the once all-powerful Gandhi dynasty is looking vulnerable. For all their privilege, members of the political class know that their position depends on being able to navigate this rapidly shifting terrain and stay on top. There is, in other words, a reason why they sound so insecure: they are.

Compare this to the UK, where an extraordinary number of our political leaders come from a very, very narrow background of Eton and Oxbridge (though the assumption that the UK is becoming more elitist is not correct, the degree to which this kind of privilege has remained in place since the war is remarkable, as this article points out). Our political class still has a sense, not of being in danger of losing their position, but of having a right to it: of it being their natural place in the order of things. As a white, male Oxbridge graduate myself I have come across this attitude a good deal - deny it though they of course would.

So maybe this explains why British politicians don't get hot under the collar when they are portrayed as a slug, a poodle, or a fascist dictator on national television. They don't need to. They can afford to be complacent. And although I pity the schoolchildren whose textbooks have been left drier and less effective by this ludicrous affair, I can't help but feel that it reflects something that makes India so exciting: in political terms, it's a big and increasingly level playing field, and no-one really knows who's going to win the game.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if my comments will work now.

Chris said...

They seem to be working Jamie!

carvaka said...

interesting observation about indian and british political culture. but it is difficult to share your optimism re india.

my take is that india is a land of entrepreneurs . in this case political ones. the people who seems to be always getting offended by this or that are just merely creating issues - us vs them, to raise political capitals.

Supriya Prathapan said...

The only thing that our politicians do in the parliament is mudslinging. Senile decay prevents them from doing any real work but it doesn't prevent them from being corrupt.
This is a very interesting blog. I also like 'Shopping and Segregation'. In an effort to encourage my some of my former students to start blogging I've asked them to read this blog. After careful scrutiny for months, I think it would always remain suitable for their under-aged(13-17)viewership. Please keep writing, its an absolute delight to read your musings.

Chris said...

Carvaka - very interesting point about the enterepreneurial mindset and how this plays out in political settings. Definitely something in that I think. I tend to see India in somewhat more optimistic terms than most Indians in my experience - call it my foreign naivety!

Supriya - I'm very flattered that you have asked your students to read my blog. I hope they find it interesting. Do encourage them to comment as well!