India’s textbook cartoon affair

In May 2012, India’s parliament withdrew a series of school textbooks that contained a political cartoon some MPs considered denigrating. Antoon De Baets discusses whether reputation, rights and public morals should ever trump educational free speech.

In May 2012, India’s Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal asked the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to withdraw a secondary school political science textbook published in 2006 after it created an uproar in both houses of parliament. MPs found that a cartoon in the textbook, drawn in 1949 by the cartoonist Shankar, denigrated the Dalits (traditionally the “untouchables”) and their leader Bhimrao Ambedkar. The cartoon shows then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip chasing Ambedkar who is seated on a snail named “Constitution”, an allusion to the slow speed with which the constitution was being drafted after India’s independence. When criticism of the cartoon gained cross-party support and the textbook was pulled, two chief advisers of the NCERT textbook committee, sociologists Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, resigned from their posts in protest. Palshikar’s university office was ransacked the following day. The Republican Panthers Party of India, Dalit activists based in Pune, Maharashtra, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Sibal welcomed the resignation of Yadav and Palshikar and apologised for the textbook in parliament. He told reporters: “We believe textbooks are not the place where these issues [cartoons] should be influencing impressionable minds…I found many of the cartoons in textbooks offensive.” The entire textbook series was effectively withdrawn from distribution, and over 150 other cartoons were listed as offensive in the aftermath.

How should we evaluate this affair? Cartoons are a form of free expression. Any proposal to limit such expression should be balanced against a restricted and internationally recognised set of interests. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that free expression can be trumped by the “respect of the rights or reputations of others; the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”. Of this set, “the reputations of others”, “the rights of others” and “public morals” seem, in principle, relevant grounds to potentially consider limiting this cartoon as a form of free expression.

Take, first, the “reputations of others”. Is it possible that Dalit leader Ambedkar’s reputation has been tarnished by the cartoon’s republication? Ambedkar was well aware of the public figure doctrine, which holds that politicians as public figures should tolerate more criticism than average citizens. He did not sue Shankar for defamation after the cartoon’s original publication in 1949 nor before he died in 1956.

Then there are “the rights of others”. “Others” in the expression “rights of others” can bear three different meanings in this case: Ambedkar’s close relatives, citizens in general and children who see the cartoon. There are no reports that Ambedkar’s relatives ever protested against the cartoon after its publication or sued for defamation on his behalf. The second group, citizens in general, have no standing in this affair. Even if they did, their interest should not justify censorship in this case because political cartoons, which tend to stimulate public debate, deserve protection.

The interest of children and youngsters, the third group of rights holders, is another matter. Because their rights arguably coincide with the third interest “public morals” I will examine them together. Could it be said that the cartoon might legitimately be published in newspapers and general history books but not in history textbooks for secondary school children on the grounds that exposure to such cartoons violates children’s rights and endangers “public morals”? Minister Sibal seemed to believe so. It is true that textbook authors do not enjoy the degree of intellectual freedom academic historians do, as the former are subjected to educational guidelines. Educational authorities give the framework for these guidelines, but their application is guaranteed by experts. In order to perform their duty responsibly, textbook authors and advisers should enjoy a certain degree of autonomy.

Cartoons, by their very nature, require interpretation. This is particularly true for cartoons that are (or may be perceived as) sensitive in the national context. Experts should therefore see to it that their presentation in textbooks is supplemented with information that enables pupils to understand a specific historical context. This was the case for the Ambedkar cartoon, which was used alongside other visual material and extracts from original sources accompanied by critical questions. The textbook itself discussed the problems of Dalits frankly and emphasised Ambedkar’s political achievements, including his contributions to the constitution. Cartoons are a part of grown-up life. It is important that pupils learn how to interpret them critically.

In summary, none of the three legitimate grounds for limiting free expression apply in the cartoon case. The withdrawal of the textbook series containing the controversial cartoon was therefore a violation of the authors’ and, by extension, the textbooks’ chief advisers’ rights to free expression. This violation constitutes a form of politically inspired censorship.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. The ransacking of Palshikar’s office was an outrage. Yadav’s and Palshikar’s resignation from their posts as chief advisers of the NCERT textbook committee was a justified form of protest against their treatment. From an international human rights point of view, the vociferous condemnation of the cartoon by members of parliament was a questionable form of interference. The cartoon should remain in the textbook, carefully and critically presented, as should any comparable cartoons. Yadav and Palshikar should be given the opportunity to resume their work as soon as possible.

Antoon De Baets is an associate professor of history at the University of Groningen.

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  1. This time it’s not a specific cartoon, but a cartoonist under fire –

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