MPs United: 542, Cartoons: 1. Is Mamata having the last laugh?

If the much ado about a cartoon has made anything clear it is this – Mamata Banerjee was right and the rest of us were wrong.

Didi saw the danger wrapped in a cartoon long before the rest of us did. Now the Lok Sabha has jumped, en masse, onto her bandwagon proving that the old adage still holds true – what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.

West Bengal’s CM must be smirking now.

When her government threw a professor in jail for forwarding a cartoon making fun of her via a Satyajit Ray film, the political establishment around the country tut-tutted. But the political class has since realised they were fools for not rushing in where Didi did not fear to tread.

Leave aside the Shankar cartoon at the heart of this controversy. Much has already been written about whether the cartoon was about Ambedkar the constitution-drafter versus Ambedkar, the Dalit leader. There has been a lot of debate about whether something that was appropriate sixty years ago isn’t too charged in today’s political context. As P Radhakrishnan puts it in DNA “any sensible cartoonist would see drawing  a similar sketch now showing Nehru as the ringmaster and Ambedkar as a performer under him as mala fide.”

Leave aside also the issue about whether political cartoons even belong in school textbooks. “Such cartoons need mature minds to understand,” said Sharad Yadav (JD-U). “The minds of youngsters are not.”

Didi saw the danger wrapped in a cartoon long before the rest of us did. AFP

What’s really noteworthy in this entire hullabaloo is that for once our fractious political establishment has joined ranks to make common cause. That should be enough to give the rest of us “immediate pause” writes Janaki Nair in The Hindu.

Consider the counter example, of cacophonous and extraordinary vitiation in Parliament on questions of offences against, and representations of, women, leave alone the issue of reservations. Of what commitment to public  reason and debate, to reflection, critique and indeed a historical temper, does this consensus speak?

It speaks of this and only this – a confederacy of thin skins, united in opportunism, dressed up as piety.

First came the chorus of the bechara politician and how no one loves her.

Mamata had already defended her war on the cartoon as her justified reaction to “character assassination.” Mulayam Singh Yadav reminisced about a 1980 cartoon that depicted him as a daku. “Is there any problem with our faces, are they contorted?” wondered Lalu Prasad, the favoured son of cartoonists around the country. These are “canards against politics in a systematic manner” lamented Yashwant Sinha (BJP) while Sonia Gandhi thumped her desk in appreciation. This is all about fueling a “sab chor hai” sentiment across the country said Gurudas Dasgupta (CPI).

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Only one solitary member had the courage to say the emperor had no clothes. Sharifuddin Shariq (NC) said the honourable members were protesting too much.

“Instead we should do some introspection,” he said. “Is it not a fact that an MP or an MLA, when he goes to contest an election for the second time, his assets show a considerable higher graph?”

His remarks were not well-received by his colleagues.

But a cartoon would not be funny if it did not carry the sting of truth. Even the politicians, loudly bemoaning their fate at the hands of cartoonists, quickly realised that playing the victim card will not get them too much sympathy.

That’s why they are thrilled they can camouflage their umbrage in sanctimonious rhetoric all about protecting the children.

“These books are going to mould the minds (of students) to hate politicians, politics and endanger democracy,” said Yashwant Sinha.

Harsmirat Kaur Badal (SAD) said she was shocked when she found that none of the school children she met during a visit to a school wanted to join politics. They thought of politicians as “looters, criminals and thieves.”

Well, as a matter of fact, India’s legislatures have quite a few of all three varieties along with some charged with extortion, robbery and murder. Out of 543 Lok Sabha winners in 2004, 128 had faced criminal charges. In 2009 that number went up to 154.

If  the politicians want to know who is creating that lootera image of themselves among the general public they don’t need to look at the cartoons. They only need to look in the mirror  and also listen to themselves talk about each other.

Of course, this fracas is about cartoons in textbooks. “In a newspaper it is acceptable. But in a textbook which can influence impressionable minds, it is not suitable,” said the embattled HRD minister Kapil Sibal.

That sounds reasonable enough. It might be overreaction for us to froth and fume about the danger to freedom of expression when this is just about the very particular world of textbooks. But in a country where politicians have cottoned onto the fact that the right to be offended has become a de facto constitutional right  we get on a slippery slope at our own peril.

In West Bengal the original cartoon furore has died down.  But now we hear that an associate professor of Midnapore Medical College has filed a police complaint against two men who he alleged had forwarded him a cartoon that showed Mamata minus her head with the comment that  “our CM has lost her head.” “These two are behind sending me such a malicious mail which denigrates the CM. I hereby register complaint against them,” the professor said in his police statement.

You might laugh but as I’ve said before, what Bengal thinks today, India might well think tomorrow.

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