"Inability to tolerate humour is not only infantile, it is a sign of Fascism"
Girish Karnad: Writer and Playwright
How do you read this controversy and the behaviour of the Parliamentarians?
Basic to this controversy is the fear that we have of irreverence. If you laugh at anyone you are ‘mocking him’. When we were children we were told ‘do not laugh, be serious’. To laugh was considered as a sign of levity, or lightheadedness. It requires a certain degree of sophistication to see laughter as important and that comes from education. I am afraid most of the politicians who resent laughter [are] not really educated or sophisticated enough in their thinking. This, one has to accept. So, as a result, a cartoon is immediately seen as an insult and not as a comment.
A cartoon is essentially a tongue-in-cheek comment. It is not out to insult someone. In fact, a cartoon is a compliment. You don’t draw a cartoon of an unknown person. It is someone recognisable and is the cartoonists’, and very often the readers’ comment on the politician’s public life. You can write editorials, articles or draw cartoons. It is a gift and that is why we admire RK Lakshman and Shankar and many of our contemporary cartoonists now.
What alarms you about this controversy?
This controversy is not really about reverence towards Ambedkar. It reflects the fear our MPs have about how they themselves may be seen and depicted. It is an expression of their yearning for a supreme status that will put them beyond laughter and therefore beyond criticism. This is the Parliament's demand to be seen as the ‘home of gods’. Except that in India we have a tradition in which even gods were mocked. Our elected representatives are only expressing their total solidarity with Mamata Bannerjee. They are saying “don’t laugh at us, we are above laughter”.
Has our public discourse become petulant and intolerant over the ages?
This inability to tolerate humour is not only infantile it is a sign of Fascism. The Mamata cartoon one could sort of see this as a silliness of a woman who had not been exposed [to such work], but for a minister to apologise, I think it’s shocking. In the last 50 years no one has complained about RK Lakshman’s cartoons, there have been many. Even Gandhi has been “mocked” and so has been Nehru. No one complained. This is something that comes up because it is politically connected with Ambedkar being the hero of Dalits. Our Parliamentarians have reached a point where they have no responsibility except the next elections. They are not bothered about education, about culture, they do not have the background also. They are only worried about the next election and whether this will create a controversy or not. This has nothing to do with the Left-wing or Right-wing parties.
Can the freedom of expression be contextual?
It is not. This is not what our Constitution says. We have a perfectly good Constitution and it guarantees us certain rights. What is happening is that elected representatives are dismantling it. I am free to express my opinion wherever I like. If I am preaching violence against someone that certainly has to be controlled. Nothing like that has happened. You can’t turn everything into a law and order problem.
Do you see this as an isolated instance or a crackdown on the freedom of expression?
It is not an isolated instance. It is an awful thing that will spread. Today it may be a cartoon drawn of Ambedkar in 1947. Then it will apply to contemporary cartoons about contemporary people. Mamata Banerjee will become the state’s attitude to cartoons. Every cartoonist will be in danger, they will be seen as mocking and irreverent and poisoning the minds of schoolchildren. I do not see why the HRD minister had to apologise. What was he apologising for?
Is a cartoon even capable of "poisoning" schoolchildren's minds?
It’s not, but this is how it’s being twisted. The Ambedkar cartoon appeared in 1947 and the book said this was Shankar’s attitude towards Ambedkar. That was all there is to it. Why did it become such a big issue? Ambedkar is not god. You can even make fun of gods in Indian mythology. If you look at our culture, laughing is not forbidden. Unfortunately, we have become so ponderous and lacking in a sense of humour, that immediately humour is taken as an insult.
When you say publishing a cartoon is “poisoning” the children’s minds you are already commenting on the quality of education you want. You are saying humour [and] questioning will poison the minds of the children. It is horrifying. It is not a question of a mere cartoon.
How can one streamline education, and enrich discussion?
You can’t. Because any free discussion is bound to bring this up. There is nothing wrong in saying Gandhi was wrong or Subhash Chandra Bose was wrong. Does this mean that you have become anti-national or insulted the [national] figure? This is a democratic discussion and it is my right to say someone was wrong. The HRD [minister] has officially said it is wrong to look at this cartoon, this means we are proscribing democratic discussion.
How do we leave room for question and reason?
The solution is to go back to our Parliament. The politicians are just talking with an eye on the next elections. They are not talking about which way our education should go, which way our next generation should go or what kind of a democracy we should have. What has happened in India is that instead of universities being spaces where knowledge and research is pursued they have become spaces of social justice. They are supposed to set right social injustices.
Karuna John is Associate Editor, Tehelka.com.