There is absolutely nothing derogatory to Babasaheb Ambedkar there, and so there is no need for any action on our part.’
After all what does the cartoon depict - Babasaheb and Pandit Nehru trying to get the constitutional process to move faster. Babasaheb is not the snail, he is not the object of the whipping, he is justly seen as the driver of the process and hence sitting on the snail.
Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal speaks as a members show photocopies of a cartoon of BR Ambedkar in an NCERT text-book, in the Lok Sabha
Instead, Sibal joined the lynch mob of protesting MPs and said that he had already written to the NCERT to withdraw the cartoons and that he would not allow Dr Ambedkar's image to be ‘disparaged.’
And to compound the crime, declared that all cartoons needed to be removed from NCERT textbooks, and that the Union government would institute an inquiry into the role of NCERT officials in including the ‘offending’ material in their textbooks.
In one casual decision, a key element of a democratic culture - satirical visual art - has been tried, condemned and executed. Almost every newspaper, big or small, well known or obscure, has relied on cartoons to tell the story.
Cartoonists like Thomas Nast, Herblock, and our own Shankar, R K Laxman and O V Vijayan have, through history punctured the vanity of politicians and commented on issues of the day. But only in India of the 21st century have they been told they can't do it anymore, and that their actions are criminal.
There are several forces at work here. First, the tendency of political correctness among the liberal elites and second, the culture of political cynicism. Political correctness, of the type that will not allow you to accept that a significant chunk of young Muslims have been influenced by radical ideas. More insidious is the kind where the death penalty is abominable, but not the murders, rapes and kidnappings that bring on such a penalty.
Not surprisingly, some of our most politically correct responses come in relation to Dalits.
Given the long history, and continuing, discrimination faced by them, there is a tendency to avoid passing judgment on the likes of Mayawati who passes off her massive accumulation of assets as gifts from her followers.
That she ran one of the most corrupt administrations that Uttar Pradesh has known was something that was routinely glossed over by the media. And now we have a situation where in the name of Dalit pride we are being asked to reinterpret cartoons that were drawn over sixty years ago and famously not objected to by the object himself.
The problem is that ministers of today are wont to not merely get into, but virtually second-guess politically correct postures.
Sibal thought that an abject apology with some administrative action would do the trick; instead, just like the late and unlamented Mandal commission report, it has unleashed a Frankenstein.
That is because this kind of thinking threatens to upend the entire structure of the freedom of speech and expression. If cartoons and satire are the target today, what is to prevent straightforward opinion from being targeted tomorrow?
It goes without saying that satire and cartoons are targeted in authoritarian countries. Yet, without the slightest bit of hesitation we had other parliament luminaries like Yashwant Sinha, Sharad Yadav, Harsimrat Kaur Badal support Sibal's actions.
It is not India alone that suffers from this problem. Take the Public Order Act in UK. Under Section 5 of the 1986 Act 'insulting words or behaviour' are outlawed. But just what constitutes insulting words or behaviour can have a very wide interpretation.
An Oxford University student who asked a policeman whether his horse was gay, found himself prosecuted under the Act. A 16 year old who said ‘woof’ to a dog within earshot of a policeman was arrested and fined 200 pounds, though the decision was later overturned by a jury.
This, mind you, in Britain which is supposed to be the home of free speech and democratic liberties, and which has the famous Speakers corner in Hyde Park where anyone could say anything.
If the creeping disease of political correctness is one thing, the bigger problem is of a new breed of politician who believes that getting and staying ahead is more important, and political principles and ideals are strictly for the birds. Sibal, an outstanding lawyer and otherwise decent human being, typifies this tendency. He is also the man who is behind the assault on the freedom of the internet. It began with his summoning executives of Google and Facebook and demanding pre-censorship from them.
This has now culminated in the framing of Information Technology rules which would create a system of censorship and pre-censorship in the internet. The rules are so draconian that many legislators and activists believe that they go well beyond the legislation upon which they are supposed to be based and have called for their annulment.
It is an irony that the heirs of Nehru and Ambedkar are wilfully encouraging the tendency to censor, block, ban and banish political thought and expression. Democracy is not a Christmas tree where you pluck the gifts you like and leave those that you are indifferent to. It is a complex structure whose defining feature is that it protects, indeed encourages, the right to dissent and to be different.