Cartoons teach us civility by forcing us to laugh at ourselves
In Search of Reagan's Brain by G B Trudeau
The conceit of India’s Republic is founded on one major premise: equality. It is this premise that underlies the thinking of our Constituent Assembly, and it is this premise that, perhaps in the interest of retaining its collective sanity, led the Constituent Assembly to believe that the elected representatives of the people who were to form Parliament would be not materially different from themselves: men and women of understanding, some learning, stature, maturity, committed, with a sense of purpose and public service, and also with the ability to laugh at themselves.
The problem with the assumption is, of course, that it is utterly wrong. There is no such thing as equality. As an aspiration or an ideal it is like the cup of Tantalus, condemned to be forever just out of reach, and though it is a conceit, it is an essential conceit, for without it there is no basis for the system of governance we adopted. The implication is that every adult is entitled, as a matter of right, to offer himself or herself for election, notwithstanding the notable lack of the many qualities shared by the members of the Constituent Assembly; common sense among them.
A look at the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD) of over 60 years ago and the Parliamentary proceedings of today shows just how far wrong we have gone, just how wrong the Constituent Assembly’s assumption was. The Assembly’s debates show remarkable intellectual rigour, discipline, intensity, concern for a common future, a shared vision. There is also a certain distancing of the self from the subject, an objectivity, and a sense of proportion. Today, all this seems lost. What else can explain the absurd spectacle of the uproar in Parliament over a 60 year old cartoon and the claim that it insults Dr Ambedkar, and a craven government’s capitulation to populism? The cartoon shows both Nehru and Ambedkar wielding whips over the slow-moving cart called the Constitution, Nehru questioning the glacial pace at which the Constituent Assembly worked. Nothing seems to indicate that Nehru is whipping Ambedkar or that the latter is in any way in a subservient position. Though he was marginalised in his lifetime, nobody questioned Ambedkar’s credentials, and his life was, and remains, an inspiration; a journey towards that ideal of equality that continues to elude us. The cartoon appeared during Ambedkar’s lifetime. There is no evidence that Ambedkar was upset by it. Our Parliamentarians claim umbrage by a proxy that was never given to them and in doing so they do enormous disservice to Ambedkar, his life, his struggle, his work and, most of all, to that monumental creation of which he was the principal architect: our Constitution. In the context of what Ambedkar achieved for us, this cartoon is, perhaps, merely an illustration of what he was up against. It does not detract from the man, or the final product; the cartoon is about the making of the thing, not the makers. Lawyers and jurists write massive tomes on various legal subjects, from civil procedure to income tax. No law has the power, the sweep, the vision of the Constitution. No other legal document is the basis of our continued existence. If you exclude tax, no other post-Independent law has, all to itself, a four-volume treatise — HM Seervai’s monumental work through four editions, dense, committed, unflinching, is as much an explicit critical commentary on the Constitution as it is an implicit testimonial to Dr Ambedkar and the Constituent Assembly.
Cartooning dates back to the Middle Ages when it referred to a preliminary sketch for a larger artwork. In that sense, the stained glass windows of cathedrals, Ajanta’s frescoes and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were all based on ‘cartoons’; and, arguably, they are cartoons in that limited sense even now. The modern usage, of humorous or mocking art, coincides with the advent of newspapers and magazines. And such is their power and influence that no newspaper does without them.
Cartoons exaggerate to emphasize: facial features and bodies are bigger or smaller than the actual. Incidents are given an importance they do not otherwise deserve. Typically, they contain text that is short, simple and easy to read and grasp. In the social and political arena they are of special value for, more than any other art form, they force us to confront ourselves and see our foibles and gaucheries. They hold up a mirror to ourselves. This is a distorting mirror to be sure, but within it lie truths about the way we are. In joco veritas: In jest there is truth. Cartoons teach us civility by forcing us to laugh at ourselves.
Except for a 22-month hiatus between 1983 and 1984, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip has chronicled social and political life in America for over four decades. Many of the satires are explicitly political and use existing political players, and their depictions are delightfully wicked. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger were faceless voices. George Bush was shown as a floating Stetson hat, Bill Clinton as a waffle, Dan Quayle as a feather with nothing under it and Schwarznegger as a groping hand. One entire series was later compiled into a book called In Search of Reagan’s Brain where Reagan was shown as an “artificial intelligence”. So strong was its reception that some papers moved it to the editorial page. When others (notably the Guardian) dropped it due to space constraints, the protests led to its reinstatement and a full apology.
Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County ran from 1980 to 1989. In 1987 it won the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning. Breathed’s characters, including the irresistible penguin, Opus, was also irreverent: feminism, cinema, pop culture, cults (Bill the Cat became “Bhagwan Bill”), politics, labour unions and, of course, the US Presidency.
Nobody thought to ban these strips altogether. Certainly nobody who hadn’t read them. And yet that is precisely what our Parliamentarians seek. On television, four politicians were asked if they’d actually read the text book in which the so-called offending cartoon appears. Three had not. One said he was proud of his ignorance. This, it seems, is to be the standard of debate in the house that Ambedkar built.
And let’s not forget Shakespeare. There are at least five titles, including the very difficult Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, in the graphic book format. The text is complete, unabridged. It comes alive and the plays are no longer cold, boring and impenetrable to students: they come alive.
The Introducing Books series
Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (later an award winning animation film) are graphic novels about the Holocaust and Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Both are searing, terrifying, unforgettable; both contain important lessons on what it means to be human. None of these is irrelevant because they are illustrated or in the ‘cartoon’ format.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
A 10th standard civics text book has this memorable line regarding the right to property: “the right to property is no longer a fundamental right. It is a constitutional right.” What on earth is anyone, let alone a student, to make of this? Or take the phrasing of Article 14: “equality before the law” and “equal protection of laws”. Why two phrases? How do they differ? Why would one not suffice? How do you get this across to a 15 year old student? And Article 19: every citizen’s right to the indefinable “freedom of speech and expression”. Expression of what? A thought, an idea, a story, a joke?
If you could illustrate this, a student would understand it — and never forget it. And then perhaps become a better lawyer. Or a better Parliamentarian. Perhaps of the kind Dr Ambedkar imagined.
The conceit of India's Republic is founded on one major premise: equality. It is this premise that underlies the thinking of our Constituent Assembly, and it is this premise that, perhaps in the interest of retaining its collective sanity, led the Constituent Assembly to believe that the elected representatives of the people who were to form Parliament would be not materially different from themselves: men and women of understanding, some learning, stature, maturity, committed, with a sense of purpose and public service, and also with the ability to laugh at themselves.