B.R. Ambedkar was the subject of many cartoons in his lifetime. But why should they matter to India six decades after the man has died? It is because Ambedkar is seen through a very different prism today and the toxic lampooning he was subjected to continues to date for Dalit leaders like Mayawati.
A new book by a young researcher from the Department of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, compiles these cartoons on Ambedkar, which were lying in dusty archives and news clippings, to show not much has changed. Unnamati Syama Sundar, who is a cartoonist and signs off as Syam, in his book ‘No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956’ took pains to scratch beneath the surface and locate the meaning and biases in these 122 cartoons.
Ambedkar himself knew about the casteist and sexist cartoons and chose to respond to them. He criticised the media for being one-sided and a ‘Congress Press’. In 1943, when he was asked to deliver a lecture on the 101st birthday of Govind Ranade, Ambedkar said, “I know the Congress Press well. I attach no value to its criticism. It has never refuted my arguments. It knows only [how] to criticise, rebuke and revile me for everything I do; and to misreport, misrepresent and pervert everything I say. Nothing that I do pleases the Congress Press.”
Syam’s collection of cartoons comes in the backdrop of the 2012 controversy about an Ambedkar cartoon in the NCERT political science textbook. An MP protested against the cartoon saying it was offensive to Ambedkar and Dalits. The cartoon, drawn by Keshav Shankar Pillai, showed an impatient Nehru standing with a whip behind a snail called ‘Constitution’. The snail was being driven by Ambedkar. The cartoon was meant to depict Nehru’s frustration with the pace of the Constituent Assembly drawing up the Constitution.
The controversy resulted in the NCERT dropping the cartoon from the book and the resignation of Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar from the advisory board. If you are interested to know what Yadav thinks about this controversy after seven years, you may like to read his recent article in ThePrint.
No laughing matter
By digging out 122 cartoons from different publications and putting them in the context of intersections of history and biography, Syam uses discursive methods of encoding and decoding propounded by Stuart Hall, to find meaning in them. According to Hall’s theory, the audience derives their own meaning from media texts. These meanings can be dominant, negotiated or oppositional depending on her position in society. Syam is able to see, due to his social and cultural location and academic training, what many of us may not see in those cartoons.
For many of us, the cartoons on Ambedkar can be funny or even benign commentary, but not for the author and may be not so for million others in India.
These cartoons come at a significant time when iconography of Ambedkar is the trend and many hagiographic accounts are being written about him, and when the government of the day, despite not being comfortable with his ideology, has developed huge structures – Panchatirth (five important places in the life of Ambedkar, don’t miss the usage of the word tirth) – dedicated to him. This is also the time when his famous treaties like Annihilation of Caste and Riddles in Hinduism have gone missing from the shelves of government publishers.
Cartoon to lampoon
It is interesting that the first cartoon on Ambedkar appeared in 1932, at the time of the debate on Communal Awards, Poona Pact and separate electorates. By then Ambedkar had accomplished many feats and led many movements. He was in public life since 1919. In 1920, he started publishing his journal Mook Nayak. In 1927, he led Mahad Satyagraha to secure the rights of the Dalits to drink water from public tanks. That same year he burnt the Manusmriti. Two years later, he submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission emphasising the political rights of the ‘low’ castes. In 1930, he led the Kalaram temple entry movement in Nasik. In 1931, he participated in the Second Round Table Conference. Up until the 1930s, Ambedkar was not a subject of vilification by media or cartoonists. Only when he became the head of the Constituent Assembly and a national face, did these cartoons crop up. That’s the art of killing by silencing.
In his introduction to the book, Syam cautions the reader: “In the Ambedkar cartoons, he is often the villain, often the smallest man in the frame, often an object of derision. No Laughing Matter is not another milquetoast commemorative volume. Double edged, this book presents to the public the very cartoons that seem unfair to the subject beloved to it- it mocks the very images it dusts up from the archives and presses back into circulation.” In a nutshell, if you love Ambedkar, and if you read this book, get ready to be offended and the angry at the same time.
To see how cartooning can be a hegemonic act, one can still compile the cartoons on V.P. Singh during the Mandal Commission agitation (1990), or the cartoons on Arjun Singh, when he introduced the OBC quota (2006) in higher educational institutions. You will also see similar traits in the caricatures of Mayawati and Lalu Prasad.
If we go by the cartoons in No Laughing Matter, most of them appeared in the publications that supported the Congress.
One of the most offensive cartoons in the book (page 276) appeared in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, in which cartoonist Ravindra depicts Ambedkar as a kidnapper of upper caste woman for championing the Hindu Code Bill. In that cartoon titled ‘Ambedkar rides an ass of a bill’, he is shown riding a donkey, holding a woman in an inappropriate manner and taking her towards a ditch. The horror on the face of the lady is drawn as if Indian women were opposed to ideas like getting inheritance rights or doing away with bigamy and polygamy, or having the right to divorce.
Ambedkar was well aware of how the media portrayed him.
Citing the possible reasons for the hostile attitude of the press towards him, Ambedkar said: “This animosity of the Congress Press towards me can to my mind, not unfairly, be explained as a reflex of the hatred of the Hindus for the Untouchables…However strong and however filthy be the abuses which the Congress Press chooses to shower on me, I must do my duty. I am no worshipper of idols. I believe in breaking them.”
This is why Ambedkar always tried to have his own publications like Mook Nayak (the leader of the voiceless), Bahiskrit Bharat (the excluded India), Samata (equality), Janata (people) and Prabuddh Bharat (enlightened India). However, due to paucity of funds, most of these publications died early. The publications were no match for the mainstream, big business-owned press with bigger circulation.
Like Ambedkar said: “With the Press in hand, it is easy to manufacture Great Men.”
However, Syam’s book goes a long way to show that the media and cartoonists do not only make great men, but sometimes villains too. It is altogether another matter that their one-time villain has now become the subject of hagiography even by his detractors.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.