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‘No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956’: Babasaheb and the banality of injustice

‘Shankar’s Weekly’, 11 December 1949; by Shankar. The image of Ambedkar is strikingly similar to photos of Hitler with his ‘favourite girl’, a famous propaganda image. The Hindu Code Bill is depicted as Ambedkar’s ‘favourite little girl’. The depiction of women crushing Brahmanism seems overestimated: Parliament was dominated by savarna males at the time.  

A book that overturns the usual assumptions about political cartooning, No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956 (Navayana), analyses how India’s tallest anti-caste leader was depicted in the cartoons of his time. Archived and annotated by scholar Unnamati Syama Sundar, the book lays bare savarna prejudices disguised as artistic freedom.

In his Foreword, Suraj Yendge tells us how and why this book is “a museum of the perversities of the elites”. An edited excerpt:

Unnamati Syama Sundar is perhaps the only known cartoonist in contemporary times who undertakes the criticism of caste with

‘No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956’: Babasaheb and the banality of injustice

academic fervour. His politics is clear, and his craft is direct. Together they enrich the life of many a millennial reader. Syam’s emancipatory streak runs so deep that he doesn’t shy away from breaking several assumed codes of political satire. Through this book, his long-time readers will finally have the satisfaction of confirming that his pen is as razor sharp as his brush.

As a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Syama Sundar, who signs off as Syam, became well known in anti-caste circles thanks to a loyal base of fans and friends. Our mutual friend Vibha Kamble admiringly referred to him as ‘Unni’ in a Facebook post on his latest cartoon. His passion was immediately visible, each stroke presenting his desires and fettered trembles, each marked with a pronounced academic flair. Academic — not just in a disciplinary sense but as a movement.

The website, Round Table India, became the venue where Syam frequently disseminated his genius. His uniqueness led many writers and scholars from the community to seek his work to be included alongside their literary renditions. It is no exaggeration to claim that Syam is a pioneer of sorts — a Dalit cartoonist actively immersed in Ambedkarite politics. His is an unenviable position, where many geniuses from the community find themselves when they break new ground. Undoubtedly many opportunities are offered up by such positions, but the loneliness is palpable. The pride felt on breaking the ceiling is immediately replaced by a fear, of coming into a new and unknown place, of being termed as unmeritorious, of having one’s creativity gather dust on the wayside of the ‘mainstream’. And yet artists like Syam carry the responsibility of being flexible while also remaining powerful guides.

Touch me not: ‘Shankar’s Weekly’, 12 September 1954; by Shankar. K.N. Katju, grandfather of Markandey Katju, tabled the Untouchability Offences Bill. Ambedkar criticised the Bill, starting from its name: he preferred the name Civil Rights (Untouchables) Protection Act, and said its provisions would never lead to the end of untouchability. Katju asked if Ambedkar had succeeded in removing untouchability from his own followers. Ambedkar retorted that the onus was on caste Hindus to work towards this.

Touch me not: ‘Shankar’s Weekly’, 12 September 1954; by Shankar. K.N. Katju, grandfather of Markandey Katju, tabled the Untouchability Offences Bill. Ambedkar criticised the Bill, starting from its name: he preferred the name Civil Rights (Untouchables) Protection Act, and said its provisions would never lead to the end of untouchability. Katju asked if Ambedkar had succeeded in removing untouchability from his own followers. Ambedkar retorted that the onus was on caste Hindus to work towards this.  

This responsibility colours No Laughing Matter. The book covers the period from 1932 to 1956, the crucial years of Ambedkar’s public life. It features 122 cartoons, which depict Ambedkar in English language newspapers. With his foray into public life in 1919, newspapers took notice of the young civil rights activist for the first time. As he grew in stature, with every bold step, every indomitable display of righteousness, columns and columns filled up with reports of his activity. Also inevitable was the satirical take on these developments in the form of political cartoons, which perhaps, without intention immortalized him into the annals of political cartooning. Each one has a history and is loaded with multiple meanings and caste-craft.…

[The book] forcefully brings the historical underpinnings of Ambedkar’s struggle into the foreground, overshadowing the often trivial and circumstantial focus of the incidents depicted in the collected cartoons. Even as he is constantly frustrated at every turn, the important deliberations made as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, as a leader of the Scheduled Caste Federation, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, a minister in the first cabinet, as a member of parliament, as well as outside public office as a mass leader and a people’s representative, are arduously summarized….

Even as he stood alone, Babasaheb remained tall and resolute in most of his fights, facing hostility from all corners — the British, the Congress, the communists, the Hindu forces and then his own people. If these cartoons are any indication, such antagonism was commonplace for Babasaheb. One can only guess how difficult it must have been for him to survive in such a torturous environment. It is a testament to Ambedkar’s courage and his principles that he withstood the treatment meted out to him over the thirty-five or so years of his public life. No Laughing Matter is an attestation of Ambedkarite courage. Reading the book forces us to confront the banality of injustice in a most graphic manner.

‘Hindustan Times’, 21 July 1946; by Shankar. On 15 July 1946, when Depressed Class demands were omitted from the Cabinet Mission’s proposals, the Scheduled Caste Federation launched a protest that soon spread across cities. Ambedkar met Patel to negotiate a deal for the SCs. Patel refused his demand for separate electorates. Satyagrahas were launched across the country, leading to comparisons between Ambedkar and Patel.

‘Hindustan Times’, 21 July 1946; by Shankar. On 15 July 1946, when Depressed Class demands were omitted from the Cabinet Mission’s proposals, the Scheduled Caste Federation launched a protest that soon spread across cities. Ambedkar met Patel to negotiate a deal for the SCs. Patel refused his demand for separate electorates. Satyagrahas were launched across the country, leading to comparisons between Ambedkar and Patel.  

In his pragmatic, democratic, socialist conviction, he remained a lone man guiding a lost shipwreck to its ideal destiny. It is this progressive and clairvoyant Ambedkar who nursed an infant India in the hope that it grows into a mature, understanding and caring citizen of the world. In his opposition to every orthodox move (like his Hindu Code Bill which sought to end the systemic violence on Hindu women) or the revocation of medieval entitlements (like Mahamahopadhyay, Rao Bahadur and Khan Bahadur), or his opposition to celebrating political leaders as though they were prophets, Ambedkar gave us an ideal for what the future could be. His run-ins with the conservative Hindu lobby are no surprise. For instance, some of them wanted to retain the character of the village republic, often a chamber of horrors for a dalit, as the central unit of the Constitution. Ambedkar brushed these arguments aside by showing them how their imagination of India was a manufactured one created by colonial figures such as Walter Bagehot. Quoting Charles Metcalfe, Ambedkar was astute and forthright in calling village republics mute spectators to the repeated colonisations of India.

On the women’s rights question, Ambedkar was perhaps the most discussed politician in the newsroom. This can be gauged from the amount of coverage it attracted from the press and the cartoonists. Ambedkar’s proposition for the right to divorce was taken as an affront by all, the dhoti-clad as well as the suited-booted Hindu and Muslim males who dominated the 489-member Lok Sabha leaving 22 seats to women.

This book is a museum of the perversities of the elites. Their ideas and jaundiced vision towards liberatory politics are on full display. Also unforgivingly critiqued are the cartoonists themselves, who use their art for the petty advancements of their ideological agendas. ‘Let the cartoonist be in his safe space where he can draw his counter-revolutionary doodle unaffected by the coming future,’ declares No Laughing Matter. Satire without ideological backing remains a hollowed punctuation. Ambedkar is shown as a child, a crying baby, a recalcitrant hooligan, at times literally dwarfing him in the company of other nationalist leaders. Sometimes we see him shown shoeless (representative of the mahar servanthood), as a woman prostituting her way up the social and political ladder (mind the rampant sexism), a trouble-maker, and at times as someone whose sole purpose is to disturb the fecundity of other Indian leaders.

Reading the book brings one familiar feeling to mind: so many dalit leaders are profiled in the exact same manner in print and web media outlets even now! How then would Ambedkar be treated if he was among us today?

In the age of emojis and GIFs, when creativity and responses are digitized, political satire and cartoons remain raw and tender. As art is progressing, so is political cartooning. The pen-to-paper relation seems to be dwarfing and the digital pencil and the rectangular screen are gaining prominence. By the time you put down this book, you come out as more learned, enlightened and sharpened in your conviction in dalit politics. No Laughing Matter will certainly act as a guiding milestone for future works to come.

The writer is Shorenstein Center Post-Doctoral Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 4:05:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/no-laughing-matter-the-ambedkar-cartoons-1932-1956-babasaheb-and-the-banality-of-injustice/article27619812.ece

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