The soul of No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956 is revealed in the engaging introduction that Unnamati Syama Sundar writes. When Sundar, a doctoral research scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, started visiting libraries looking for cartoons featuring B.R. Ambedkar, he would get access by saying he was working on M.K. Gandhi. “Should I have said Ambedkar, I feared doors closing on me. After all, Babasaheb (Ambedkar) too had tried passing for a Parsi once in Baroda in 1917 just so he could find a place to stay. When the truth about his identity was known, he was booted out," writes Sundar.

The galactic gap of over a hundred years between Ambedkar’s open ostracization and Sundar’s strategic but understandable refusal to identify himself as an Ambedkarite doing research on Ambedkar explains why No Laughing Matter, published recently, is eminently relevant.

The introduction is titled “The Smooth Insult And The Parthian Shot". By “smooth insult", Sundar is referring to the 122 political cartoons published between 1932-56, which he analyses for their patronizing, insensitive and casteist representation of Ambedkar. It’s a politically pungent post-mortem report of the visual politics that some of the leading practitioners of the craft of political caricaturing presented through the mainstream media outlets of that era. And one imagines Sundar’s Parthian shot is directed not only at the Shankars and the R.K. Laxmans and the Enver Ahmeds but also at the very psyche and soul of a profoundly unequal society which subjected one of its greatest and brightest minds to such condescending coarseness. Indeed, S. Anand, the publisher of Navayana, which has brought out No Laughing Matter, introduces the book in these words: “Not all laughter is created equal. Sometimes laughter is cruel. Often it is imbued with a derision derived from larger structures of power".

The trigger for the book was the 2012 controversy involving a cartoon—a work by K. Shankar Pillai originally published in Shankar’s Weekly in 1949—included in a class XI National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook. It showed a snail-borne Ambedkar being whipped by Jawaharlal Nehru. The textbook captioned the cartoon “The cartoonist’s impression of the ‘snail’s pace’ with which the Constitution was made" and asked students to explain why they thought the constituent assembly took three years to create the Constitution.

A cartoon by Shankar, published in ‘Shankar’s Weekly’ in July 1951, referring to Ambedkar’s demand for more funds from the finance ministry for the law department.
A cartoon by Shankar, published in ‘Shankar’s Weekly’ in July 1951, referring to Ambedkar’s demand for more funds from the finance ministry for the law department.

Dalit organizations and political parties protested and raised the issue in Parliament and then human resource development minister Kapil Sibal had to eventually tender an apology. However, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, the political scientist and academician who were among the people tasked with drafting the textbook, defended the inclusion of the cartoon and resigned from their positions after Sibal announced in Parliament that orders had been issued to withdraw the cartoon and stop distribution of the textbook. “When I saw how a single cartoon was being intensely debated, it occurred to me: why not look at all the other cartoons in which Ambedkar figures," writes Sundar in the introduction.

And so Sundar, who is introduced in the book as an “Ambedkarite cartoonist well-known in the non-savarna media", chose 122 cartoons, including the NCERT one, that he sees as visual representations of the partisan and predominantly upper- caste universe peopled by the leading cartoonists. In his view, they demonstrated in their crooked lines a persistent hostility towards Ambedkar while the mainstream media outlets they worked for were unabashedly fawning towards Gandhi.

Sundar’s questioning gaze, unsparing and intense, exposes the majoritarianism and misogyny that the cartoons were afflicted with whenever they portrayed Ambedkar. In these political caricatures, Ambedkar—the great scholar, an articulate activist, a fierce reformer, an isolated politician often forced to make pragmatic political choices, and the drafter of the Constitution who remained unsatisfied with his work—is almost always drawn in an unflattering manner, often depicted as a woman, routinely presented in a small frame, even derided as a “new Brahmin".

Sundar situates the cartoonists and their treatment of Ambedkar in the larger media scene of the time, when Ambedkar and his movement for the oppressed classes would get marginal space compared to the column length devoted to Gandhi and the Congress-led movement. Just as Ambedkar, and some of the momentous movements that he led, got short shrift in the mainstream media then, the best cartoonists of the day frequently subjected him to scorn or plain prejudice.

No Laughing Matter—The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956: Edited and selected by Unnamati Syama Sundar; Navayana; 408 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
No Laughing Matter—The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956: Edited and selected by Unnamati Syama Sundar; Navayana; 408 pages; 599.

Scholar and human rights activist Anand Teltumbde lauds No Laughing Matter as a “valuable addition to the discourse on how caste operated and operates in subtle ways". Teltumbde agrees with Sundar’s view in the introduction that savarna prejudices which coloured the Ambedkar cartoons decades ago have not vanished today.

“The mainstream media continues to speak about caste in a prejudicial manner. Anyone, howsoever big and meritorious, the media will prefix ‘Dalit’ to his/her name. It is in the subconscious of the media people, many of whom come from non-Dalit communities. Ambedkar was always projected in a belittling manner though he excelled in all the spheres he operated in purely on the grit of his merit. I myself am no exception. Media will never project me without that Dalit prefix, as though it is my sole qualification. Any other person in my place would have been highlighted as an IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Ahmedabad alumnus or IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) professor or the CEO of Petronet. But I am just Dalit. The media’s casteist outlook is pervasive and there may just be a few exceptions," says Teltumbde, making a larger point about the general discourse in the media today.

Arguably, No Laughing Matter is the best outcome of the 2012 NCERT controversy. There is a large amount of literature available now, including Ambedkar’s own writings, which tells us about the social and political othering that he faced even as he became a beacon of hope for some. Sundar’s incisive work lays bares a project which, under the garb of artistic freedom, practised the illiberal and static social mentality it was supposed to challenge.

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