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The Cartoon Controversy: Inside the Mind of one ‘fanatic’ Dalit -II

The Cartoon Controversy: Inside the Mind of one ‘fanatic’ Dalit -II




Continued from here.

Anoop Kumar

When I saw the cartoon – and at the time I googled, there were only 3 images available – I spontaneously recoiled at the violence in the cartoon. I had to check again and again to confirm if it was indeed the controversial one because the cartoon was so plainly disgusting that I could not see why there should be two sides about it. It did not merit discussion before condemning it. The violence of the whip, the violence against Dr Ambedkar and the obvious symbolisms conveyed themselves so starkly that I did not have to think twice about what was wrong with it. I needed no discussions, or read any posts to convince me that the cartoon was an act of upper caste violence. And I am surprised that instead of unequivocally condemning it, apologizing for the violence, and rushing to make amends, many are still discussing it, hoping to justify the cartoon, and forcing those who lack the funny bone to get one. I think the controversy is about the gaze. Is yours an upper caste gaze? You may not feel so violated after all.

Sruthi Herbert, a friend, writes in Facebook on NCERT textbook cartoon controversy


I think the controversy is about the gaze. Is yours an upper-caste gaze?

On 13th May, a couple of days after the controversy on Dr Ambedkar’s cartoon in NCERT Text Book had erupted in the Indian parliament, a PhD student from JNU, New Delhi, himself a brilliant cartoonist, Unnamati Syama Sundar posted a cartoon made by K. Shankar Pillai which was published originally in 1933, in ‘Hindustan Times’, an English daily. This cartoon was later reproduced in Telugu newspaper ‘Krishna Patrika’ with accompanying text that says:

M.K. Acharya is trying to increase the taint of untouchability in Hinduism and M.K. Gandhi is trying to clean it, whereas B.R. Ambedkar is trying to break the foundations of Hinduism called Varnashram, while the Western society is laughing at the whole situation.


Unnamati posted the scanned copy of this cartoon, taken from the Telugu newspaper, on his Facebook profile without leaving any interpretation of his own. Instantly, this cartoon became an internet rage, getting hundreds of “likes” and massive “sharing” on the social networking site and a little later it got picked up by various websites, blogs too.

Interestingly, majority of the “sharing” was being done by those hurt over the Dalit protests against NCERT cartoon to prove that cartoonist Shankar was not a ‘casteist’ and therefore those opposing his NCERT cartoon were wrong, by interpreting this cartoon as portrayal of ‘the attack on varnashrama system by Dr Ambedkar’. Many were convinced that Shankar actually depicted him as a ‘great revolutionary’ trying to destroy varnashrama system by striking it down with a hammer. Many even used this cartoon to vehemently criticize the rise of ‘Dalit fundamentalism’ and its ‘assault’ on the freedom of expression of cartoonists and academicians.

Among various responses on this particular cartoon on Facebook, I am quoting two that I found most interesting, from two prominent intellectuals. The first one is a well reputed scholar-activist who, in the last three weeks since this controversy erupted, has written a series of articles for prominent national Hindi dailies criticizing Dalit protests against NCERT cartoon as the rise of ‘dalit fundamentalism’ owing to dalits’ tendencies of ‘worshiping’ Ambedkar instead of ‘reading’ him. He even terms this protest as the ‘gravest threat to the art of cartoon’ in India and has been posting a number of pre-independence cartoons that according to him were “pro-dalit”.

While sharing Shankar’s cartoon (the one published in 1933) on his Facebook profile, he writes:

All those who think that legendary cartoonist Shankar denigrated Ambedkar in that cartoon must see this one made by him too, in 1933, against varnashrama system. In this cartoon, Ambedkar is depicted as hammering against the varnashrama system and therefore it is wrong to distrust Shankar’s intentions on Ambedkar. Salutations to Shankar for making this cartoon 80 years ago!

The second one, a Senior Assistant Editor of India’s premier social science research journal, again a vociferous critic of the Dalit protest terming it worse than those by ‘khaki nikker wallas’ at one of the blogs, writes quite sarcastically while sharing the cartoon:

This is a terrible anti-Dalit cartoon! Can’t you see, Dr Ambedkar is made to look like a toad! He is drawn smallest of all the people in the frame. Can’t you see he is put below the feet of the upper caste Brahmin and that wily Bania!! He is given a heavy sledgehammer to show how dalits can only do manual work while the upper castes do dainty work!!! TERRIBLE CARTOON!! HANG THE CARTOONIST!!!! Where is Mayawati and D. Raja when you really need them???!!!

After being shared widely on internet, this cartoon eventually found itself in the national English weekly ‘Outlook‘ (May 28 issue) in its cover story ‘This Godly Delusion’, quite damnatory to Dalit protestors against NCERT cartoon, to pose several questions: ‘Is Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar a figure above questioning? Above critique? (Leave alone being lampooned?)’.

The cover story doesn’t mention this cartoon anywhere but simply carries it along with the main text and with a caption – ‘A Shankar cartoon from Hindustan Times, 1933, lampoons Gandhi, M.K. Acharya and Ambedkar’.

[I think Outlook, before looking for answers from Dalits, first needs to apologize to Unnamati Syama Sundar for using this cartoon without giving him any photo credit, for he is the one who brought it out from the Nehru Memorial Archives after some 80 years of its publication and posted it along with his translation of the Telugu text.]

Is Shankar’s Ambedkar actually ‘a revolutionary’ in this cartoon? Is this cartoon, published in 1933, really ‘against’ varnashrama system as interpreted by many? Or Shankar actually lampooning everyone (excluding British) the way Outlook interprets it?

Shankar’s ‘Ambedkar with a hammer’ is a depiction of ‘a hero’ to most of the readers in 2012. But what was ‘Ambedkar with a hammer’ to Shankar’s readers of 1933 whom he addressed through his cartoon and, last but not the least, what was it to Shankar himself?

The massive usage of this 80 year old cartoon of Shankar and its interpretations done by all those critical of Dalits protest appeared quite fascinating to me and being an avid Facebook and internet user, I tried to read what else was being said around it and found that my concerns (raised in the first part) on misinterpretations of Shankar’s NCERT cartoon were not totally misplaced. This Shankar’s cartoon, published in 1933, was read almost devoid of the context in which it was made but according to one’s own perspective on the political and social realities of 2012.


This cartoon is not against varnashrama system at all but supports it and looks at it as the strong foundation, the base of Hinduism. Shankar’s Ambedkar is not any ‘revolutionary’ either. He is actually a villain in this cartoon, someone who is not only against ‘Hinduism’ but also against the ‘national interests’.

To my mind any other reading will be doing injustice to this cartoon, to Shankar and to the ‘way’ he urges us to read the history of his times. The cartoon depicted a ‘reality’ as seen by him, by a cartoonist who was also a caste-hindu nationalist and a follower of Gandhi. It depicts a ‘reality’ which was witnessed not only by him but by most of the caste-hindus and every follower of Gandhi, in 1933.

The ‘reality’ that came out of the vicious propaganda unleashed by the well oiled congress machinery against one of its biggest challenges of that period: Dr Ambedkar and his struggle for the rights of untouchables. The propaganda that met this challenge by depicting him as an angry reactionary, a pygmy against giant national (read caste-hindu) leaders, who is out there to “destroy” Hinduism due to his trenchant critique of varnashrama system, an anti-national trying to mobilize untouchables as a separate entity outside the fold and in direct confrontation with Gandhi and the congress and therefore “weakening” the nationalist struggle against British colonialism.

While making this cartoon, in 1933, Shankar is not a neutral observer of political happenings around him but is a firm believer in varnashrama system who, like Gandhi, sees it as the foundation of Hinduism and Hinduism to be a great religion but tainted with one “social” evil i.e. untouchability.

Shankar is not ‘any’ cartoonist but a vital part of the propaganda machinery of Congress and Gandhi, a staff cartoonist at Hindustan Times, an English Newspaper that took immense pride in being firmly ‘rooted in Indian Independence Movement of the period’, that was inaugurated by Gandhi himself in 1924. Later his youngest son Devdas Gandhi served as Managing Editor of ‘Hindustan Times’ for 20 long years (from 1937 till his death in 1957).

And Shankar is not lampooning everyone including Gandhi, as Outlook wants us to believe; in fact Gandhi is the hero of his cartoon; and the cartoon was just one small contribution towards the enormous literature that was being produced by caste-hindus during that time popularizing the myth of ‘Mahatma’ among the masses across the length and breadth of the country – hence its reproduction in the Telugu Newspaper.

Just look at the cartoon again.

Hinduism is depicted as a deity, firmly situated on a very strong platform/foundation shown as ‘varnashrama’ system. On one side is a very calm and composed Gandhi trying to very gently clean the deity (Hinduism) which is heavily tainted by the problem of untouchabilty (the taint refers to the practice of untouchability as explained by the accompanying text).

On the other side is a visibly agitated M.K. Acharya (a sanatanist, orthodox Brahman from Madras who opposed temple entry movements, opposed Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, popularly known as the Sarda Act and a known opponent of Gandhi’s efforts to initiate some reforms in Hinduism).

In this cartoon, Acharya is depicted as increasing the taint on Hinduism whereas Dr Ambedkar clearly is an angry man trying to bring down the entire sacred structure by hitting at its foundation frantically with a hammer, a pygmy among the giants like Gandhi and M.K. Acharya, a mad man trying in vain to destroy something which clearly appears to be of much strength, beyond his capabilities. The foreign ruler of the country is clearly enjoying the spectacle, witnessing all this ‘infighting’ from some distance.

To understand the cartoon better, in its proper context in which it was made and published at Hindustan Times, a newspaper firmly ‘rooted in Indian Independence movement’; let us revisit what was actually happening in this country around 1933.


In the history of the Dalit movement, the period of early 30s is the most significant one for many reasons: the problems of untouchables getting recognition at the national level, the rise of Dr Ambedkar as their national leader and his bitter confrontations with Gandhi etc.

On September 6, 1930, Dr Ambedkar was invited to participate in the Round Table Conference to represent untouchables. In the words of Dhananjay Keer, author of Dr Ambedkar’s biography, first published in 1954, “For the untouchables it was an epoch-making event in their history; for, it was at this conference that they were being invested along with other Indians with the right to be consulted in the framing of the constitution of India. Their voice to echo for the first time in the history of two thousand years, and more so in the governance of their motherland.” (Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, p. 144)

By that time Dr Ambedkar was already an established leader for the untouchables. He was running ‘Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha’, had been a member of Bombay Legislative Council, led thousands of untouchables at Mahad for the rights of drinking water at the public tank, was organizing untouchables under Depressed Classes Conferences, had deposed before many government commissions including Simon Commission demanding adequate safeguards for the untouchables in the constitution and direct representation in the legislative councils and at that particular moment was engaged in a bitter battle with orthodox hindus over Kalaram temple entry at Nasik.

However, for Indian National Congress under Gandhi, these credentials of Dr Ambedkar were of no worth. Attacking all those who accepted the invitation to this conference, the congressmen and their press reserved choicest abuses for Dr Ambedkar, refusing to even acknowledge him as the leader of the untouchables. For Subhas Chandra Bose, already a national leader by then, ‘Ambedkar had had his leadership thrust upon him by a benign British Government because his services were necessary to embarrass the nationalist leaders’. (Bose, S.C., The Indian Struggle, p. 41)

However much worse was in store for Dr Ambedkar during his confrontation with Gandhi in the second Round Table Conference that commenced from September 7, 1931, in London. Gandhi not only refused to accept Dr Ambedkar as the representative of untouchables but claimed that he represented every untouchable. While agreeing to provide special political rights to other minorities, he opposed the same for untouchables by claiming that these would divide ‘Hindus’ and he would ‘resist it with my life’.

Gandhi not only opposed Dr Ambedkar’s claims of representing untouchables but later went on maneuvering against him and his demands of equal rights for untouchables. He entered into separate negotiations with Muslim representatives and asked for their support in opposing Dr Ambedkar and in return agreed to all their demands.

Dr Ambedkar exposed Gandhi on this episode by writing a letter to The Times of India, from London, on October 12, 1931, denouncing him for ‘not only not playing the part of a friend of the depressed classes, but not even playing the part of an honest foe‘. Finally Gandhi’s stubbornness on the question of untouchable representation broke up the conference and ended it in a stalemate.

Back at home, Gandhi was hailed as a hero for ‘foiling’ the attempts of British policy of ‘divide and rule’ and its ‘stooge’ Dr Ambedkar and Dr. Ambedkar became the most hated man in India. Dr Ambedkar, while addressing his supporters at Poona on May 21, 1932, says:

At present I am the most hated man in Hindu India. I am presented as a traitor; I am denounced as an enemy of the Hindus, I am cursed as a destroyer of Hinduism, and branded as the greatest enemy of the country. But believe me when I say that when after some days the dust settles down and a review of the proceedings of the Round Table Conference is dispassionately taken by future historians, the future generations of the Hindus will acclaim my services to the nation.

Thus began the stigmatization of Dr Ambedkar by caste-Hindus of all hues, from EMS Namboodripad to Pandit Nehru and their bypassing of the questions he was raising on untouchables’ rights by pitching his struggle against the Indian freedom struggle and terming it as anti-national, divisive, sectarian, separatist – the tags which reverberated throughout his life, his struggle, (only respite Dr Ambedkar might have enjoyed from all these, I guess, would be while drafting the Indian constitution, but lesser hecklers like the likes of Shankars might be active then too) and were carried to post independent India, the traces of which one can find easily even in the marxist writings till early 80s and in all its glory in Arun Shourie’s ‘Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the facts which have been erased‘ (1997).

Apart from this, Dr Ambedkar was also always portrayed as an ‘angry’ and ‘bitter’ man ‘due to his experience of caste-based humiliations that he went through despite all his qualifications’ – again a very powerful ploy that was actually initiated by Gandhi himself to bypass Dr Ambedkar’s articulations and peg all his concerns on untouchables’ plight to his personal experiences of being the most educated untouchable.

This branding of Dr Ambedkar always justified, in Gandhi’s and his followers’ heads, Dr Ambedkar’s opposition to Gandhi, Congress, his powerful critique of Hinduism, varnashrama system, caste, everything he ever said and wrote on without any decent engagement with him, his thoughts, his works.

One small extract from historian Ramchandra Guha’s n number of attempts trying to ‘reconcile’ Ambedkar with Gandhi might give us a clue on this. In his article Gandhi’s Ambedkar, Guha writes:

Speaking at a meeting in Oxford in October 1931, Gandhi said he had “the highest regard for Dr. Ambedkar. He has every right to be bitter. That he does not break our heads is an act of self- restraint on his part.” Writing to an English friend two years later, he said he found “nothing unnatural” in Ambedkar’s hostility to the Congress and its supporters. “He has not only witnessed the inhuman wrongs done to the social pariahs of Hinduism”, reflected this Hindu, “but in spite of all his culture, all the honours that he has received, he has, when he is in India, still to suffer many insults to which untouchables are exposed.” In June 1936 Gandhi pointed out once again that Dr. Ambedkar “has had to suffer humiliations and insults which should make any one of us bitter and resentful.” “Had I been in his place,” he remarked, “I would have been as angry.”

This branding of Dr Ambedkar was so powerful that it was evoked even in obituaries published by the national news papers after his death on 6 December, 1956, of course after customary heaping of praises. It became a standard ploy and is still in vogue to bypass the real concerns of ‘angry’ and ‘bitter’ Dalits arising out of their ‘hurt’ and ‘humiliation’.

There was a lot more happening around Shankar, the staff cartoonist of Hindustan Times, in 1933 – Poona pact (1932), Gandhi’s Harjian Sevak Sangh (1933), Gandhi’s treating untouchability merely as a ‘religious sin’ for caste-hindus to undertake ‘penance’ for and thus taking away the political agency of Dalits and claiming high moral ground, his stout defence of varnashrama system as the base of Hinduism, Ambedkar’s ‘bitter’ confrontations with Gandhi on all the above. But let me stop here.


What prompted this particular type of reading of this cartoon by so many, mostly those who were opposing Dalits’ views on Shankar’s NCERT cartoon? Massive ignorance of Indian history, particularly in the context of Dr Ambedkar’s struggle and Indian nationalists’ responses? Failure to understand that cartoonists are not mere neutral raconteurs of their times but might carry all the prejudices of their times too?

Reading in reaction towards highly caste-loaded NCERT cartoon controversy which influenced their interpretation of this cartoon?

Their particular gaze was informed by social and political realities of 2012 that considers varnashrama system as a social problem and therefore saw Shankar’s Ambedkar with a hammer trying to dismantle it as a ‘revolutionary’ act in complete contrast with what Shankar might have wanted to reflect through his cartoon in 1933?

May be if the cartoon was accompanied with a critical thinking inducing text prepared by Prof Yogendra Yadav, Prof Suhas Palsikhar and others from NCERT, it would have helped all to read this cartoon in its proper historical context but then those sharing and writing on this cartoon were not class XI std students but supposed to be renowned scholars, journalists and other quite well-read people with sharp and often very progressive political understandings on issues, including on this cartoon controversy!

When I saw this cartoon for the first time, apart from the depiction of Dr Ambedkar as an angry pygmy what struck me most was, who exactly was M.K. Acharya? Most of us had to google to find some information on this ‘giant’. Not much was there on him though.

Why was M.K. Acharya being depicted as the main protagonist along/against Gandhi in this cartoon of 1933 and not Dr Ambedkar when clearly Gandhi-Ambedkar confrontation was what led to the momentous events of that period like the failure of Round Table Conferences, Communal Award, Gandhi’s epic fast, Poona Pact, Harijan Sevak Sangh, Gandhi’s various initiatives against the practice of untouchabilty?

Was M.K. Acharya really a ‘giant’ and why have we not even heard about him? Or was this again a classic case of creating a binary of orthodox Hindu v/s liberal Hindu, the one which we are so used to in independent India, which very conveniently keeps all the discourses on every political and social issue within the caste-Hindu universe and the rest remain perpetual outsiders or get trapped as extremists or fanatics?

Another interesting question that came to my mind while looking at this cartoon was what if Shankar was an untouchable cartoonist, working for one of Dr Ambedkar’s journals– how would he see that period of 1930s and how would he depict it. I am sure much would change in this cartoon then – the Deity would probably depict the Indian nation but heavily tainted with untouchability, casteism, obscurantist brahmanic Hindu ideas, Dr Ambedkar cleaning the deity with great efforts, agitated Gandhi trying to put more taint on it and a pygmy M.K. Acharya trying to bring down the whole structure being a staunch sanatani brahmin.

I don’t know whether Dr Ambedkar had cartoonists working for him but if one goes through dalit literature, especially poems and songs, my above imagination will not appear too farfetched. These will give you a completely different reading of history from Shankar’s.

I am a bit happy with many finding Shankar’s Ambedkar a ‘revolutionary’ in this cartoon, though. It clearly reflects the changes, to some extent, our society has witnessed between 1933 and 2012 – from looking at varnashrama system as the foundation of Hinduism to a social problem that needs to be dismantled, from Ambedkar as a ‘villain’ to Ambedkar as a ‘hero’ for his attempts to dismantle it.

However it also points towards the dangers of misreading of such cartoons on highly contested issues like caste and the contributions of Dalits in an environment where ignorance and prejudice still is not an exception but a norm.

Like my scholar-activist friend who wanted to salute Shankar for what he thought was a pro-Ambedkar cartoon made 80 years back, I also want to salute him for his mastery over his art to be able to so clearly depict the caste-Hindu universe of the1930s. 

Without doubt Shankar was a great exponent of his art but certainly lacked an untouchable’s gaze! 


In the debates surrounding this cartoon controversy one major point that was being raised by everyone opposing Dalit protests was about ‘freedom of expression’. It was portrayed as an assault on the works of ‘deeply admired and dearly loved cartoonists’ who ‘dared to make light heavy-going matters’ from the perspective of the ‘little men’ (statement by faculties of CSSS, Calcutta). In a petition, launched by the country’s foremost academicians and scholars, the dalit protest was deplored by reminding all about India’s ‘long creative tradition of satire and irony’.

Such a statement gives us an impression that being ‘deeply admired and dearly loved cartoonists’ and being part of a ‘long tradition’ precludes any possibility of criticism of their works.

What if the perspective of the ‘little men’ is just a perspective of one section of a deeply hierarchal society that provides not much scope for other perspectives to be visible? What if ‘deeply admired and dearly loved’ cartoonists representing just one section of the society carry its prejudices too?

In an article published at Neelkranti on the NCERT textbook controversy, a Hindi website on Dalit issues, Ratnesh Kumar writes about one of the ‘deeply admired and dearly loved cartoonists’, R.K. Laxman and how his famous ‘common man’ actually turned out to be an ‘upper caste man’ one fine day:

The present generation might be quite aware of the legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman. For long, his cartoons touching on various facets of  the common man’s life were being published at ‘The Times of India’. His ‘common man’ carrying an umbrella appeared to be reflecting the true image of India. But in 1992, when the Supreme Court gave a verdict in favour of the Mandal Commission recommendations, then we came to know that this common man is not common but is an upper caste man. The day after this verdict, his cartoon showed the whole city engulfed in fire and ex-prime minster, the man behind Mandal Commission recommendations, V.P. Singh saying: Now I will die in peace.

And the protest was never about the ‘cartoon’ made by Shankar in 1949 for his weekly. It was never an assault on his ‘freedom of expression’. It was about NCERT reproducing it in its textbook as a ‘pedagogic tool’ while teaching students about making of the Indian constitution.

To be continued.


Cartoon courtesy: Unnamati Syama Sundar.



Please also read other articles published on Round Table India on the same issue: 


The cartoon controversy: Inside the mind of one ‘fanatic’ Dalit – I‘ by Anoop Kumar,


Whipping up ‘critical pedagogy’: Uncritical defense of NCERT’s violence‘ by Savari,


The Cartoon, the Classroom and the Idea of India‘ by N. Sukumar,


The caste-neutral whip and other jokes‘ by Kuffir,


Thol. Thirumaavalavan writes to Kapil Sibal and Sukhadeo Thorat‘, 


Ambedkar’s Cartoon and the Caste question‘ by Raj Kumar