“The Press in India is an accomplice of the Congress,” said Dr BR Ambedkar in 1945 in his blistering attack on Gandhi and the Congress party (BAWS Vol 9, 1991, 199). In the same breath, Ambedkar lamented the blackout in the news of the Muslim League, the Justice Party of Madras, and his own party at the time, the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation. Despite a serious lack of resources, he founded and oversaw the running of four newspapers in his lifetime.

The first one was the fortnightly Mook Nayak (Leader of the Voiceless), established in 1920 with help from Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur (a pioneer who was the first to implement the policy of reservation in his state). Dhananjay Keer writes in his biography of Ambedkar, “How violent and unfavourable were the times can be seen from the fact that the Kesari refused even to announce its publication although solicited to do so as a paid advertisement! And this happened when Tilak was yet alive!” (1954/1990, 41). The exclamation marks seem a little out of place, but then Keer was a hack who wrote worshipful biographies of Tilak and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as well.

Ambedkar explains why we need not be so surprised: “In 1918, when the non-Brahmins and the Backward Classes had started an agitation for separate representation in the legislature, Mr Tilak at a public meeting held in Sholapur said that he did not understand why the oil pressers, tobacco shopkeepers, washermen, etc.—that was his description of the Non-Brahmins and the Backward classes—should want to go in the legislature. In his opinion, their business was to obey the laws and not to aspire for power to make laws.”

In 1942, when Lord Linlithgow invited fifty-two important Indians from a cross-section of the population to enlist the cooperation of all Indians in the war effort, Ambedkar quoted the response of Congress stalwart Vallabhai Patel, who found it funny: “The Viceroy sent for the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, he sent for the leaders of the Muslim League and he sent for Ghanchis (oil pressers), Mochis (cobblers) and the rest.” (BAWS Vol 9, 1991, 209) The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, said to be a Ghanchi, is installing a 182-metre high “Statue of Unity” for the same Patel.

Earan in 'Filmindia', December 1950. Courtesy: National Film Archives of India, Pune
Earan in 'Filmindia', December 1950. Courtesy: National Film Archives of India, Pune

This is the background against which we must see Eeran in one his Filmindia cartoons on the Constitution showing an uncharacteristically bare-chested Ambedkar with a janeu dangling across him, and padukas for footwear as sweepers and women step out of a car to walk into parliament. The caption carries the sobriquet “Modern Manu”, the most incongruous title for someone who ended the Mahad Satyagraha movement on 25 December 1927 by making a bonfire of a copy of the Manusmriti, the book that brings Manu fame.

Unnamati Syama Sundar’s response in May 2012 on his Facebook page to the controversy following Shankar’s cartoon featured in the NCERT textbook
Unnamati Syama Sundar’s response in May 2012 on his Facebook page to the controversy following Shankar’s cartoon featured in the NCERT textbook

The controversy that broke out in 2012 around K. Shankar Pillai’s cartoon of Ambedkar in NCERT’s Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, on the slow pace of the drafting of the Constitution, led to many interpretations and debates among research scholars and in the media. This one cartoon posed several questions to a historian.

As a self-taught cartoonist, working on Telugu newspaper cartoons in colonial India for my MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, I realised that research on colonial-era cartoons was scant. The so-called nationalist press, which as Ambedkar says was nothing but a Congress and Brahman press, served as a vehicle of propaganda for Gandhi (who ran a few well-funded newspapers himself).

Shankar in 'Hindustan Times', February 17, 1933. Republished in the Telugu newspaper Krishna Patrika on 4 March 1933. Courtesy: NMML
Shankar in 'Hindustan Times', February 17, 1933. Republished in the Telugu newspaper Krishna Patrika on 4 March 1933. Courtesy: NMML

Cartoons in most newspapers largely upheld these prejudices. Gandhi appeared in these cartoons as a demigod, a saint, a leader whom the drummer boys dared not lampoon. Besides Gandhi, the British Viceroy occupied centrestage. If these were the heroes, there were villains too: Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Any leader who bitterly criticised the policies of the Congress was a victim of the cartoonist’s nib.

Ambedkar was mostly portrayed negatively as a villain and buffoon during the Round Table Conference (1930–31), the Poona Pact (1932), when he was Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (1942–46), during the drafting of the Constitution and the Hindu Code Bill controversy. He was shown as someone out to destroy the Sanatana Hindu Dharma.

Shankar in 'Shankar’s Weekly', December 11, 1949. Ambedkar’s favourite little girl, the Hindu Code Bill, is depicted like Hitler’s favourite little girl. Courtesy: NMML
Shankar in 'Shankar’s Weekly', December 11, 1949. Ambedkar’s favourite little girl, the Hindu Code Bill, is depicted like Hitler’s favourite little girl. Courtesy: NMML

The two Shankar cartoons featured here may at first glance appear sympathetic to Ambedkar, but there’s a catch: the Hindu Code Bill is depicted as Ambedkar’s favourite little girl, echoing what back then was an iconic image of Hitler taking a walk with his favourite little girl, Helga Goebbels (one of the daughters of Joseph Goebbels). Varnashrama is depicted by Shankar in 1933 as a goddess on a pedestal being tainted with tar by the little-known Sanatanist leader from Madras MK Acharya, and Gandhi is shown wiping it with a towel, while Ambedkar – who was actually at the centre of this debate after the Poona Pact – is shown striking at the very foundation with a hammer, but to Shankar it appears that not a chip or dent is made by him.

Unnamati Syama Sundar is doing his doctoral research at Jawaharlal Nehru University on the art and visuals used in the popular Telugu children’s magazine, Chandamama. He is currently teaching history at SRR College, Vijayawada. This essay is excerpted with permission from Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection, published by Navayana.