Unnamati Syama Sundar’s No Laughing Matter captures and chronicles cartoons on Bhim Rao Ambedkar between 1932-1956. The book, covering mostly English cartoons, reflects on the societal perspective of Ambedkar through the readership of the publications that they appear in. Sundar is very clear that this book is not an academic exercise – rather, it is a political vehicle to bring to the forefront the idea of the political cartoon, and its power over the public imagination.

Ambedkar and the political cartoon

By the 1930s, Ambedkar had become the singular voice of the untouchables or Dalits, and an extremely popular mass leader, probably second only to Gandhi. Yet he was rarely represented in national newspapers or popular media, who criticised his bitter opposition to MK Gandhi. Thus, the political cartoons in this book offer an important way to explore the history of representation from this period, to see how the middle-class consumer of English cartoons viewed a rising untouchable leader.

The book contains cartoons from three major periods: Ambedkar’s rise in the national movement and his efforts to forge a space for Dalits; his appointment and tenure as the chairman of the Drafting Commission of the Indian Constitution; and, finally, his stint as law minister.

The cartoons largely adopt a mocking tone, and Sundar accompanies each of them with an extensive background information to provide historical context on what each cartoon means. The choice of cartoons is apt, and what is even more interesting is the interpretation.

Sundar is highly critical of the taunting representation and clearly points out the themes running constantly through the cartoons. For example, one prominent theme is the portrayal of English leaders, especially the Viceroy, as brahmins giving in to the political demands made by Ambedkar, and, by extension, Dalits. Sundar uses this cartoon to show the hypocrisy of caste privilege, but in some instances like Shankar’s cartoon from 6th July 1942, he is also confused about what is funny.

“A cursory look may lead you to believe that the cartoon’s humour comes from Ambedkar’s unsentimental position on temple entry and his consequent admission into Viceroy Linlithgow’s (caricatured as a brahmin priest) Executive Council, a metaphoric temple. But this is not the case; after all, using visual symbols of a political struggle for your personal profit as a cartoonist is a cheap move. Shankar is definitely not steeped in a caste privilege which might lead him to make blithe jokes about temple-entry. The comedy comes from something else. What exactly, one can’t be sure.”

— Unnamati Syama Sundar

Mocking by repetition

Two other themes are recurrent – Ambedkar portrayed as a woman, and the theme of renunciation, where Ambedkar is seen renouncing his wife and child, symbolic of his resignations from his posts. Sundar relates the first theme to those of femininity and masculinity. Ambedkar is repeatedly portrayed as a woman to undermine his “masculinity”, which is meant to show him in a supposedly poor light.

This is explored best in Shankar’s cartoon on the decision of the Scheduled Caste Federation to align with multiple parties in different states. Here Shankar invokes Draupadi and the five Pandavas.

Sundar asks what Shankar is mocking. Is it the idea that a woman cannot have five husbands? And especially that a Dalit woman cannot marry five men with caste threads? What is the point of relating this incident to the coalition of the Scheduled Caste Federation? Sundar then warns future syllabus-makers and students to be careful not only about the caste privileges but also the misogyny in which these cartoons are deeply steeped.

“Shankar’s image of Ambedkar bears a striking similarity with Hitler’s pictures with his ‘favourite girl’ and the ‘Fuehrer’s child’. Among the famous propaganda photographs of Hitler, taken by his associate Heinrich Hoffmann, were pictures with a seven-year-old child of Jewish descent, Bernile Nienau. The ‘friendship’ came to a halt in 1938 when Nienau’s Jewish ancestry became awkward for the Nazi party... The why and if of the Hitler imagery on Shankar’s image is difficult to ascertain though the similarity is hard to look past. The Hindu Code Bill does appear to be Ambedkar’s ‘favourite little girl’. However, the depiction of women crushing brahmanism seems an overestimation: parliament was over­whelmingly dominated by savarna Hindu males.”

— Unnamati Syama Sundar

The second theme invokes the tradition of renunciation, where a householder renounces his worldly life to become an ascetic. Two of Sundar’s selection of cartoons on this subject are particularly striking. The first looks at Ambedkar leaving the fold of Hinduism to become a Buddhist. And the second covers his resignation from the cabinet on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill.

The first occurrence is in fact in Bireshwar’s cartoon, where some sort of renunciation seems imminent. Shankar plays on this idea later to display disdain towards Ambedkar’s resignation from the Cabinet. Sundar is sharp in his observations about these cartoons and their inaccuracies in some of the imagery. He also points out that Shankar’s drawing on the same ideas as Bireshwar’s actually showed a dearth of imagination even while mocking Ambedkar.

Who are the cartoonists?

Sundar’s sharp observations are often revealing when it comes to the hidden motives of cartoonists, as well as their privileges. His observations are also humorous, often funnier than the cartoons themselves. Yet Sundar never goes on to discuss the cartoonists themselves, and their larger position in the national movement or the nascent Indian state.

Several major cartoonists are featured in Sundar’s selection, the most frequent appearances being those by Shankar and Enver Ahmed. There are other cartoonists too, including Bireshwar, Earad, and RK Laxman. But who were these people? What was the nature of their political commentary? Did they have varying views on Ambedkar? The book doesn’t go on to explore these questions. Also, as most of these cartoons are mocking Ambedkar, it is difficult to identify nuance in their position and discourse. A book on political cartoons, even on a singular subject, needs to give its cartoonists a little more space.

Sundar points out in the introduction:

“This book’s mandate, however, is not to address this serious gap in the academic literature on cartooning, nor does it offer an exhaustive index of all archival cartoons pertaining to Ambedkar. The task for me is a more political imperative than a research agenda...”

Instead of being academic, this book is highly charged politically. It is successful in its agenda of pointing out the casteism and misogyny in these portrayals. This book represents a rare Dalit voice reflecting on Ambedkar’s life, and, by extension, on the entire movement of oppression, especially caste oppression, in India. No Laughing Matter arrives at a point of time when India is invoking caste in public and political discourse, even as Ambedkar and his legacy are revisited and re-examined – and is all the more important for that very reason.

No Laughing Matter

A note on the “Road To Reno” cartoon

“Divorce scare was rampant in India at the time of the discussion of the Hindu Code Bill. People assumed that women would be doing nothing other than divorcing husbands all the time, just for kicks – perhaps their own habitual sexism gave people grounds for such fears. There is also an assumption that a high divorce rate is inherently terrible for a society. No reasonable explanations for this proposition were provided. The cartoon however is a reference to the Hollywood comedy, The Road to Reno (1931 and 1938), which told the story of a woman who played the marital field, divorcing a succession of husbands. The honourable members were of the assumption that divorce was rife in the West, where the cultural anathema against it was in fact widespread. This right, extended to women as part of civic equalisation, involved a hard-fought battle in most nations.”

— Unnamati Syama Sundar

No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956, edited and selected by Unnamati Syama Sundar, Navayana.