Cartoon Controversy: Who’s laughing?


The country needs several years of cartooning by Dalits to be ready for Shankar’s cartoons on Ambedkar. NCERT should have commissioned a contemporary cartoon reflecting people’s expectations, joys and angst about the constitution today

By Veena Shatrugna

It is unfortunate that some progressive organizations and intellectuals are protesting against the controversy created by the Indian Parliamentarians on the BR Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon in the NCERT text book of Standard XII. Drawn by Shankar in 1949, the cartoon depicts Nehru, with a whip in his hand, chasing Ambedkar, who is seated on a snail.

To begin with, the cartoon is irrelevant in today’s context. And yes, it does show Dr.B.R Ambedkar in very poor light. It should be noted that the Dalit icon was not found anywhere, not even acknowledged, in the school and college texts till the 90s, and now that he is visible, he is caricatured on top of a snail.

The explanation in the accompanying text to the cartoon does not counteract it sufficiently. The text provides reasons for delay in drafting the Constitution – the need for drafts to be circulated and consultations with sub committees. The cartoon however stands in contradiction to the text. Did Shankar not know that consultations were necessary?

This upper caste impatience is ironic considering that Dalits have waited for centuries for change to happen and even today the Constitution must be coaxed to work for the marginalized.

One must also question whether a political cartoon done over 60 years ago makes any sense today with or without the text. Cartoons have to be topical, their shelf life is limited -unless you are studying the history of humour.

Let us also not arbitrate that the Dalits do not appreciate humour. That was the weapon used against feminists long ago – the accusation that feminists usually do not ‘get the point or the humour’”.  How would anyone expect us to laugh at the jokes that degrade us as women?

In my family (Punjabi refugees from West Punjab) there is no space for any frivolous mention of the partition. Despite the fact that there is usually an overdose of Punjabi rustic humour otherwise. You mention the word partition and everyone is silent. It would take a long time for us to joke and laugh about it.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

How do you expect the Dalits to switch onto a humour mode, because ‘they must get on with life, or that the texts were put together by such eminent men and women or that the caricature was drawn by a legendary cartoonist’?

The country needs 20 to 30 years of cartooning by Dalits to be ready for Shankar’s cartoons on Ambedkar. It would be good to know when exactly Nehru learnt to laugh at himself – notwithstanding his elite background, his exposure to western liberal thoughts. Maybe it was after those thousands of cartoons which depicted him as the darling of the masses.

Let us not treat textbooks as if they were holy scriptures. Just because the textbooks were written after much deliberation, it does not mean that errors do not creep in. In a young democracy like ours, texts and textbooks should be updated/reviewed every 2 to 3 years.

Instead of taking a short cut, NCERT should have commissioned cartoons which reflects people’s expectations, joys and angst about the Constitution today, and there are plenty of examples, (even if we ignore Anna Hazare) where women, dalits, tribes, minorities, LGBT, to name a few, are struggling to make the Constitution work.

Veena Shatrugna is a medical doctor by training and is the former Deputy Director, National Institute of Nutrition. She is a member of Anveshi, Hyderabad.

Related reading: Cartoons All! Politicians and Self-Seekers


  1. Creating a controversy out of a cartoon has become a political phenomenon these days. Politicians are using it as a tool to increase their visibility in media.

  2. Ashley Tellis says:

    This is a thoughtless and useless post. The cartoon is in a textbook talking about a different historical moment so its “relevance” to today is not the question here. You are deeply patronising about Dalits and Ambedkar. Go and read your Ambedkar first as he was against any mindless hero worship which he said is the way to dictatorship.

  3. jenny says:

    A somewhat sensible piece of writing… though I don’t think it should be reduced to a dalit concern. It should be part of the larger democratic consciousness to reject perspectives that implicitly or explicitly perpetuate signs of oppressions.
    I also don’t think that old cartoons need not enter textbooks. They are as much as other things, historical material. But in this case, it is uncritically placed with no question raised in the text about the signs vis-a-vis the caste heirarchy. Its visual representation points to multiple levels of meanings, even dangerous ones, while the text naively or indifferently goes onto talk about snail’s pace.

    Is this about laughing at oneself?
    What is there to laugh?

  4. Dr. smriti singh says:

    This controversy just a political move. if not corealting the dipection of cratoon with his historical background eventhough we can relate the picture with today’senario.conatitutional right still moving like depending on us how to interpret the picture
    Otherwise many things in curriclum wchich needs to be scanned

  5. Smitha says:

    The point the cartoon is trying to make has, in my opinion, been misunderstood by the author. My two cents… The cartoon seen in conjunction with the accompanying text, as stated by the author herself, talks about the ‘delay in drafting the Constitution.’Therfore, Shankar may not have referenced to the dalit rights. It is only coincidental that the person, Dr. B.R.Ambedkar who was responsible for drafting the constitution was also the one who fought for Dalit rights. We still have cartoons of great freedom fighters and also of the invaders of this country. So, whether a political cartoon of the yore is relevant in today’s context is not as relevant as the message that accompanies it. Sensitive issues like Dalit rights, the partition as mentioned by the author, need not be brought into this context where, as mentioned earlier, the idea is to convey the constitution delays and nothing more…

  6. nisha says:

    An article to be seriously considered. The point that the recognition of contributions made by Dalits has been missing, including of Baba Saheb, is a point in itself. Secondaly, that when the contribution is being mentioned, either it is done thoughtlessly or in a poor light is also a point. These key points have been missed by the study material developers and curriculum designers. Obviously, not much feedback was sought either. The point that needs to be recognized in this article is that the most MPs – dalit, non-dalit, or any any other identity – are wasting and embezzling public funds and seem to be capable of only playing petty politics using opportunities such as this one.

  7. Chaitrali Gupte says:

    I understand your angst against the people reacting to the issue and towards the dalits in the “get on with your life” way. But again, the context in which the cartoon was made had got nothing to do with the dalit issue. Also, I agree with the first comment made here by Mr. Bharadwaj that this issue raised at this moment is a publicity gimmick to attract a certain vote bank.

    One thing I do agree with you is that textbooks do have errors, aren’t the supreme and should be reviewed at least once in two years.

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