Nehru, Ambedkar and a Cartoon

Cartoon controversies have a way of becoming jokes themselves. The latest is in a textbook by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training). The government is trapped. Here is why.

As you can see, Dr. B.R.Ambedkar is sitting on a snail. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister then, is standing with a whip. Apparently, there is accompanying text in the book that blames Ambedkar for the slow pace of the Constitution that he formulated.

There has been the usual house adjourning, shouting, resignations, apologies. Do we need a committee inquiring into this, or do we need a full-fledged ministry?

There are people who think we lack a sense of humour. I think we lack a sense of proportion. I do not like this cartoon.

NDTV reports:

Sketched by renowned cartoonist Shankar in the 1960s, the cartoon has been part of the NCERT book since 2006. Today, MPs waved copies of the cartoon in Parliament and said it insulted both leaders.

Did Shankar sketch this in the 60s? If so, the Constitution was well in place before that. (It transpires that it appeared in his weekly in 1949, which seems more appropriate.) The problem is not with the Constitution, but the execution of what it lays down. Therefore, this is an insult of the Constitution. It is rather amusing to see a crowd of ordinary folks smiling broadly at this display of Nehruvian aggression. The cartoon insults them, too, for it assumes that they the lowly who will get their rights only when things are whipped into shape. There is no concern for dignity of the human being.

Does it insult both leaders? I’d say it backfires on Nehru. He looks more like a horse attendant, than a trainer. Besides, standing behind with a whip, there appears to be an element of Brutus back-stabbing. Ambedkar remains a jockey steadfastly steering.

I’d definitely see it as misconstruing history, although young people these days have access to other avenues of information and such cartoons and derogatory references do not tarnish the work done by people like Ambedkar. Note: I use the term work and not image.

The politicisation has predictably taken on a high caste vs. Dalits hue. It will fall flat. Mayawati has just been exposed for her indulgences, spending Rs 86 crore on renovating her house. Despite rising to power, and I do commend her for managing it against odds irrespective of her personal whims, she has shown scant regard for the Constitution. She has misused Ambedkar’s name for personal glory and treated his persona as her personal fiefdom.

Our political leaders should have found other ways to deal with it. But, no. This is the age of shoo-shaa as we say. Waving copies of it only drew attention to something that most of us would not have noticed. Now, sides will be taken. As I said, the controversies become the jokes.


  1. Why are we as a people so obsessed with the image of our leaders, especially the "freedom fighters" and early leaders of India's independence? When someone writes something about Gandhi that people cannot digest because it is so contradictory to the sanctimonious image we have built around him, there is hue and cry. Same goes for Nehru and Ambedkar. These were people who were not above all human flaws. Why don't you give yourself a little space to think that maybe, just maybe, Nehru might've had this kind of attitude; after all, the cartoon was created by a person in 1949, in the very era when these things were actually happening. And at the most, one cartoon cannot undo the whole lot of good things written about Nehru, if indeed he was an awesome guy.

    At a time when the constitution is just a tool being abused by our so-called leaders and people's dignity is worth Rs. 30 a month, your comment about this harmless, punny cartoon insulting the constitution and lowering people's dignity surely seems like a joke. :)

  2. correction - it should be "Rs. 30 a day" in the previous comment, slip of tongue, doesn't change the drift though...

  3. Hi. If this seems like a joke, why not laugh it away? Btw, most of the stuff I write take on the holy cows, so your comment is off. Not only that, you assume I take up for Nehru, whereas I've said something quite different.

    So, the Constitution is a tool used/misused by leaders, but that does not take away from it. People's dignity is not calculated by their economic worth alone. I was not discussing the poverty line (Rs 28, isn't it?), but the portrayal.

    And sometimes puny cartoons, or vicious humour, can reveal a mindset.

  4. the interpretation of the cartoon or the merit or demerit of it's inclusion in the school text book, to me is a much "lesser" issue, albeit an interesting one.

    what i find frightening is this increasing competition of offence. not of offending but or being offended.

    it looks to me , it is enough to gather 10/20 people , just arbitrarily take up something, claim that hurts our sentiment (never ask of talk about why) , shout slogan , do some vandalism - preferably infront of media. that is enough to force the government to take some regressive step.

    apparently 20 odd people with even odder behavior represent the rest of the us - the so called silent majority. and more the government instead of putting these goons into jail surrenders , more it indirectly encourages this trend.

    this situation is as good as pakistan's blasphemy law. if not even better because like a true "secular" country everything is included. this is not tolerance and respect to diversity , this is tolerance to intolerance.

    all these recent controversies from satanic verses to beefing up our meals to controversial cartoons - are giving me the impression that intellectually we haven't progressed very much. the parliament actually seems to be regressing . 60 years before at least people used to have some discussion there.

  5. Carvaka:

    If you take away the people getting offended, would you not say that there is too much of noise about freedom of expression too? Whose freedom is it?

    I've been reading about how our great leaders would not have been offended, or did not. They weren't all that tolerant about even something as vital as the freedom struggle, the inclusion of principalities, who gets to be PM, and of course the Partition. Let's not airbrush history.

    We aren't regressing. We just have new demons to deal with, and the demons include ourselves.

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  7. too much of freedom (of expression and other things) ? how much is too much is an interesting topic. absolute freedom is probably anarchy. human beings voluntarily sacrificed some of the freedom for better life. built complicated societies which are the basis of civilization.

    so i am not arguing for absolute freedom. what i am asking for is a rational discussion over this boundary line, which will be hazy , probably shifting in time.

    was there a debate over this cartoon in parliament? did people talked about why should or shouldn't it be included? why does it hurt someone's sentiment and why it doesn't? had they been debated over it and then decided i wouldn't complain. if there been such a debate i have completely missed the news.

    coming to think of it, it is actually quite ironic. (some) dalits say we don't care about other people's sentiments . it doesn't matter if you find the smell and sight of beef kabab offending. but don't even think about hurting our sentiment by drawing cartoons of ambedkar.
    i mean , holy cow!!

    of course the founding fathers were far from perfect. but i think a lot of them were open to diverse views. whether you accept that particular view depends on many things including the merits and demerits of it.

    have you seen this ?

    what if today i say that bible should be banned because it is teaching people unscientific things and it is hurting my scientific mind - should we restrict the freedom of expression of the christians?

    about the cartoon - i think if the students are provoked to think what does the cartoon possibly mean , what was the role of makers of our constitution, what was the relationship between neheru and ambedkar , their political views - that would have served a better purpose. these question should be raised not necessarily to get a definite answer but to train the students to look at different sides , to question - something unfortunately is not being done in our country.

    ps: sorry for the confusion re posting.

  8. here is a different perspective:


    Almost everyone is sensitive to how their pet figures are portrayed in public. From Gods and Prophets to mightier ones like Gandhi(was he a politician or messiah?)/Nehru(did anyone know what he was doing or did he himself know?)/Jinnah(was he Secular or British?)/Sardar(was he communal or casteist?)

    But, when it comes to Dalit figures and their history and voice, it's all a fair game ...


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