Laughter, like love, is a double-edged sword. Political cartoons, meant to lampoon the mighty and speak truth to power without fear, can just as easily slide down the slippery slope to become a votary of dominant ideology. Need proof? Look no further than No Laughing Matter , a compilation of 122 cartoons on BR Ambedkar — the jurist, politician, Father of the Indian Constitution and Dalit icon — that appeared in the English language press between 1932–56.

The book began to take shape after protests broke out in 2012 when a school textbook was found carrying a cartoon that depicted Ambedkar as a clownish figure whipped by Jawaharlal Nehru. Unnamati Syama Sundar, a scholar, cartoonist and a Dalit, undertook a survey of archival Ambedkar cartoons that appeared in the country’s English publications. Arranged chronologically, the selection in No Laughing Matter exposes the biases of the press and the political establishment. The accompanying analysis dissects the warped psyche of a disturbingly casteist society, while shining light on one of India’s greatest visionaries who battled prejudice on a daily basis in the professional sphere.

The commentary has two sections — a historical context for the cartoon; and, under the subhead ‘Scratching the Surface’, a witty and jargon-free analysis of the supposedly “comedic” aspects of the cartoon, which ends up lampooning the cartoonists themselves for their biases.

When Ambedkar famously declared in Yeola, Nashik, that loss of faith in Hinduism would not take away the political rights granted under the Poona Pact, Gandhi had countered that one’s religion could not be simply wished away. Shankar’s cartoon ‘Making omelette without breaking eggs’ ( Hindustan Times , July 29, 1936) shows Ambedkar trying to make an omelette in the frying pan of religious conversion without cracking the egg (the Poona Pact made between Gandhi and Ambedkar in 1932 was on reserving electoral seats for the depressed classes in the legislature of the British India government), while a bewildered woman watches from the sidelines. ‘Scratching the Surface’ points out the cartoon’s flawed logic and multiple biases: “Ambedkar’s obstinate cookery is met with confusion by the woman... She would know more about cooking than him. Nothing problematic there. And of course, the frying pan of religious conversion requires the breaking of the Poona Pact. A cartoon of great Gandhian joy!”


Tables turned: A 1954 cartoon from Shankar’s Weekly portrays Ambedkar as an upper-caste man and politician KN Katju as a scheduled caste person


In his incisive Introduction to the book, Syama says the added historical information is “influenced by decades-long Dalit struggles”, which tend to be erased from nationalist narratives. The cartoons have been culled from the periods in which this absence is most acutely felt. Work by the country’s cartooning greats including Shankar, RK Laxman, Enver Ahmed, Vasu, Earan, Oommen, and R Banerji makes an appearance on the pages. The editors who brought their cartoons to the public, too, find mention in the book’s unsparing commentaries.

The cartoons from the ’30s focus on Ambedkar’s squabbles with MK Gandhi, those from 1942-43 mainly satirise his stint in the Viceroy’s executive council as the labour member. Ambedkar’s attempts to ensure Dalit representation in the new Indian government becomes the butt of jokes in 1944-46, his work on the Constitution catches the cartoonist’s eye in 1947-48, he is prominently referenced with regard to the Hindu Code Bill in 1950-51, and during 1953-56 he gets a lot of flak for “being an opportunistic leader”.

Ambedkar is, by turns, depicted as a child, a bawling infant, a hooligan, a woman “prostituting her way to the top”, a dwarf eclipsed by his illustrious upper-caste contemporaries. The few cartoons that do give him credit where it is due are marred by “hypocrisy and thoughtless visual language”. For instance, a cartoon that praises him for being an influential leader visualises him as a powerful Brahmin.


No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-56; Unnamati Syama Sundar; Navayana; Non-fiction; ₹599


During the 2012 protests against the Ambedkar cartoon in the textbook, many (including well-meaning liberals) argued that a cartoon was simply a cartoon and was not to be taken quite so seriously. Lest this flawed and inherently biased argument should surface in the context of No Laughing Matter , Syama stresses that the book is not a dour, humourless exercise that sets out to trash the glorious tradition of political cartooning and make “an issue out of nothing”. Rather, it sprung from the pressing need to “demonstrate how humour was not an excuse to continue with reactionary discourse; that humour was not free of ideological inclinations and could easily become the servant of a discourse of power.”

Anyone who is interested in Indian history will find No Laughing Matter a fascinating read. The cartoons — teeming with vindictive and brazenly casteist jibes — lay bare the violence the press inflicted on the Dalit community and narratives. The enriching commentary reclaims Ambedkar’s progressive legacy and pays tribute to his extraordinary courage and contributions.

Those for whom the formative decades of the Indian republic are a hazy blur, this book unflinchingly holds a mirror to the casteist and sexist prejudices that are as deeply rooted today in the Indian psyche as they were 70 years ago when the cartoons were drawn. It forces readers to re-examine the past and acknowledge its indefensible echoes that continue to haunt the present.

Vineetha Mokkil is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories