Parliament and Shankar’s Ambedkar – Nehru Cartoon: The Familiar Lack of Context and History

‘A Brahmin Prime Minister whipping a Dalit leader and blaming him for the delay in creating the Constitution’ — that spin on Shankar’s cartoon is too dangerous for any government to ignore. However, the government could have chosen to do the brave thing and defend the use of the cartoon by resorting to the legacy of Shankar’s cartoons and the context within which the cartoon appeared, both historically and within the NCERT textbook.

Shankar and the Congress

As MPs contemplate removing more cartoons, the Congress-led Government might do well to remember Nehru’s attitude towards political satire. Shankar paid a lot of critical attention to Nehru by making him a subject on over 90 cartoons never once did Nehru react adversely. He wholeheartedly endorsed and enjoyed

Shankar’s work even when it was intensely critical of him. Be it the cartoon where one Nehru is seen holding another Nehru back — which was sketched to reflect on Nehru’s contradictory stance on China’s “liberation” of Tibet, where he repeteadly asserted that McMahon Line was the border and yet did very little when China marched into Tibet — or, the cartoon of a weary Nehru, carrying a torch, way ahead of the pack in a race comprising Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gulzari Lal Nanda, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon and Morarji Desai, published 10 days before Nehru’s death in the context of the most debated question then — ‘After Nehru Who?’ (to borrow the title of 
Welles Hangen’s 1963 book). Despite being subject to such intense political satire by one individual, Nehru always reflected on Shankar’s work. Shankar in return thought of Nehru as the political giant of his time because of his ability to accept criticism and not be blinded by his own importance.

Emergency and Shankar’s Weekly

It must have been a rude shock for Shankar (but given how politically astute he was, it perhaps wasn’t such a surprise ) when the daughter of the man who enjoyed his work so much sought to go after the cartoonists of his publication, Shankar’s Weekly. In order to protect his cartoonists during the lawless days of the Emergency, Shankar told Indira Gandhi that he would shut down Shankar’s Weekly if she spared his cartoonists and published one last edition on 31st August 1975 with the caption ‘Parting – Not Without Sorrow’. 

The beleaguered Congress-led UPA Government can choose which legacy it wants to inherit in this regard and it might do well to use this opportunity to reclaim some moral high ground that it so desperately needs.

 Ambedkar on the Pace of Making the Constitution

In controversies like the current one, history is often the first casualty. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly on 25th November 1949 (Shankar’s cartoon appeared in Shankar’s Weekly on 28th August 1949), Ambedkar was clearly aware of the criticism leveled against the Constituent Assembly for taking far too long and wasting public money. Responding to the public perception that it was a case of “Nero fiddling while Rome was burning” (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol.XI, 25th November 1949), Ambedkar provided a detailed response based on the comparative experiences of the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa and drew attention to the fact that India had adopted her Constitution in lesser time than some of those countries. The critical point Ambedkar highlighted in his speech was that the procedure adopted by the Constituent Assembly in India allowed amendments to resolutions moved in the Constituent Assembly and thereby placed India in a different position from the other countries mentioned where resolutions were adopted as moved.

What is evident from Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly is that he understood the criticism of delay being levelled against the Constituent Assembly as a whole and not just the Drafting Committee, of which he was the Chairperson. And that is the only possible and reasonable inference of the public criticism because the Constituent Assembly comprised at least 19 other Committees and Sub-Committees that contributed to the making of the Constitution. The Constituent Assembly first met on 9th December 1946 and the Drafting Committee was formed by the Constituent Assembly on 29th August 1947. The Draft Constitution was submitted to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, on 21st February 1948 after which there was widespread consultations and meetings all over the country to discuss the draft, particularly in the Provincial Assemblies. The Constituent Assembly reconvened only in November 1948 to discuss threadbare the provisions of the Draft Constitution. 

It would be a distortion to think that Ambedkar was ever blamed personally for the delay. The complaint, however unfounded, was always against the Constituent Assembly as a whole and this is reinforced by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s speech in Parliament during the debate on the 1st Amendment in 1951. Referring to the debate on the Fundamental Rights Chapter in the Constituent Assembly, he argued that the level of detailed discussion that led to many changes in the Draft Constitution was absolutely necessary given circumstances in which the Constitution was being drafted.

 The public consultations all over the country and the detailed debate in the Constituent Assembly was necessary to set off the charge of democratic deficit that plagued the creation of the Constituent Assembly, given the lack of universal suffrage and the dominant position of the Congress Party. That process, undoubtedly, did take time and it is precisely in that context that Shankar’s cartoon appeared in Shankar’s Weekly and in the NCERT textbook as the cartoon accompanying the text under the headings – ‘Composition of the Constituent Assembly’; ‘The
Principle of Deliberation’; and ‘Procedures’. What our parliamentarians have done is to strip the cartoon of the historical context in which it appeared and engage in a meaningless, hollow and undemocratic act of literalism.

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  • A constant theme I found all the critics harping on was the use of 'government money' to print cartoons critical of Ambedkar. One wonders if this is some sort of post WW2 Germany syndrome where absolutely ANY form of critique, no matter how light hearted, of the Jews was frowned upon (in this case Dalits) or a lot of political posturing.

  • Parmanand Pandey

    Decision to remove many decades old cartoon from text books is like throwing veil over the history. This is the myopic attitude and amounts to depriving the youngsters know about their own history. One can only have pity for those politicians who see and find racism in the cartoon. We are indeed indebted to Dr. Ambedkar for helping the constituent assembly in the ablest possible manner in framing the constitution but his hagiography cannot be appreciated. He was smitten with hatred and venom against the upper caste Hindus, that is understable but why was he not in the forefront of the freedom struggle is beyond anybody’s comprehension? For the record Dr. Ambedkar did not go to jail even for day during the movement for independence.
    While demanding for the Separate Electorate he is credited to have said that ‘freedom can wait, but not our demand for the separate electorate system.’ When Gandhi ji gave the logic with data that the number of seats of Scheduled Castes in Parliament and Assemblies under the joint system would be much more than in his contemplation of Separate Electorate system, then he relented to save his life.
    In spite of his stubbornness Gandhi and Nehru both had liking for him because of his erudition and scholarship and that stood him in good stead in drafting the constitution. If Gandhi and Nehru had any rancour and racial feeling towards him, they would certainly not have given him so much importance after the country became free.
    The less said about our parliamentarians the better. They are wasting the precious time in discussing over the innocuous cartoon rather than talking about other pressing problems being faced by the country and its people.