62-Year-Old Indian Cartoon Prompts Controversy

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: A political cartoon drawn over 60 years ago caused an uproar in India's parliament today. Members of India's Lower House waived photocopies of the cartoon and made enough of a raucous to delay proceedings of the parliament. The World's Carol Hills is with me to explain. Carol, where did this cartoon appear and what is it all about?

Carol Hills: Well, the cartoon is currently in a high school history textbook in India, but it originally was published in 1949, and it was published in a magazine called Shankar's Weekly, which was a magazine started by this Indian cartoonist, Shankar Pillai.

Werman: So break the cartoon down for us. We're looking at it now here in the studio. I see Nehru with a whip, a crowd of people in the background and a rotund man on top of a snail, and the snail has the word 'constitution" written on its shell. What's going on?

Hills: Well, this was published in 1949 and at the time India was trying to come up with its own constitution. It had only been independent since 1947. So the person on the snail is B. R. Ambedkar. He is revered among Dalits, who used to be known as Untouchables. And at the time he was chairing a large committee of politicians who was coming up with the constitution. And it had taken a couple of years and the constitution still hadn't been finished. And so the idea is that Nehru is saying hurry up, hurry up, let's finish the constitution. But Dalits today and other lower caste parliament members are just furious that this kind of cartoon is in a textbook.

Werman: So how did it go from a textbook cartoon illustrating a part of India's history to being a major disruption in parliament?

Hills: Well it's bene in this textbook since 2006. And the idea is a chapter around India's history and how it came up with the constitution. And there's been murmurings about it, but today Dalit members of parliament and other lower caste members of parliament just kind of went in and said this is enough, we're not gonna put up with this...we think it's insulting this person, Ambedkar, whom we revere, he was seen as somebody who really elevated the status of Dalits and developed a real self respect. And so they feel like he's being ridiculed. This person who's really important to them is being ridiculed in this cartoon and how can it turn up in a textbook?

Werman: And Carol is it more than the Dalit class who are offended by this cartoon?

Hills: Well, a number of opposition politicians were offended by it and it really has caused a response among India's lower castes. And it's very much a symbol. Well I talked to an Indian historian today and she said that this person, Ambedkar, the person that they feel is insulted in this cartoon, she said Dalits revere this person and they really refer to him now as sort of the father of India's constitution, and they don't think he's gotten respect that he should have and that he's on par with Gandhi. But not everybody agrees with that, but he is such a potent symbol for them, that that's why even the suggestion that he's being insulted, even though I looked on the web online and the whole chapter there among Indians and people reading this story was what's so offensive about this cartoon? Nehru is whipping the constitution process, not Ambedkar. So there's disagreement about Ambedkar's role, but it really touched a nerve among lower castes in India.

Werman: So what's going to happen to the cartoon?

Hills: Well today the education minister apologized profusely; of course, added very quickly it didn't happen under my watch, I wasn't education minister in 2006. And they're going to remove it from the textbook.

Werman: What a difference 60 years make, Carol. I mean I'm imagining there wasn't much of an uproar over the cartoon when it was first published. I mean maybe it shows that caste politics in India haven't disappeared, they're just in fact more complex than ever.

Hills: I think so. It's really interesting because this cartoonist who published it, Shankar Pillai, he's considered the father of political cartooning there and his career spanned both pre and post independence India. So he's somebody who's whole job was to ridicule politicians. So at the time this was published nobody batted an eye. So the fact that people are strongly objecting to a person, Shankar Pillai, who is also revered, suggests that there's a real sort of self respect and a real dignity among groups like the Dalits. And there's a sense of really owning their identity that wasn't around 60 years ago, and it's saying look, the person in this cartoon, we revere him and you're making fun of him and we're not gonna put up with it.

Werman: You can see the 1949 cartoon by Shankar Pillai at theworld.org. Carol, thanks for explaining this to us.

Hills: Thanks, Marco.