Bal Thackeray, if you have heard him at any public meeting, is not exactly a very cogent speaker, leave alone a great orator. There are no flourishes, nor literary gems. He just gets his points of view, loaded with irreverence, even double entendres, across. He speaks the language of cartoonists. It works every time.
During an election rally in the late 80s in a Marathwada town, he was vexed by the reportage in newspapers which mentioned his rallies as poorly attended. He let go in his typical style and called journalists owls. True to form, there was umbrage, apparently because it was taken in the woolly-headed sense: he caused insult to the media.
If that contention was to be conveyed using the cartoon as a medium, what would he have done? Thackeray would have drawn a line sketch which shows him addressing a rally, with a huge swath of blobs indicating the heads of the audience, a bright sun at its zenith in the sky, and an owl on the limb of a tree. The owl would have been a metaphor for the blind because owls, it is believed, cannot see during day, the tree the press box.
Thus visual representations in cartoons have a lot of value, much more than a dreary vocalisation of views one hears in the various fora where the elected stand and believe that they orate. That makes Shankar Pillay’s 1949 cartoon showing Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip behind Babasaheb Ambedkar, who is riding a snail, so significant. Ambedkar was steering the enormous work of putting together a Constitution.
I was born that year and do not therefore have the contemporary exposure to that cartoon or the precise context but if one were to pause for a moment, it becomes evident that there was some impatience in Nehru; he wanted the task of framing the Constitution done with. After all, the tryst with destiny had to be meaningful for which the country needed a set of rules and it had waited long enough to be unfettered from the British rule.
However, how appropriate is it to interpret a cartoon of 1949 being misunderstood in 2012, looking at Ambedkar only as a deity which he now is to the Dalits, a deity who has replaced Buddha amongst the neo-Dalits? At that time, he was an eminent law-maker, erudite and irreverent of the established systems which discriminated sections of the society because of caste. Possibly, none of the law-makers now come within a mile of men of such stature of those times. Even Ambedkar is not known to have objected to it.
Other eminent men in public life have been lampooned before as well as later. Every cartoon has a context and has to be seen in that precise context and to those who have a sense of history and continuity, a joyful acknowledgement of the right to criticise, to highlight a point that acres of newsprint and thousands of spewed words cannot. It was what happened then and the cartoonists’ view of that moment, captured in a telling manner, with just a few lines, often without a word in a balloon.
The MPs who took umbrage at the cartoon in the NCERT text book meant for Standard XI should have questioned the propriety of using it as an illustration for school students but cannot fault the idea behind the output from the ever-smiling, most-loved cartoonist of that time, at that time.
Little wonder two thinking men, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, the chief advisors for political science textbooks who quit promptly upon its withdrawal, aptly said the debate in Parliament was “short, heated and not very well-informed”.
A cartoonist, Manjul put is squarely, by the caption to his piece in DNA a day later: `They should be sent back to Std XI again’. And, as did The Hindu’s Ravindran, showing Ambedkar himself asking the marauding mob behind Nehru to go back, not by words, but gestures.
It needs a sense of humour to understand a cartoon. But expediency which drives politics is deaf and blind to such nuanced commentary. God forbid, Manjul could be hauled up for breach of privilege, and Surendran for reproducing an objectionable cartoon.
Our Parliament is peopled by people with thin skins, not people with sensitivity.