The anti-colonial nationalist movement in India has taken on many forms down the rocky road to India’s independence. Be it the early politics of mendicancy by the newly-formed Congress that later snowballed into a vociferous, impassioned tide of movement towards freedom, countless brave freedom fighters that fought the odds, Gandhi’s non-violence, literature that could ignite the soul and even, sharp-witted, satirical Indian political cartoons. While outright nationalists could be jailed to stop contagious propaganda, cartoonists with their acerbic wit would deliver keen stings to the British Raj in small packages rife with humour.
With time, Indian political cartoons began to take up the spotlight both in English and the vernacular languages. Here’s a peek at some of the best political cartoons found in Indian and British media which relate the truth of the events as they unfolded, loaded with sardonic humor. While many are lost with time, we’ve dug through some musty archives to bring these out just in time for India’s 75th Independence Day.
Indian cartoonists had to be cautious, wielding their brushes as they toed the line between expressing their creativity and getting censored by the colonial government. The earliest Indian political cartoons were spotted in the English-owned Bengal Hurkaru and the India Gazette in the 1850s and in fiery nationalist papers such as the Amrita Bazaar Patrika which started printing its newspaper spaces with cartoons from 1872.
British cartoonists like Sir Charles D’Oyly had started injecting their humor by creating laughable caricatures in his series Tom Raw, the Griffin (1828) that captured the amusing behaviour of an East India Company novice struggling to settle in.
One of the first Indian political cartoons that made waves with a message of British high-handedness was published in the Bengali newspaper Sulav Samachar in the 1870s. The cartoon portrayed the collusion of European authorities and offenders and provoked the government into clamping down with the Vernacular Press Censorship Act in 1878.
By then, the English comics magazine, Punch with its rambunctious cartoons had arrived on the Indian shores. After the Punch followed its Indian offshoots such as the Delhi sketch book, Momus, The Indian Charivari, The Oudh Punch, The Indian Punch, Urdu Punch, Gujarati Punch, Hindi Punch, Parsi Punch, and Purneab Punch.
The British owned comic magazine, The Indian Charivari with similarities in style with the English Punch from which it originated. The magazine cover is covered with dusky Indian maidens.
Basantak, a Bengali cartoon magazine gave a befitting reply to the English Punch which mocked the Indian race and their enslavement. This caricature highlights the obvious mismanagement of famine relief resources. The cartoons were made with woodcut blocks and their style was inspired by Battala and Kalighat pats.
Credits: Credits: History Today/Cartoons of the Raj
Titled ‘A Wholesome Diet’, this early cartoon was published in the Hindi Punch in 1889, which tried to placate the government with the meek nature of the early Congress.
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
After the revolt of 1857, mass sentiment in Britain towards India had hardened considerably. The English Punch came out with illustrations that parodied the Bengali bhadralok or the educated Bengali elites who were now hybrid products of Western education and manners. Baboo Jabberjee, a character was invented to deride the idea of the educated Bengali.
By 1905, the Swadeshi Movement had picked up steam so much so that businesses had started endorsing the nationalistic agenda in their advertisements. This ad by the Indian Tea Market Expansion Board shows a woman draped in a khadi saree sipping Indian tea. A nudge to readers to pick Swadeshi goods over foreign products.
Gandhi had his own journal the Indian Opinion, which would introduce controversial cartoons to garner opinion against colonial rule. Some of the British cartoons would be sympathetic to the state of the non-whites. This cartoon was published by The New Age in London and reproduced in the April issue of Gandhi’s journal. The accompanying commentary read,
“No one who reads the description of the cartoon can help becoming grave…on reflection, we cannot help feeling that Western Civilization is as cruel as, perhaps more cruel than, the terrible expression on the face of the man in the cartoon. Is there anyone who looking at this cartoon alone does not feel in his heart that satyagraha is the only way in which mankind can attain freedom and strength?”
Gagendranath Tagore had started dominating the art horizon with his paintings and cartoons which critiqued the mental and moral crisis which India had sunk into. While he created a few political cartoons; his commentary was majorly social. He denounced the hypocrisy of modern society as well as the incongruities of the Bengali bhadralok with their Western affectations and mannerisms.
Credits: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A commentary by Gagendranath Tagore on what the Brahmin had devolved into, surrounded by meat, alcohol, and women. This sheds light on the hypocrisy that had come to be prevalent in society.
1919 – 1921
The master craftsman, Gagendranath Tagore, triggered by the absurdity around him had created a series named Reform Series. The above picture, ‘Premier Scream’ is a comment on the Montague-Chelmsford reforms in which they are seen taking a pound of flesh to make up the leak in the country’s economy.
Credits: Samizdata net
An uproar arose when The Star published a cartoon in the wake of Hobbs beating Grace’s record which showed Hobbs towering over figures like Columbus, Lloyd George, Caesar, Charlie Chaplin, and the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon was considered sacrilegious not only due to its portrayal of the Prophet but also because Muhammad was placed in an inferior position to Hobbs. As the Calcutta correspondent of the Morning Post recorded, the cartoon, “…‘convulsed many Muslims in speechless rage. Meetings were held and resolutions were passed.”
March 13, 1942
In an effort to keep India loyal to the British war effort, Cripps promised India full self-government and elections once the war was over. This cartoon appeared in the Daily Mail UK with women standing in doorways of houses marked Ceylon and India. The row of houses is on fire, and the fire has spread to the house Burma. Cripps can be seen running down the street with his ‘New policy for India’.
August 9, 1942
On August 9, 1942, following pro-independence riots, Gandhi and other leaders were arrested. The elephant titled Congress has gone out of control and the British soldier is trying the control the ‘brute’. Note the Japanese-looking tiger hiding in the grass nearby.
March 19, 1946
Civil War and famine accompany Victor Alexander, Stafford Cripps and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence on a journey towards India.
March 20, 1946
‘’Is this the atmosphere or situation which one can consider as being conducive to the opening of negotiations between two major nations in this country?’’, says Jinnah on the Cabinet Mission.
March 23, 1946
This cartoon was published in Dawn. It has Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Azad trying unsuccessfully to wipe off the writing ‘Pakistan’ from the wall. The ‘Atlee Minorities Exterminator’ tries to help them in this task.
March 28, 1946
By now, groups have been formed and Jinnahites, Ambedkarites, and Mahasabhaites have taken up the slogan ‘Blood will be shed’. A satirical take on the arrangements done for the blood-shedding.
May 5, 1946
Published in the Dawn, this cartoon depicts the failure of J.P. Srivastava in dealing with the famine and the indifference shown to India by the western countries
May 16, 1946
On May 16, 1946, Attlee announced plans for an independent and united India. While Stafford Cripps, Gandhi, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah discuss issues like the Indian Constitution from the safety of the tree, the woman ‘India’ is seen cowering with a baby at the bottom. India is surrounded by impending civil war and famine.
September 2, 1946
Nehru’s cabinet was sworn in on September 2nd, 1946. In the cartoon, Archibald Wavell waves to Nehru who is atop the elephant named India poised to move. Muhammad Ali Jinnah can be seen tying burning crackers to the elephant’s tail.
Jan 1, 1947
Cartoon by Ajmal in the Dawn. Gandhi is dressed as a sorcerer, clutching the ‘statement of December 5’ while trying to revive Congress. This cartoon offended Nehru who was generally thick-skinned when it came to barbed cartoons.
March 15, 1947
This cartoon provoked Lord Wavell who is shown checking the time, while the Governor of Punjab, E.M. Jenkins with horns on his head is portrayed as the devil. This satirical cartoon was created after the negotiations broke down and violence followed in Punjab in March 1947. A cartoon by Enver Ahmed for The Hindustan Times.
March 20, 1947
Credits: The War of Images/Sukeshi Kamra
The ‘Frankenstein’ appeared in The Hindustan Times after Jinnah broke his silence on the Punjab violence. He is seen attempting to rein in the monster of ‘Communal Bestiality’ who has been let loose on the world. Jinnah points to the coffin in a futile attempt to return the monster, who looks unconvinced.
April 25, 1947
Credits: The War of Images/Sukeshi Kamra
Jinnah is shown as the cat with connotations of the growing irrational nature of his arguments. Jinnah had enough influence to give Mountbatten sleepless nights. ‘Which Way Will The Cat Jump’ was published in The Hindustan Times.
May 20, 1947
Gandhi, and a group of protesters, including a US sympathizer, demand that the British leave India. They are surrounded by bodies on whom carrion feed, casualties of hunger and civil war. On May 23, 1947, the British cabinet gave its nod of approval to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s proposal for the partition of India into two states.
May 27, 1947
Credits: The War of Images/Sukeshi Kamra
Alarmed by the distance between the two parts of Pakistan, Jinnah came up with the idea of building a link between the two via a vivisection of India. The act is seen as illogical as well as immoral. Two Congressmen can be seen, hands raised to stop Jinnah who attempts to bulldoze through the states. This cartoon appeared in The Leader.
Credits: The Diplomat/The Hindustan Times
By August 1947, a variety of mischievous Indian political cartoons had appeared as political deliberations peaked and emerging nation leaders squabbled. Published in The Hindustan Times.
At midnight on August 14th, India and Pakistan became independent dominions under the British crown. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s words,
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…”
Complete freedom or Purna Swaraj was achieved in 1950 for India. After independence was ushered in, Indian cartoonists like R.K Laxman, Shankar, Kutty, and more continued their lampooning of the new government. However, there existed an appreciation for humour and tolerance for these witty attacks with Nehru saying in response to a scathing cartoon on him by Shankar, “Don’t spare me, Shankar”. Today, cartoonists continue to voice their dissent with their cartoons. The political atmosphere may be much different from that of post-Independent India but our tolerance and appreciation for truth and humour must not wane.