Rereading ‘Mahatma’ in Indian History through a reading of Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability


Mushrifa Ibrahim.

Mushrifa Ibrahim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Jagannath Barooah College, Jorhat, and she is currently pursuing her Ph.D at Dibrugarh University. Her area of interests include Women’s Studies, Popular Literature, Cultural Studies and Graphic Novels.



Graphic novels can be an effective medium that can reflect the emergence and the growth of a developing nation like India and its ability to fuse the past with the present while dealing with socially relevant issues makes it a very pertinent genre in modern times. In this age of hyper reality, where the image has become much more powerful than the words, graphic novels can fit in a whole set of complex ideas in a single page.  It offers a relevant space for discussing history, sociology, anthropology, natural sciences and emerging technologies. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability is perhaps the most well-known of the graphic novels in India due to its inclusion in the Popular Literature paper of the undergraduate course. The objective of this paper would be to read Bhimayana as an exponent of “Post- truth.” The ideological debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar becomes very explicit in the differences over the issue of separate electorates for the Depressed classes. Although Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability deals primarily with the issue of caste, in this article an attempt has been made to read into the politics or rather the covert politics at play and examine it through the perspective of Post-truth, an important philosophical and critical pedagogy of the 21st century.



Keywords: graphic novel, Bhimayana, Post truth.                      




     Graphic novels are a recent addition to Indian English Writing but it is a genre with immense possibilities. The combination of words and pictures gives it a dual advantage and can be helpful in promoting visual and verbal literacy. The Graphic Novel in India has charted a very relevant and enriching journey. The landscape of the Indian Graphic novel is indeed a varied one, each writer and each novel focusing on a different aspect of Indian life, culture and imagination.  Graphic novels can be an effective medium that can reflect the emergence and the growth of a developing nation like India and its ability to fuse the past with the present while dealing with socially relevant issues makes it a very pertinent genre in modern times. This is particularly relevant in this age of hyper reality where the image has become much more powerful than the words. Graphic novels can fit in a lot of complex ideas in a single page and is particularly relevant in discussing history, sociology, anthropology, natural sciences and emerging technologies.

     Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability (2011) is perhaps the most well known of the graphic novels in India due to its inclusion in the Popular Literature paper of the Undergraduate course. However, the question remains why include this particular graphic novel in a course that caters to a sizeable number of what constitutes the literate youth population? Graphic novels are known to deal with alternate histories, be it in the form of the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis which deals with the Iran/Iraq war. Bhimayana if we look beyond the biography of B.R Ambedkar, which forms the crux of the graphic novel also deals with one particular aspect of Indian life which is caste system. The grave injustice around caste hierarchy has been a part of Indian history but it has been rendered invisible.  Gandhi is hailed as the messiah of the untouchables who lifted them to the respectable position of Harijans-children of God. Very few (apart from the die had Ambedkarites) knew about the dubious role Mahatma Gandhi played in the issue regarding separate electorates for the Depressed classes. It is therefore essential that the future generations should be made aware of the truths that have been swept under the carpet to present a picture of solidarity within the Indian nation state. If social evils like caste discrimination and untouchability are to be eradicated then these unsettling truths need to be told.

     Bhimayana is based on the life of B.R Ambedkar and instead of focussing on the glorious achievements of Ambedkar, who drafted the Indian Constitution, this graphic novel focuses on the issue of caste and untouchability. Inspite of having an enviable repository of degrees and qualification Ambedkar had to face numerous instances of caste discrimination because of his birth in a lower caste. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability and Navyana, the publishing house that published this graphic novel has a shared history The publishing house was launched in 2003 and the first publication was Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes, it is a slim volume of 36 pages and less than 10,000 words. Ambedkar wrote down his experiences of casteism in these “notes” and Srividya Natarajan and S.Anand used the same and added some more resources of their own to frame Bhimayana. In the afterword to Bhimayana which S.Anand calls “A Digna for Bhim”, he says: “ While touchable Gandhi who succeeded in South Africa came to be recognized as a global anti-imperialism icon, untouchable Bhim who could not drink water in his local school and went on to lead the Mahad Satyagraha in1927 has been neglected by History” (Anand 103).

       An analysis of the various perspectives that have been employed by different writers and research scholars who have written about Bhimayana shows that they focus on the graphic novel as a critical approach and as a communicative medium. Pramod K Nayar in the article “Towards a postcolonial critical literacy: Bhimayana and the Indian graphic novel” analyses the critical literacy generated among the readers situated in a postcolonial context by the graphic novel Bhimayana. He also talks about the various registers employed in the graphic novel. He uses the term ‘multimodal’ (Nayar 4) in this article and the same perspective has been adopted by Sryendu Chakraborty in “Unpacking caste politics through the multimodal communicative landscape of Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability.”

     The objective of this paper would be to read Bhimayana as an exponent of “Post truth.”  The ideological differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar becomes very explicit in the differences over the issue of separate electorates for the “Depressed classes.” Although Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability deals primarily with the issue of caste, this explores the politics or rather the covert politics at play and examine it through the perspective of post truth, an important philosophical and critical pedagogy of the 21st century.

     The graphic medium makes this task even more enriching as it can include many ideas in a limited space and also express things which might not be palatable or acceptable to Indian society.  Nayar is of the opinion that- “in its uncovering of historical wrongs, social inequalities, the silences of the victims and the follies of the age, the graphic narrative-engendered critical alerts us to the need for human rights, the historical abuse of certain groups and the urgent need for reforms” (Nayar 9).  This graphic rendering of the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar exposes the dark alleys of history and provides a voice to the hitherto voiceless citizens of the Indian state.

     B.R Ambedkar was never in alignment with Gandhiji’s approach to eradicate untouchability. In the Poona Pact in September 1932 Ambedkar was vocal in his apprehensions and it led to some sort of a difference between Gandhi and Ambedkar. In the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, Gandhi opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates. In 1932 the Communal Award of the British government approved separate electorates for Depressed classes of Indian society. In order to protest against this move, Mahatma Gandhi undertook a fast unto death which was known as the Yerawada fast. In an article “Gandhi,Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue’,  the writer DN makes an important observation that Gandhi’s fast unto death was not against the British but against Ambedkar and the Dalit movement. Ambedkar had to give in to Gandhi’s demands not because of his allegiance to Gandhi’s ideology but because of the fear that if Gandhi were to die, then the Dalits would have to bear the wrath of the upper class Hindus.  Gandhi’s weapon of fast unto death has been interpreted by social scientists in various ways. Gandhi asserted that the conversion of the ignorant i.e., the Depressed class should not include force but “patient toil and suffering” (DN 1329). DN also says that: “This “patient toil and self-suffering” in the struggle against untouchability did not include a fast unto death, a weapon he was willing to wield against Ambedkar and the demand for separate electorates for the untouchables, but not against the upper castes to denabd an end to untouchability” (DN 1329). This animosity between two reverend leaders of the Indian freedom movement is a synecdoche of the tussle between the various classes in Indian society. However the questions remains to be asked how much of it is really discussed or finds a place in the history lessons we impart to our future generations? This is significant because the way these lessons are structured would become the irrevocable truth and the subtle nuances of the differences would be forever lost in the official version of the truth.

     It would be imperative to have to look at the Textbook in History for Class XII, Themes in Indian History Part III published by NCERT and the Theme Thirteen Mahatma Gandhi and the Nationalist Movement: Civil Disobedience and Beyond, Gandhi is presented as a “people’s leader” and someone who possessed powers that were “miraculous and the unbelievable”. In Source 5 under the heading “The Problem with Separate Electorates”, Gandhi is quoted as having said at the Round Table Conference:

Separate electorates to the “Untouchables” will ensure them bondage in perpetuity... Do you want the “Untouchables” to remain “Untouchables” forever? Well, the separate electorates would perpetuate the stigma. ( Themes 360)


     Ambedkar’s response is also quoted in the next page from his work What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables: Writings and Speeches, Vol 9):

Here is a class which is undoubtedly not in a position to sustain itself in the struggle for existence. The religion, to which they are tied, instead providing them an honourable place, brands them as lepers, not fit for ordinary intercourse. Economically, it is a class entirely dependent upon the high-caste Hindus for earning its daily bread with no independent way of living open to it. (qtd. in Themes 361)


     Ambedkar insisted that Hindu society should be organised on the basis of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” and the ideological sanction of the Shastras should be overthrown. In the same text in theme 15 “Framing the Constitution: The Beginning of a new Era” Sardar Patel is quoted in Source 3 as “The British element is gone , but they have left the mischief behind” and in Source 4 “ I believe separate electorates will be suicidal to the minorities” both taken from Constituent Assembly Debates Vol V and Vol II respectively as arguments against separate electorates. In these arguments and counter arguments, a consensus seems to have been generated against separate electorates and a perception was generated that the idea of separate electorates is inimical to Indian society, the scales tipping in favour of Gandhi. The conventional /established version of history has been identified as follows:

Conventional (Hindu, upper caste) wisdom has it that Gandhi overcame the British imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’ by the Yeravada fast.The fast... is part of the legend of the ‘national movement’. This conventional wisdom also has it that Ambedkar was a willing tool of the British in implementing their ‘divide and rule’ policy. (D.N 1329)

      However, a look at the ground reality reveals a different picture altogether. Ambedkar’s first political party the Independent Labour Party won 11 out of 15 seats in the 1937 elections when seats were reserved for SC’s in Bombay Province. However, this win gave his party very little say in passing legislation. In 1952 Dr Ambedkar was defeated in the general elections and this proves that the Dalit movement was at a loss because of the rejection of the separate electorate issue. Apart from this the daily challenges faced by people from the Depressed classes is never known by the rest of the country and the fact that atrocities on the the  Dalits have not lessened can be proved by the Hathras Gangrape case. Thus, there are fissures in the picture of solidarity presented by the metanarrative of the Indian Democratic nation. In such a scenario the philosophy of Post truth can be a useful tool to delve into the dark alleys of Indian history

     The term “Post truth” was used for the first time by Serbian American playwright Steve Tesich in an article “ A Government of Lies” published in The Guardian in 1992. In 2004 Ralph Keyes wrote the book The Post Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life and in 2016 the word “Post truth” was selected by the Oxford Dictionaries as the “Word of the Year” and it was defined as “a term relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief ” (Brahms 3). Yuval Noah Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st  Century observes that the phenomenon of post truth is specific to human beings and is linked to the ability to create stories and ideologies and believe in them. There is always more preference for power rather than truth and a tendency to rule the world rather than to understand it. Technology facilitates the building of a certain propaganda which affirms individual prejudices. Citing the techniques employed by hackers and trolls Harari says that they employ stories to reaffirm prejudices of those who believe in such prejudices. It can be used to create rifts in society and also to dismantle the democratic system. In Post Truth, Lee McIntyre says that “...innovation in the post-truth phenomenon is not a denial of the existence of truth and facts, but rather is the subjugation of facts to personal preconceptions and a subjective perspective” (qtd in Brahms 4).

     In an interview with the British journalist Carole Cadwallader, Daniel Dennett an American philosopher remarks that human beings are in a period of “epistemological murk” and there is no respect for truth and facts and no desire to understand the world factually. Bhimayana  can be seen as an endeavour to present the factual details of the Gandhi Ambedkar feud in an objective manner, without allowing emotions to cloud our rationality and to discover the post truth behind the so called truth of Indian history. Instead of reading through pages and pages of history it would be much more effective to look at the panels in page 90 and 91 of the graphic novel, Bhimayana. In the space of two pages/panels many important documentary evidences are provided in a succinct manner that tells the whole truth ,often glossed over. In page no 90 we have the recommendations to the Minorities Committee of the Indian Round Table  Conference,showing the terms under which the Depressed classes would agree to be under a majority rule. It is dated September 1931 and talks about equal citizenship, equal rights, non discrimination, representation in legislature, services, cabinet and no prejudicial action against them. This is upheld by Ambedkar and we see the figure of Ambedkar extending a hand and holding these recommendations. At the same time using the bird speech bubble which signifies benevolence he says that “I have not the slightest doubt that if the Untouchables of India were given the chance of electing their representatives to this Conference, I would find a place here. I say therefore that I fully represent the claims of my community. Let no man be under any mistaken impression as regards that” (Anand 90).

     Ambedkar believed in the democratic process of electing a representative from among the Dalits although he had a valid reason to represent them as he was one of them. In the opposite panel in panel 91 Gandhi’s thoughts is shown in the scorpion speech bubble which stand for acrimony: “I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of Untouchables. I claim that I would get, if there was a referendum of the untouchables their vote, and that I would top the poll!” (Anand 91)

     Gandhi expressed his confidence that he would be the favourite representative of the untouchables but at the same time his hands are shown to be holding the letter written to Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India dated March 1932. In this letter Gandhi deliberately represents the Untouchables as “not very well organised” and are without “political consciousness’. This seems to suggest as though Gandhi now replaces the White man’s burden with the Upper caste brown man’s burden. He categorically states that separate electorates would harm Hinduism. He announces his intention of a fast unto death if a separate electorate is created. In the adjoining panel Gandhi is shown fasting, lying down with an axe in his hand. The axe is symbolically the tool of fast unto death with which he threatened Ambedkar as well as the British. D.N in “Gandhi, Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue” observes that Gandhi’s bias towards the upper caste is betrayed time and again. In the Vykom Satyagraha he urged the leaders not to ‘overawe the orthodox’. During the Yerawada fast he asked Kellapan to call off his fast demanding entry into Guruvayur temple citing the reason that not enough notice was given. K Kellapan was a social activist from Kerela who fought against untouchability. Yet Gandhi did not use his very powerful weapon of fast unto death against the eradication of untouchability but only for prevention of separate electorates.

     The entire episode of the demand for separate electorates has been presented with the factual details and also provokes the reader to think beyond the conventional versions of history. Moreover, there are no distracting details, prejudices or elevated descriptions of the either leaders. Without sparking any controversy by including any inciting remarks or comments, the whole episode has been shown, leaving enough space for the imagination and interpretation by the readers. This is perhaps the strength of the graphic novel, since pictures/illustrations can also be used many facts that might be unpalatable but nevertheless needs to be addressed can be shown symbolically without using words. For instance, the axe wielding figure of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the readers should have sufficient visual-verbal literacy to read beyond the lines.

    On page 90 on the left hand corner of the panel, we have a discussion between two characters who appeared in the beginning of the graphic novel. The character who speaks benevolently tells how Gandhi’s fast forced Ambedkar and the British government to give up on the issue of separate electorates. The other character understood that separate electorates meant reservation and it was just as well that Gandhi undertook the fast unto death. However, it might be asked whether such an attitude adopted by the second unnamed character would help resolve the situation of the Untouchables. We know for a fact that the majority of the Depressed classes in spite of the limited opportunities given to them in terms of reservation is still in a very deplorable state.

     Another important issue that is addressed in these pages is the drafting of the Constitution. The first character says that if Ambedkar had drafted free India’s Constitution it would have been a different one. The conventional knowledge is shown in the speech bubble of the second character who said that they were taught in school that Ambedkar was the architect of the Constitution and the ignorance of the character regarding the position held by Ambedkar as the Chair of the Drafting Committee which drafted the Constiution adopted by the Constituent Assembly in1949 shows how important was Ambedkar’s contribution regarded by the general Indian citizens. Adjoining to this panel we have the Draft Constitution of November 1949 based on Ideas of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In page 91 certain articles of the Draft Constitution are outlined but many of them were not accepted or implemented. For instance in article number 3 it is stated that “nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children” (Anand 91).The speech bubble that has been strategically placed in context at the right corner of page 91 depicts Ambedkar’s attempt as the First Law Minister of India to make amendments in the Hindu Code Bill- such sanctioning  divorce and grant property rights to widows and girl child- but his proposal was rejected and Ambedkar had to resign from Nehru’s Cabinet. Thus, this incident and the present condition of the Depressed Classes belie the truth behind the metanarratives of history.

     After  an analysis of the political implications of the various events associated with Indian history  it becomes clear that it does not serve to accept whatever is handed down to us as history/truth. One needs to question further, to delve deeper and Bhimayana has been successful in etching the Post truth behind the so called truth of an important episode of Indian history . In order to understand to connections between the alternate truth revealed in Bhimayana  and the philosophy of Post truth we have to look into the definition of Post truth according to Oxford Dictionary “..a term relating toor denoting circumstances in which objective truths are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”(Brahms 1). If one  considers the term “objective truth” we have to take into consideration the letter written by Gandhi to Sir Samuel Hoare which is not common knowledge. Rather the public opinion was moulded by epithets like “Mahatma” or the great one and Father of the Nation. Even national schemes related to the welfare of public life is still spearheaded by icons specifically related to Gandhi. The name Gandhi had such a lasting on the psyche of the Indians that it enabled the Indian National Congress to rule over the country for 60 years. Such is the power of emotions which undermine the facts and sway public opinion. Brahms in “ Philosophy of Post- Truth” proposes  a different definition of Post truth: a term denoting circumstances in which our ability to clarify the reality in order to understand it and in order to function within it on the basis of facts is weakening as a result of high intensity interference by four peak waves: the information explosion and disruptive technology: dwindling of faith in institutions and in ‘truth tellers’: undermining postmodernist ideas: and bitter political battles” (Brahms 17-18).  

     If we consider the four peaks outlined in the definition of post truth  information explosion has proved to be a boon rather than a bane in the context of the graphic novel as it can take the truth/post truth to a larger number of people but this does not necessarily involve spreading a fake message. It is due to the lack of faith in conventional types of narrative like official history that graphic novels have evolved, postmodern ideas instead of undermining leaves the field open to a larger number of interpretations and shatters the hegemony of a master narrative and bitter political battles has been a part and parcel of the graphic novel from its inception and also in its concerns. Hence, graphic novels like Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability can be a powerful medium to espouse the philosophy of post truth. Pramod K.  Nayar in his article ‘Towards a postcolonial critical literacy: Bhimayana and the Indian graphic novel’ published in Studies in South Asian Film and Media ,March 2012 states that:

It is Bhimayana’s adoption of popular-populist regimes of the verbal-visual (or image-text) that constitutes a radicalization of form, even as it contributes to a critical literacy about casteism, atrocity and human rights. Critical literacy forces the reader, through the use of narratives and autobiographies, to link personal experiences with socio-historical and institutional power relations. (Nayar 4)

      Bhimayana thus foregrounds the issue of casteism and its deployment of a traditional art form gives greater visibility to a lesser known form as well as lesser known social evil especially if we place it in the context of a worldwide readership. Such stories need to be told and heard if we want to give justice to the less fortunate ones and it has to be told in a form that would bring it closer to more number of people). The inclusion of this text in the undergraduate syllabus is a welcome move and the response of the students is very found to be encouraging. This is a testimony to the success and potential of the form which would become a key player in developing greater awareness regarding marginalised but contentious issues.







                                                         Works Cited:

Anand,S and Srividya Natarajan,. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. 

Navayana, 2011.

Brahms, Yael. “Philosophy of Post-Truth.” Institute for National Security Studies, 2020, pp.

1-16, JSTOR, Accessed 20 Oct 2020

D. N. “Gandhi, Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 26,

no. 21, 1991, pp. 1328–1330. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Sep


National Council of Educational Research and Training. Themes in Indian History: Part iii.

Publication Division NCERT, 2007

Nayar, P.K. ‘Towards a postcolonial critical literacy: Bhimayana and the Indian graphic novel’.

Studies in South Asian Film and Media. vol. 3, no. 1, 2011, pp 3-21. Accessed 20 Jan 2019.

   ---. The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, history and critique. Routledge, 2016