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Cartooning in the time of democracy

 | September 14, 2012

Aseem Trivedi drew a cartoon replacing the customary lions in the country’s national emblem with wolves, their teeth dripping with blood, and the caption read, Long live corruption.

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India calls itself not just a democracy, but the world’s largest. It would also like to describe itself as the most liberal democracy.

Far from true, the last description.

Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children, adapted to the screen by Deepa Mehta, may not be seen in India. Shot in Sri Lanka, though the novel is based in India, the movie premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

No cinema distributor in India is willing to touch Mehta’s work. The reasons are apparent. The book is critical of Indira Gandhi, whose daughter-in-law, Sonia, is now at the helm of affairs in the country.

Also, Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses was banned in India even before Islamic Iran could do so, is not exactly welcome in the country. He cancelled his January trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival because of a death threat. He could not even go ahead with a televised conference, because protesters warned of grave consequences.

Intolerance plays at many levels in India.

We now have the case of a cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested on charges of sedition. Later, he was freed on bail.

Trivedi, who has been part of the anti-corruption movement in India led by the self-styled Gandhian, Anna Hazare, drew a cartoon where he replaced the customary lions in the country’s national emblem with wolves, their teeth dripping with blood. The caption read, Long live corruption.

Another of Trivedi’s cartoons shows the Indian parliament (non-functioning in recent months) as a giant toilet bowl.

Browbeaten into submission

India’s best regarded political cartoonist, EP Unny, wrote in The Indian Express, a paper where he draws:

“We got both our cartoon art and the sedition law from Britain. The two carried on all these decades, including those 21 months of national emergency and censorship in the mid- (nineteen) seventies, without coming to televised blows. Now Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year old cartoonist has been sent to Mumbai jail for the seditious act of insulting the national symbol.”

“The Indian state seems to be more loyal and lawful than the queen. If you Google Steve Bell, The Guardian’s editorial cartoonist, you would think he is cooling his heels in Her Majesty’s prison.  Through some 30 years of merciless cartooning, he gleefully tore into most things British, symbolic and otherwise. Often reduced to bottom wear in Steve’s work, the Union Jack still flies high over Westminster Palace.

“Do four Asiatic lions standing back to back and tall need protection from a doodler, however activist or agitated?  There is bound to be inherent tension between any national symbol and the cartoon. One is meant to be revered and the other is nothing if not irreverent. The two should naturally clash as they do in mature democracies. Between spats they manage to live together – the symbol on its pedestal and the cartoonist at the drawing board.

“Back in 1976 in a Playboy interview when Jimmy Carter confessed to having looked on a lot of women with lust, a cartoonist put a denuded Statue of Liberty into the Presidential thought balloon.  Carter didn’t wage a war on the cartoonist; he worked his way to the Nobel Peace Prize”.

Sedition laws can be meaningless in a democracy, a governance based on the principle of free speech.

A democracy asks its citizens to speak their mind. Provided it does not cause riots or public harm.

But when citizens do that in India, they are warned and browbeaten into submission – even sent to jail.  India’s sedition law was written in 1860 to empower the British masters ruling India to punish “natives”.

Yes, when a writer or cartoonist says what pleases the ears of the powers that be, he is encouraged to write or draw more. However, when he comments in words or pictures something critical, heavens fall.

This time, they have crashed on Trivedi.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.


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