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Defending the cartoonist’s right to ridicule

E P Unny writes: How can an entire body of work cause offence, when cartooning is very much the art of the fleeting moment that leaves no scope for premeditation?

Written by E P Unny |
Updated: June 18, 2021 5:20:00 pm
Cartooning is very much the art of the fleeting moment that leaves no scope for premeditation.(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Thanks to Twitter, cartooning gets a new normal. Instead of a single cartoon or two, a cartoonist’s repertoire is faulted. Possibly by a software application that is tasked to rate cartoons on the basis of reader reactions. This could well be a routine exercise but the result is way too judgmental. Enough to wreck a contextual art.

The whole content of cartoonist Manjul’s Twitter account has been dubbed as unlawful and unseen “authorities” have urged the microblogging site to act. Manjul has been tweeting his editorial cartoons regularly since May 2009. He is as active an online presence as any news cartoonist these days.

The work of a cartoonist on Twitter would typically run into hundreds of thousands of cartoons. How can the whole lot collectively cause offence, hurt sentiments, or threaten the state? So far, citizens, organisations and governments have singled out a cartoon for law-breaking and initiated remedial action. The case against the cited cartoon would be argued with detailed analysis of its specific content after which the court would decide. Even when the Congress government in 2012 chose to delete cartoons en bloc from textbooks, it appointed the Thorat committee which examined individual cartoons for offence. This was embarrassing enough because our massive community of young learners was expected to use the cartoon as a useful tool in classroom debates as their peers do in advanced societies.

Here is a stranger case of prima facie violation being alleged on a substantial body of artwork from a single cartoonist. How would the courts handle this? Can cartoons offend sequentially? Or, collectively? News properties feature a cartoonist’s work regularly. Habit is central to cartoon reading. To facilitate this, the cartoon is slotted for maximum everyday attention. That is just about the only constant in the day’s cartoon, apart from the protagonist if it has one. Everything else is a variable, particularly so in a news cartoon, the kind most in India, including Manjul, draw.

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The cartoonist has no control over the day’s news. One day the work would be on the economy, the next on foreign policy and the day after on the bully next door. So there is no question of the creator targeting the same leader and party or developing a theme over the days. This has been so ever since the cartoon became a newspaper art back in the 18th century. Even comics with recurring characters are often episodic, not serials. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury is unusual.

True, over weeks and months, the news cartoon tends to target the ruling party more than the Opposition. This is because the government makes more news and the inherently adversarial work practice is meant to confront power. The confrontation can get quite unsparing as it did during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministerial stint. In the columns of this paper, cartoonist Ravi Shankar ran a fine stretch of advocacy cartooning that went with well-argued editorial positioning. Even here the cartoons were firmly pegged on the news of the day, reported and edited rigorously.

The only time the rulers became ultra-powerful in independent India, during the Emergency, the censor stamped out cartoons, not cartoonists. In the early days of censorship in July 1975, at least seven pocket cartoons of Abu Abraham were disallowed. Not one of them, as is their wont, featured any known leader and none was noticeably provocative. By year-end, on December 10, Abu’s devastating display cartoon that went on to become iconic, appeared in this newspaper — President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing away ordinances from the bathtub. This was by no means evasive and, in fact, was unusual in dragging the President into the rectangle of ridicule. One can only assume that the authorities either relaxed considerably in five months or were plain inconsistent. Either way, they didn’t build up a case against the cartoonist as a habitual offender.

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Forty-six years later, you can still blame the odd cartoon, but it is harder to find patterns of lawlessness across cartoons. With the advent of satellite TV, news breaks any time of the day or night. To catch up, a round-the-clock interactive platform, like Twitter, is just what an alert cartoonist needs. Equipped with a web-friendly pad and stylus, the cartoonist can draw even on the commute. His work goes online within hours of the newsbreak, ready for readers to respond. In this much hastened everyday practice, there is no leisure to plan and plot a trajectory of attack. Even in the days of print-only journalism, when a whole day stretched between successive cartoons, cartoonists weren’t exactly a relaxed lot. Now when cartoons get updated across the day on the web, they are even less. Cartooning is very much the art of the fleeting moment that leaves no scope for premeditation.

These are intricacies best left to the practitioner. Mature democracies do so and take the day’s cartoon in their stride. Readers, including the targeted newsmakers, either like it or leave it. When the odd one hurts, the best practice is to debate, protest and do another cartoon to counter the first. Cartoon watchers have their favourites. Some might even have pet hates. But branding the cartoonist is pointless. It could be thoroughly arbitrary because there is no way it can be done mindfully.

Those who task unseen “authorities” to rate a cartoonist could turn to the judiciary for a perspective on cartoons. In a landmark judgment of the Madras High Court in 2018, Justice G R Swaminathan held that “the cartoonist has the right to ridicule”. Not just mock. In a democracy, public life must take a fair amount of irreverence which is key to cartooning, said the judge. The law is meant for “reasonable persons” and not “touchy and hyper sensitive individuals”. Strong words there. Best to follow when the nation is preparing for the 75th Independence Day next year. When the right notes are struck from a new Parliament house, citizens shouldn’t laugh out loud, with no help from cartoons.

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This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2021 under the title ‘The right to ridicule’. Write to the author at ep.unny@expressindia.com.

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First published on: 18-06-2021 at 03:00:14 am
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