As a far-from-restrained poll campaign is coming to a close, the cartoon has made news — again for the wrong reason. Priyanka Sharma, a BJP youth activist from Bengal, was arrested for sharing a morphed image of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on social media. The screen image was seen by the state as offensive enough for detention. The Supreme Court granted bail to Priyanka and asked her to apologise.
The relief is partial; the cartoonish image remains an offence. Morphing such as this, done with graphic softwares like Adobe Photoshop, is part of the current practice of cartooning the world over today. It is no more offensive than the hand-done caricaturing by the conventional practitioner. If anything, the software extends the scope as well as the spirit of cartooning to amateurs and citizen cartoonists with sufficient wit but insufficient drawing skills. This is precisely the kind of irreverence and fearlessness that mature democracies seek to promote in citizens, enough to make them whistleblowers at a pinch.
This poll campaign began on a much happier note for the cartoonist. Early on, there was even a flattering mention of the wicked pencil. On March 27, briefing Chennai journalists on the Congress flagship NYAY, an unusual Chidambaram exceeded the welfarist brief to mention the big picture. Alluding to Tagore’s “heaven of freedom”, he asked the media gathering if they didn’t want their days of freedom back, when TV shows could be anchored without stress and cartoons could be drawn without fear. He wound up on the broad note that this election had much to do with democracy itself.
Through the campaign itself, such high-minded articulation was hardly heard from any quarter. Least of all in Tamil Nadu, whose politicians had good reasons to remember a cartoon and its content. In November 2017, not very long ago, a freelance cartoonist Bala G had posted on Facebook his reaction to the self-immolation of farmer Essakimuthu and his debt-trapped family in front of the Tirunelveli district collector’s office. The cartoon showed the district police chief, the collector and the chief minister in the buff trying to cover themselves with currency notes even as a man in front was burning to death. The 36-yea-old cartoonist was arrested on a Sunday in Chennai for obscene representation of the CM and officers under section 501 of the IPC and section 67 of the IT Act.
Whether nudity could be equated with obscenity was raised by jurists then. K Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, even cited in an article the iconic Abu Abraham cartoon carried in this newspaper showing President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in a bathtub signing away ordinances. The cartoon didn’t pull punches and was quite explicit by Abu’s standards — usually more subversive and subtle rather than direct. Mostly Indian cartoonists leave the President alone. An early exceptional appearance was made by V V Giri in a Rajinder Puri cartoon as a rubber stamp in the Indira era. But that was no more than the public perception then.
The Abu cartoon was more invasive. It forayed into the Rashtrapati Bhavan bathroom, an extremely private space, to make a point on the sheer casual and arbitrary manner in which an Ordinance Raj was emerging. If this cartoon could appear on December 10, 1975, at the peak of Emergency, duly passed by sarkari censors, declared censorship might be a better working environment for the satirist and the cartoonist. At least the censor would be prosecuted as well.
Interestingly, the Bala cartoon was taken note of in 2018 by Justice G R Swaminathan, a judge of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court. While examining offence caused by another cartoonist in another case, the judge referred to how DMK chief and the state’s opposition leader M K Stalin condemned the arrest of Bala and asked the offended parties to seek inspiration from their leader. Here, three DMK MLAs were angered by a cartoon that appeared in the Tamil daily, Dinamalar.
Drawn by Karna, the 2013 cartoon showed DMK supremo M Karunanidhi as a cap seller and his partymen as monkeys who had grabbed the caps. The familiar children’s story setting meant to show how the aberrant cadres would be outsmarted by their cherished leader was actually complimentary to the leader, the judge points out. But the MLAs, on their part, were hurt enough and had the resources to drag the cartoonist first to the Theni Judicial Magistrate’s Court and then to the appellate court. The five-year long process would have been punishment enough to an everyday practitioner whose job it is to raise a laugh.
In the bargain, the profession got an unequivocal legal backing. The short and cryptic judgment gives the cartoonist no licence to defame. However, it goes into the global history of the art to reaffirm that it is nothing if not an “intrinsic weapon of ridicule”. “To apply the yardsticks of defamation in the case of cartoons, the threshold must be very high”. “Law,” said the judge, “envisages a reasonable person and not a touchy and hyper-sensitive individual.”
The morphed image of the Bengal chief minister could as well have been drawn by a regular practitioner and much of what Justice G R Swaminathan said would apply. Particularly amidst the world’s largest electoral exercise. If more people think like cartoonists and act, thanks to easy software, that should add value to this exercise.
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