Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy has joined the teeming ranks of politicians who seek curbs against unfavourable portrayal in the media. It is a large community agnostic to allegiance and inclination, and includes members from all walks of politics. In Kumaraswamy’s own state, two BJP candidates, Tejasvi Surya and Pratap Simha, had secured gag orders from Bengaluru courts prior to the general election. But Kumaraswamy has trumped them by threatening to legislate against media. Ironically, he owns a TV channel himself and was speaking at the launch of two books by a journalist. He appeared to be particularly incensed about the satirical portrayal of his family on TV, against the backdrop of continuing speculation about the future of the JD(S)-Congress coalition ruling the state. “In the name of humour, they are defaming politicians,” he said. “Who has given you the authority to portray politicians in bad light?” Cartoonists, whose business it is to lampoon politicians every 24 hours, may well marvel at this absurdly rhetorical question, for the authority is conferred by Article 19(a) and (g) of the Constitution, which confer the right to free speech and the right to practise any profession.
The generation of politicians who framed those rights took them seriously. Jawaharlal Nehru had no objection to Shankar’s merciless lampooning, even when the father of Indian cartooning portrayed him naked. But Indira Gandhi was offended by press freedoms, abolished the Press Council and subjected the press to day-by-day censorship. In recent years, the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition in 2012 for publishing cartoons on his website displaying the Ashok Stambh, with the lions replaced by wolves. The intent was political rather than seditious, but the matter dragged on for months. In the east, Mamata Banerjee has been chronically touchy about satirical depictions of herself, both in the press and on social media, and the ruling party has unfailingly invoked the law, most recently just 10 days ago.
The archaic colonial laws of sedition and criminal defamation make such repression possible. These should be struck off the statute books or brought up to speed with modern, rights-based political thought. Unfortunately, Kumaraswamy has threatened to go the other way, and introduce fresh legislation to curb the alleged menace of political satire. Here’s hoping that his outburst can be put down to a temporary burst of pique, in a tense week when the results of the general elections are due.