Insecure netas and the cartoon ban chorus
The grand old man of Indian cartooning, RK Laxman, has a delightful anecdote that embodies the charm of political cartooning. Soon after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Laxman lampooned then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his much-maligned defence minister Krishna Menon. That evening, Laxman got a call from the Prime Minister's Office. Picking up the phone, he was petrified of being at the receiving end of Nehru's ire. He need not have worried. A suave, gentle voice said: "Mr Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?"
They don't make them like Jawaharlal any more. Instead, we now have a political class that is so incensed with the concept of cartoons that they have ensured the removal of all caricatures from political science textbooks. What started off as anger at a cartoon depicting Ambedkar atop a snail while drafting the Constitution has now become a well-orchestrated campaign to end the supposed denigration of the netas in the eyes of the young and impressionable minds.
At one level, the furore over Ambedkar is not unexpected. Over the last couple of decades, Dalit politicians have successfully ensured that Babasaheb is not to be seen as a national icon who helped give this country a first class Constitution, but as a Prophet of the Dalits, someone against whom the slightest criticism will not be tolerated. Ambedkar himself had once famously said, "In Politics, hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship." Ambedkar's followers, anxious to lay claim to his political legacy, have done precisely what the barrister-politician did not want: reduce him to an idol to be venerated like yet another temple god.
That some Dalit activists in Maharashtra even went to the extent of ransacking the office of Dr Suhas Palshikar, who helped oversee the writing of the textbooks along with Professor Yogendra Yadav, only reveals the extent to which a once vibrant movement for social and political empowerment has descended into lumpen thuggery. Ironically, both Dr Palshikar and Prof Yadav have done more to enrich Dalit-Bahujan Samaj historiography than what dozens of statues and parks can ever hope to achieve.
Dalit politicians may at least give the excuse that they have a political constituency which can be wooed by making emotive appeals to Ambedkarite self-respect. But what of the numerous MPs cutting across party lines who demanded in Parliament that all cartoons be excised from textbooks? What also of honourable Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal whose liberal spirit has failed him, first when he called for the censoring of social media, and now, more worryingly, when he meekly apologises for the cartoons instead of defending the creative manner in which political science is sought to be taught in schools? Clearly, when faced with a concerted attack in Parliament, Mr Sibal chose self-preservation over principle.
Ironically, the 'offending' books have been in circulation for more than five years. During this period, there has been no protest from any of the worthy MPs who today claim to be defamed by the cartoons. One plausible explanation for the sudden discovery of the 'evils' of the cartoons must lie in the manner in which the last 12 months have seen our netas under constant siege from the civil society. The Anna movement, for example, may have been directed against corruption but a number of MPs saw it as being aimed at ridiculing and discrediting the entire political class. A few ill-thought statements made at public forums were seen to stoke a 'sab neta chor hai' mindset among the aam admi. The extent to which this populist refrain appeared to echo in the age of 24x7 news media appears to have both angered and unnerved the political leadership which is now looking for a chance to get even.
The Breach of Privilege notices against Team Anna activists, the support for imposing strict guidelines and regulations to monitor media behaviour and, now, the ban on cartoons must be seen as part of this larger attempt by the political leadership to send out a firm message that they will no longer tolerate public criticism of any kind. A political cartoon is particularly vulnerable in an environment of highly insecure, thin-skinned netas. A noisy studio discussion can get quickly lost in the din; political satire, especially through a caricature, by contrast, can touch a raw nerve with its pungent humour and perpetual sense of scepticism.
The intolerance which is brewing in Parliament is even more heightened in the state assemblies. There are several authoritarian chief ministers who have mastered the art of crushing all forms of dissent. The arrest of a Jadavpur university professor for posting a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee on the Internet may have grabbed the headlines, but across the country there are far more insidious ways in which a ruling party is able to muzzle free speech and expression. Withdrawal of government advertising for example is the simplest way in which the establishment is able to convey its displeasure. In a media environment driven by profitability compulsions, the astute politician has learnt that cutting the chain of patronage is perhaps the best way of getting a local channel or publication to fall in line.
This is what also perhaps explains why the rich tradition of political cartooning appears to be slowly dying out. After all, the neta's ability to laugh at oneself is the ultimate oxygen for a cartoonist. Take that away and the cartoonist is sadly reduced to a cut-out artist.
Post-script: A few weeks ago, I had tweeted in half-jest that Cyrus Broacha, the host of the popular weekend comedy show 'The Week That Wasn't' should maybe file an anticipatory bail application. In the present atmosphere, may be Cyrus does need a lawyer lest some neta takes offence to his unique brand of humour!
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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