Dear government, please take a joke

For a powerful government to perceive a cartoon as a threat is either a sign of fear or intolerance of criticism.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

In 1987, when The Indian Express was in direct confrontation with Rajiv Gandhi’s government over the Bofors scandal, I drew a controversial cartoon. It was part of an acidic anti-government visual commentary that lasted for nearly three years. My cartoon showed a small, panic-stricken Gandhi in a massive chair, yelling, “Mummy!” Not once did the government initiate any punitive action. Last week, the Modi government asked Twitter to block cartoonist Manjul’s work which is critical of the administration’s poor Covid-19 protocol. The handle seems to be blocked. During the stormy Watergate days, the famous American cartoonist Bill Mauldin joked, “Even the bad cartoonists were drawing good cartoons.” Manjul’s are pretty good.

For a powerful government to perceive a cartoon as a threat is either a sign of fear or intolerance of criticism. The maxim goes that a cartoon is worth a thousand editorials. Being afraid of an editorial? Seriously? By its very definition, cartooning is a subversive art. Cartoons provoke conversations and galvanise public opinion. Interrogation is a pillar of democracy, of both the government and the Opposition. Challenging the official narrative through satire is a way of seeking accountability. It is expected of journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals and academics to question Power.

It is widely known that Indira Gandhi jailed her critics. The fact that she did does not mean that the BJP should. Narendra Modi with his powerful Parliamentary majority can afford to take a cartoon in his stride. The government arrested cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in 2012 and slapped sedition charges on him for lampooning it. The Sedition Law is a leftover from India’s British era. It is ironic that a British Viceroy, the absolute ruler of India during colonial times, should invite cartoonist Shankar for tea and request him for the original of an offensive cartoon to hang on his wall. 

The censorship of Manjul’s cartoon points to a deeper faultline in the BJP. It is a rookie in the power game. Its experience in national governance, unfettered by regional allies, is limited to only seven years. It takes decades, sometimes centuries, for a democracy to develop as a torchbearer of civilisation. It takes a long time to perfect governance, understand economics and trust experts. Democracy is adoration combined with expectation, tempered with responsibility. Power is intoxicating. However, well-known effects of intoxication are faltering steps or downright Humpty Dumpty. Taking offence and going on the offensive is the prerogative of the powerful. But India has become super prickly. From movies to serials to books to poems, hurting national sentiments is a popular trope of needless victimhood.

The cartoon is a dying art. It needs newsprint to survive. Television has turned commentary into farce. Dear government, take a deep breath and relax. Without satire we become pompous. Pomposity is fed by sycophants who block the light of truth. Sidekicks more loyal than the king file FIRs against a meme or a standup comedian. Do not be frightened of humour. Enjoy it. What is life without a good laugh even if the joke is on you? The Emperor’s New Clothes is a morality story for sure, but blaming the tailor is not going to absolve the king of delusions of omnipotence. 

Ravi Shankar

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The New Indian Express