RIP Mr Cartoonist

“Originally published on 23-May-2012 in livemint in an online column ‘Lawyers Day Out’ by Anish Dayal now Senior Advocate Delhi High Court”

I have a friend. He is a cartoonist. He is unemployed. His tragedy is that he is born in free India. India does not employ cartoonists anymore. India has careened off the path of humour and wit to a dreary land of dead habit. My friend Mr. Cartoonist adores this country, his countrymen, its chaos, its hues and its layers. In fact he sees all these through many more myriad prisms than us since keen observation is a cartoonist’s forte. His deftness with artwork is nonpareil. But the fate and twist of history seems not to favour his trade anymore.

The year 2012 has been the annus horriblis for cartoons and cartoonists in India and all those who patronized them. Humor, satire, lampoonery, caricature, spoof, parody – the whole family has been besieged, battered and left to writhe and die. The perpetrators roam freely in the corridors of power, in ministerial houses and the hallowed portals of Parliament. These men and women have stopped laughing and joking in public. They speak either in sombre tones or voice opinions laced with vitriol and fury, not even with sarcasm and irony. They take great care not to expose their children or grandchildren to the creations of these cartoonists lest their young impressionable minds are left with an indelible inference. Let all public expression be cold and clinical, let all textbooks be screened for any hidden innuendos, let all comics be rid of any political incorrectness. Politicians should only be supplicated, adored and worshipped. It is acceptable to pour milk on their statues, prostrate oneself at their feet and throng their public appearances. But they cannot be poked fun of for their acts and omissions, for their quirks and vulnerabilities. They are serious people with serious visages with very serious work to do. It’s the cartoonists which are coming in the way of the nation’s inexorable progress. Their unmitigated frenzy to make people laugh at the politician’s expense is causing huge national loss. Otherwise, why would a day of Parliament be wasted trying to debate (or not debate) the possible insinuations of a 1950s political cartoon by a celebrated Indian cartoonist appearing in a school textbook for the last 6 years. Clearly it must be the cartoonist’s clear and unequivocal intention (in 1949) of disparaging a certain section of society and their symbolic leader and cause social instability – so what if it took 70 years for the political leaders to realize that it causes them great distress!

And once they did our Parliamentarians realized that there could be other cartoons lurking in the interstices of school textbooks which could hurt the sentiments (real, imaginary or created) of some section, class, community, caste, group, person, religion or sect. Therefore they have instituted a Special Committee to spend precious national time to go through all the cartoons and assess their potential implications. Cartoonists must be a wicked lot. They want to have people revel, chuckle and chortle when really they should be listening grimly to daily political developments and solemnly absorbing pearls of wisdom that ooze from our leaders. They need to be flogged and jailed while their patrons and admirers deserve to be attacked and assaulted for their support. So, R.I.P Mr. Cartoonist.

All this ire is of course with reference to the recent events in Kolkata and more recently in Parliament relating to political cartoons. Yogendra Yadav, a celebrated political scientist and one of the advisors for the textbooks (which contained the controversial Ambedkar cartoons) resigned immediately after this brouhaha and reacted “In that case there should be a law to ban cartoons”. He further wrote in one of the national dailies that “Having gone over this a few dozen times it became clear to me that this debate was no longer about Ambedkar or the cartoon. The real danger is not what you see and identify clearly. The danger lies lurking just beyond your vision.” Soli Sorabjee, a noted jurist and legal luminary wrote in one of his columns last week that “…further deletions of cartoons is a crude onslaught on the freedom of expression by yielding to the sentiments of hypersensitive people who perceive hurt and insult where none exists nor is intended”. So whether it is the danger which lurks or the sentiments which hurt, cartoons are clearly anathema today. The political class is becoming insecure – identities and images are being forged together increasingly on the basis of reactive politics. Hypersensitivity is the hallmark of a vulnerable and nervous personality – especially when it is not about food, clothing, shelter or essentials of life but only about perceptions, perspectives and peripherals. Manufactured sensitivity however is the creation of an opportunist mind which plays and preys on these vulnerabilities.

In 1987, the US Supreme Court was adjudicating the case where the publisher of a pornographic magazine called Hustler was being sued for libel and infliction of emotional distress by a well known minister and political commentator, Jerry Falwell, for publishing an advertisement/parody depicting the plaintiff, among other things, as having engaged in sexual intercourse with his mother in the outhouse. In Hustler Magazine v. Jerry Falwell, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in order to protect the free flow of ideas and encourage public debate, the First (Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression) and Fourteenth Amendments (Citizenship Rights) restricted public figures from recovering damages when a caricature of them was published without additionally showing that  there was “actual malice,” i.e. with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true. The Court noted that the political cartoon and satire were ancient arts and went on to state: “The fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection….For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.……The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events – an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal…..The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or even-handed, but slashing and one-sided.” The US Supreme Court went on to observe that history and political discourse would have been considerably poorer without political lampooning.

Indian Courts have equally been vigilant in protecting the right to free speech and expression. However this is not about the existence and the exercise of rights. It is about the “social contract” that public figures have made with the larger public for being subject to greater levels of scrutiny than the average man and therefore their sensitivity needs to be judged on a different marker, a different scale. It is the duty of the State to protect those who wish to breach this contract by suppressing opinion, caricature, satire and parody. It is the duty of the State not to stand and apologize on the floor of Parliament for cartoons (which were part of textbooks after scrutiny by various expert committees) just to protect thinly balanced political equations. It is the duty of the State not to wither and wilt each time someone snorts or winces. Surely this country has a more pressing agenda than burning our cartoons and burying our cartoonists.

Anish Dayal is an advocate at the Supreme Court. An alumnus of Cambridge University, he works closely on policy and legislation, media, entertainment and sports law.

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