Has India begun hating cartoons?

Sudhir Tailang cartoon India has a tradition of political cartoons

"There is a new intolerance in India," cartoonist Sudhir Tailang tells me on a phone line from his hotel room in Berlin, where he is holding an exhibition of his work.

"It's the intolerance of politicians, of the system, and it's a recent phenomenon."

We are talking about the arrest of anti-corruption cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition in the city of Mumbai over the weekend. The police acted on a complaint lodged by a lawyer saying that his cartoons mocked the country and its constitution.

Mr Tailang should know. He's one of India's top cartoonists, and his work has featured in leading publications for the last 30 years.

He says he is surprised by the new intolerance. Time was, he says, when India's starchy politicians had a robust sense of humour and even asked him for originals of cartoons ruthlessly lampooning them.

His favourite story involves Jaswant Singh, a taciturn former foreign minister under the last government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

When Mr Singh returned to Delhi from the Afghan city of Kandahar along with the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane who had been exchanged for militants, Mr Tailang drew a cartoon of Mr Singh in "Taliban-like attire" carrying a rocket launcher on his shoulder and entering the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's room.

"The next day, Mr Singh called me up and asked for the original cartoon," Mr Tailang says. "He said he wanted to frame it and put it up in his study."

'Very cute'

Mr Tailang asked him why he liked the savagely acerbic cartoon.

"I like it," Mr Singh said, "because I am looking very cute in Taliban clothes."

Sudhir Tailang cartoon Mr Tailang says there is a growing intolerance in India

My other favourite Sudhir Tailang story is the one he tells about Murli Manohar Joshi, a pugnacious BJP politician and a former senior minister.

"One day, his office called me up saying Mr Joshi was very angry with me. When I asked Mr Joshi why, he said. 'Why are you ignoring me? You haven't drawn me for the last six months. Have I become so irrelevant in politics?'"

So, have Indians become more intolerant?

On the face of it, yes. In recent months, the chief minister of West Bengal state sent a professor to prison for emailing cartoons critical of her, there was a massive row over old cartoons showing Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and the government has been talking about curbs on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Mr Trivedi's "offending" cartoons are apparently ones which, in the words of the complainant RP Pandey, "ridicule the Indian parliament, the national emblem and the national flag", and not ones that make fun of politicians.

One of them is Mr Trivedi's take on the national emblem, where three wolves replace the lions, and the inscription reads Bhrashtamev Jayate (Long live corruption).

All this apparently violates Indian laws which prohibit the use of the national emblem for any trade, business, profession, patent, trademark or design unless cleared by the federal government. The punishment could stretch to two years in prison or a 5,000-rupee ($90; £56) fine.

Cartoonists like Mr Tailing believe that such laws are an anachronism in a modern democracy, and nobody should be sent to prison for lampooning the national emblem or national flag.

They also warn of a silent return to the days of the state of emergency of the mid-1970s when civil liberties were suspended in India and news and cartoons regularly censored.

"There seems to be an undeclared emergency in India now, a masquerade of democracy," Mr Tailang says.

Many say you can criticise a cartoon for its content, but to ban one and send the cartoonist to prison does not befit a country that tirelessly promotes itself as the world's biggest democracy.

"It's time to grow up," says Mr Tailang. "We are a 65-year-old democracy, but we are behaving like children."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    We always can discuss issues as long as our core objective (honestly; not just for public consumption) is same. We all love the word- "change". But change for what & for what price? If that change means my (unworthy) children or relatives or, worst, myself, get the pink slip, miss the opportunity to enjoy/make huge wealth- then how many will sincerely prefer to facilitate/discuss that "change"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Previously politicians used to take help of criminals & businessmen. But since massive criminalization of politics (started mainly by politicians like Indira Gandhi) that ensured destruction of national institutions; criminals & businessmen themselves became "politician". Public policy became self-gratifying rituals. The consequence is almost total distrust for the "system" & institutions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    @ Ram (35, 36). The major damage done to that trust that U are talking about done no other person but the politicians & bureaucrats than naxals & extremists. Those are just effect, not cause. Now even the most honest politicians are unworthy to be trusted. The default (for ALL politician & bureaucrat) are DISHONEST- unless proved otherwise. And THEY are responsible for that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    It is very tragic that the free press of India is being gagged by the history's most corrupt government of India and its agencies. Don't they learn anything from history and from what is going on around in the world? Very sad, indeed.

    The govt. machinery is behaving exactly like the Raj. The transfer of power, perhaps, means exactly that! Independence is a farcical concept.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    38 Essar - You call Politicians thieves and robbers masquerading as politicians.
    Just look all around India- Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, Shri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and yes China too, none of them have delivered peace, development, stability and dignity the Indian citizens have enjoyed and continue to enjoy.
    And yes made them better world citizens as well.


Comments 5 of 44



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