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No laughing matter

No laughing matter

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 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 Nehru anymore. Instead, we now have a political class that is so incensed with the concept of  cartoons that it has ensured the removal of all caricatures from political science textbooks. What started off as anger at a cartoon depicting BR Ambedkar atop a snail while drafting the Constitution has now become a well-orchestrated campaign to end the supposed denigration of  the neta in the eyes of young, 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 — reduced 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 Palshikar and Yadav have done more to enrich the modern generation with 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 the honourable human resource and development 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, 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 cartoons must lie in the manner in which the last 12 months have seen our netas under constant siege from civil society. The Anna Hazare 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-out statements made at public fora were seen to stoke a ‘sab neta chor hai’ mindset among the aam aadmi. The extent to which this populist refrain appeared to echo in the age of 24×7 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 it 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 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.

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Which 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, maybe Broacha does need a lawyer, lest some neta takes offence at his unique brand of humour!

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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