India Political Cartoons
I spent yesterday in Delhi speaking to packed rooms of intense students at Amity University and at the International School of Media and Entertainment in Noida. Speaking to the college audiences here is great fun.
In the evening I met with about twenty Indian cartoonists at the American Center in Delhi; the handsome group in the photo below:
What was remarkable about the meeting is that all of the Indian cartoonists wanted to make the point to me that their careers are in peril. Cartoonists in India feel they are being squeezed out by timid editors who are afraid of the reactions of government officials and powerful patrons who fear negative reactions to strong opinions in editorial cartoons. The cartoonists told me about job losses and repeated stories about how the only work is for illustrations, at very low fees. They paint a grim picture.
They were all aware of a recent issue here where historical cartoons are being edited out of text books. They knew about Aseem Trivedi and other cartoonists who are facing prosecution, but they describe the problem more as self-censorship, and a fear of the adverse attention that cartoons draw. A number of them described the situation as the “death” of their profession.
Frankly, I was surprised by the tone, looking at the newspapers here it seems that there is a lively debate, and I see Prime Minister Singh savaged in cartoons every day. The newspapers are filled with stories of the current government coal scandal with wagging fingers pointed this way and that to blame for every social and economic problem.
That said, I had a great time with the cartoonists, I got to see much of their work, I was flattered that they all knew my work, and I was impressed at their professionalism and commitment to our art form. There is a lot of talent and promise in India for cartoonists, even though the mood is glum.
Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, this year’s Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award winner (along with Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat) plans on turning himself over to the police in Mumbai in the next couple of days over controversial cartoons he posted on his web site that parody India’s national symbols.
Trivedi was charged in January with treason and insulting India’s national symbols, and if found guilty, he could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 5,000 rupees (about $100).
In the cartoon below, Trivedi took India’s national emblem of the Four Sarnath Lions of King Asoka that sit above the motto “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone shall triumph) and re-drew them as bloodthirsty wolves on the re-worded motto “Bhrashtamev Jayate” (long live corruption):
In another offending cartoon, Trivedi drew the Indian parliament building as a toilet:
There is a long tradition of editorial cartoonists using symbols of states to express opinions about governments. Drawing a legislature or parliament building as a toilet is common. I recently drew our Capitol building in Washington as a toilet:
The offending cartoon below by Trivedi shows the “Mother of India” being held down by politicians and bureaucrats, about to be raped by corruption:
The Indian Constitution allows for “the right to freedom of speech and expression.” Trivedi’s critics argue that while he is allowed to mock and poke fun at politicans, it is a crime to mock the national emblem, the parliament and the Indian flag.
“I am democratic. I am patriotic. I have a twenty-four year life without any charges of corruption. I am only making cartoons. … I am talking about nationalism. I love my country. I am reacting [to the corruption] in my own way. Someone is protesting. Somebody is a doing hunger strike in India. [As for me,] I am a cartoonist.”
There is a lot of sensitivity in India about cartoons that offend religious sensitivities, but cartoons that bash the state must be fair game. I would argue that editorial cartoonists must disrespect governments and symbols of governments as a professional obligation.