Spotlight

The Last Laugh

What is it about political cartoonists that irks the ruling regime enough to slap legal cases and go after them? Harini Calamur explores why cartoonist Manjul puts governments on edge.

Political Cartoons can be biting opinion pieces – with each panel speaking a thousand words. As a tool of commentary, they are far more devastating than a zillion op-eds outraging about an issue. The political cartoonist, through that single frame, manages to do two things a) critique the government, and b) laugh at it. And this is what makes political cartoonists far more dangerous than opinion writers, for any government that is thin-skinned about criticism.

As a political cartoonist, Manjul is amongst the best editorial voices in the country. He is definitely one of the most consistent and prolific, with little personal bias. He pokes fun at ineptitude, hypocrisy, corruption and the casual compromise of morality. I have seen him do this both with the UPA governments in the past, and the BJP government today.

His editorial cartoons on Manmohan Singh, or on Sonia and Rahul were particularly biting. His cartoons on Sheila Dixit and the Commonwealth Games, or those around the ‘Nirbhaya’ gang-rape incident were especially telling. In fact, Manjul’s work around the India Against Corruption movement and Arvind Kejriwal need to be part of the retelling of the history of that era.

Like many journalists who stood up to this government, Manjul too ended up going independent. It is too difficult to stay within a news ecosystem and not compromise. It was easier being a commentator from the outside.  And this has made him even more prolific. His series of cartoons spotlighting government mismanagement, demonetization, COVID, and continuous image management has rankled those who seem to want to use their power to stifle those who express themselves.

Last week Manjul shared a notice, sent to him by Twitter, which had received a notice from the government alleging that his Twitter account was breaking existing laws.  It is not surprising that someone in the corridors of power is offended and wants to stop political cartoonists from poking fun at the government, the ruling party and politicians. Because when you laugh at something or someone, you are in effect diminishing their power on you. While news brands, and prominent newswallahs have been bending over backwards to praise the government and dumb down criticism, Manjul’s cartoons have been biting in their contempt of those in power.

(see more of Manjul’s work on his Instagram page or follow his Twitter handle @MANJULtoons)

Political cartoonists keep the system honest. They chip away at the hubris of those in power by laughing at them. At the height of Emergency RK Laxman kept chipping away at the Indira Gandhi regime by laughing at it – and the Times of India carried those cartoons. It is unlikely that in a world where are lot more avenues are available to creators and commentators, the attempt to go after cartoonists is going to be effective. If anything, more of them are going to be more biting.

Harini Calamur is a writer and commentator working at the intersection of media, communications, technology and academia. She tweets at @calamur

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