City City Bang Bang, Columns

Cartoon Row: Manufacturing Silence

It is a bad time to be a cartoon in India. First we had Mamata Banerjee arresting a professor accused of circulating a cartoon (actually a sinister plot to murder her as so clearly established by the menacing presence of the word ‘vanish’ used in the caricature). Then the entire Parliament went into a paroxysm of outrage over an ancient cartoon showing Ambedkar being whipped by Nehru, resulting in the withdrawal of one textbook and a wholesale ban proposed on the use of any cartoon showing politicians.

The intolerance does not extend to cartoons alone — take Mamata Banerjee’s extraordinary performance at a recent press conference, where she labelled students as Maoists and stormed out in incoherent anger, simply because she was asked an inconvenient question. And this comes on the back of many such incidents, including the Rushdie visit ban, the bullying of protesters in Kudankulam and the visa imbroglio involving writer and academic Peter Heehs, among others.

Contrary to appearances, not all these actions can be classified as manifestations of intolerance. While Mamata Banerjee’s reactions are quite clearly the product of a failure to face dissent, the same is not true of the Ambedkar cartoon episode. The offense allegedly caused to the entire Parliament, save a single MP is almost entirely bogus. If in Mamata Banerjee’s case, the outrage felt by her was very real if completely illegitimate, in this case in reality no offense was actually experienced. The politicians were enacting their outrage; it was part of an unwritten script that they felt compelled to follow. The reaction we saw was reflexive in nature; it would be sacrilegious for politicians to not be offended, hence they were.

In many ways, this particular reaction is rooted not in intolerance but in a form of hypochondria. The imagined ailment is one of damage to one’s electoral prospects, which must be avoided at all costs. Banning the cartoon was like taking a redundant insurance policy, a pre-emptive act of pillpopping to avoid the risk of an imagined infection. Why take a chance with a deified dalit icon, and invite accusations of being dalit-unfriendly when all one needs to do is to ban a cartoon? What is being protected is a form of ritual political propriety in the name of defending one’s perceived electoral prospects while what is being sacrificed, is after all, only a principle. In a politics free of ideology, principles become imbued with weightlessness and can be freely traded for a more substantive advantage. In some ways, this is a much more insidious and cynical form of intolerance for it is presumptive in nature; the action taken is independent of the specific nature of the alleged offence, just the thought that offence might have been caused is enough to excise it from our lives. Any attempt to explain the context is brushed away for the specifics of the content is not the cause of the outrage in the first place.

If the reaction to Ambedkar’s cartoon came more out of ritual anxiety rather than intolerance, the same cannot be said for the subsequent decision to widen the net to include all cartoon representations of politicians. This is rooted squarely in the Mamata Banerjee school of intolerance, where any act of making light of our great leaders is resented. The anger felt here is real, not calculated and the actions reveal a lot about the nature of power that is at work today.

There is a reason why the cartoon as a form produces such strong reactions. A cartoon miniaturizes the powerful into a distillate of their defining idiosyncrasies. It is quite literally a representation that belittles, in that it simultaneously reduces the stature of the person being drawn while magnifying all that is unflattering about them. The nature of the form allows it the freedom of recruiting reality without being held accountable to it, enabling it to navigate the spaces between things. A cartoon dodges past defences and elaborate constructions, muddles up critique with an air of endearing affection and helps convert myth into farce. The cartoon gives us the childlike ability to see things as they are, denuded of their cultural finery. For the individual being caricatured, the cartoon represents a deepseated loss of power, as someone else can skilfully puncture pretentions and hollow out carefully cultivated postures by a few seemingly innocuous strokes of the pencil. It robs the powerful of the right to be feared and hated; all that they can aspire to be is to be ridiculous. The critique that the cartoon offers is of a fundamental nature — the very act of being able to caricature someone defines the limit to the power of any individual. The content of a cartoon is the icing on the cake; it is instructive that in both the examples being examined, the offense has been caused not so much by the content of the cartoon, as much as by the very idea of a caricature.

What the political establishment is reacting to is the ability of the public to critique not their actions, but the legitimacy of their position itself. What they are seeking is immunity from their own actions; they want to legislate respect without taking any responsibility to earn it through their actions. Leaders cannot be questioned because they are leaders; any attempt to do so is ‘malpropaganda’. What is most significant in the kind of intolerance we are seeing today is that it is increasingly becoming detached from content — in most of the controversies that are being spoken of, the reaction is not to the content of the critique, but to the fact that there is a critique. Which means by silencing dissent, no particular purpose is being aimed for apart from the act of manufacturing silence.

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