During the Non-Cooperation Movement, editorials in Indian newspapers were censored but cartoons were never touched. In fact, one of the Viceroys of British India once sent an envoy to Shankar. He saluted Shankar and said: “Our Viceroy loved your cartoon on him today. He has requested for its original copy.'

A few years ago, the Delhi Chief Minister, Ms. Sheila Dikshit went to attend the inauguration of an exhibition held by a well-known cartoonist from Kerala, Sudheer Nath. Smilingly passing by each cartoon, she occasionally burst into laughter on seeing a few of them. While she was leaving, Sudheer presented her a cartoon that had transformed her into a flying bird. As she looked at it, I asked her, “How do you feel when cartoonists make fun of you in their creations?” She said, “I smile at them, and I enjoy them. They are also often an insight into how you are taken by the people. I feel fresh.”

I asked: “Did you ever feel offended by any one of them?” She said, “Cartooning is an art, how can I feel bad for an art,” and she left with the smile never leaving her face.

Today, the situation seems different, especially in the political quarter. The most unfortunate part is that the whole Parliament got embroiled in the issueless debate and except one, none got up to say it was a useless debate. This is the gift Parliament gave us on the eve of its 60th birthday. The preventable controversy created over a cartoon by the doyen of cartooning in India, Kesava Sankara Pillai — better known as Shankar (1902-89) — in which Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar is shown as preparing the Constitution of India at snail's pace. He is whipping the snail to move fast. Nehru is also seen whipping, whether the snail or Ambedkar is left to the viewers' imagination.

India has had a strong tradition of political cartooning. Nehru, the Prime Minister with a good sense of humour, enjoyed Shankar's cartoons. In fact, he famously told him “Don't spare me, Shankar,” on May 17, 1964, 10 days before his death. He remarked so after he saw Shankar's cartoon that showed him running the final leg of a race with a torch in hand and party leaders Gulzari Lal Nanda, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi in tow.

Shankar later came out with a book on cartoons on Nehru titled “Don't spare me.” He used to invite Nehru as the chief guest for all his shows/painting competitions and Nehru would always come.

Cartoonist Sudhir Dhar, who spent his 40 years making people smile through his cartoons, says he remembers that neither Nehru nor Ambedkar who had seen this cartoon (though it made its way in the NCERT book into the early 1970s) didn't raise any objections. Prakash Ambedkar, Bhimrao's grandson, confirmed it recently while talking to cartoonist Sudhir Tailang.

During the Non-Cooperation Movement in British India, editorials in Indian newspapers were censored but cartoons were never touched. In fact, one of the Viceroys once sent an envoy to Shankar. He saluted Shankar and said, “Our Viceroy loved your cartoon on him today. He has requested for its original copy.'

Even during the Emergency, cartoonists drew countless caricatures of Mrs. Gandhi but she never reacted adversely. In fact, as cartoonist Neelabh Bannerjee recounted, “During Emergency, Abu Abraham made lots of cartoons on Mrs. Gandhi but she still made him a Rajya Sabha MP.” The only known cartoon censored during the Emergency was by R.K. Laxman in which Gerald Ford (twice President of the United States) was seen being welcomed at the airport by a group of workers ready with a net to catch him as he was known to be tripping frequently. Laxman commented later: “This is the most harmless cartoon I have ever done. The theme is simple. Gerald Ford was to come to India but cancelled his visit. During this period [Emergency] he kept on tripping and falling frequently. The Censor thought my cartoon was a dangerous comment on international affairs and therefore prevented publication.”

So, does it mean that we have forgotten to laugh? Or have politicians lost their sense of humour?

Dar feels some “hotheads in Parliament” have stopped seeing the amusing side of life. “A simple innocuous cartoon has been blown out of proportion. The most tragic part of it is that it has happened inside Parliament. It is shocking and juvenile. Kapil Sibal has surprised me by buckling under a ridiculous demand by Mayawati to drop the cartoon. And for God's sake! Nehru is not whipping Ambedkar in it, but the snail.”

Tailang feels that parliamentarians have hit upon a convenient cartoon, which they could use as an emotive issue to make their cadres pull their socks up. He views the cartoon debate as a part of vote-bank politics. “If you can lose an election because of a cartoon, then what kind of a politician are you,” he asks.

Neelabh feels politicians have become too self-conscious. “They are preoccupied with appeasement. They can't think out of the box while they ask people to do the same. A cartoon is drawn with thick and thin lines, if thick lines spoil it; thin lines are meant to bring hilarity and finesse. Cartoonists do it affectionately; they don't mean to offend anyone.”

Harinder Singh, who draws caricatures on the art world, feels that after Anna Hazare's movement against corruption, the situation has changed drastically. It has put politicians in a tight spot and the pressure on them is only mounting. It is leading to a lack of humour in them. They would have perhaps laughed it off earlier. But now they take it as adding insult to injury and as if they have been ‘more exposed' through newer cartoons.”

Professor Mushirul Hasan, who has come out with “Wit and Wisdom” — his recent book on Parsee cartoons that abounds in cartoons on the British Raj had this take: “Our politicians out of pompousness and arrogance don't take humour in their stride any more.”

Most cartoonists and Professor Hasan agree that British and American politicians are known to have been more patient with their caricatures. During Bill Clinton's infamous link-up with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's ‘glad eye' was depicted through a cartoon in which Clinton appears in the court where the judge is a woman, and so are the lawyers and the steward who brings the Bible to him for taking the oath. He, instead, keeps his hand on the woman! Clinton took it in his stride.

Neelabh feels that people haven't forgotten to laugh. Comic books and laughter shows on television are hugely popular and among the largest selling products these days. Tailang thinks that though Indians take themselves too seriously, they have retained their sense of humour. “If we didn't have sense of humour, we would have died with the kind of governance we are facing,” he says.

I like it

Most cartoonists have experiences of political leaders liking their cartoons on them and asking for an original copy. Tailang, who is known for his political cartoons especially on the Prime Ministers for over 20 years, says he often gets calls from his “political victims” who enjoyed his works. He drew a cartoon soon after the Kandahar hijack in which he showed Jaswant Singh in a Taliban outfit.

The morning it appeared, he got a call from Mr. Singh. “He asked me if he could have the cartoon's original copy. I asked him ‘Why do you want it, I have shown you as a terrorist in it.” He answered, “…because I am looking very cute in it!” He not only used that cartoon in his book A Call to Honour but also hung it on a wall in his home where it mounts till date.” Tailang also recounts a call from Murli Manohar Joshi getting angry with him for “not drawing” on him for six months!

He insists, “The moment a politician disappears from a cartoonist's cartoons, it means he has gone down in stature. His caricature/cartoon is a certificate from a cartoon to his stature.”

The growing loss of tolerance has induced fear and disgust among the cartoonists. Tailang, for instance, views it as a systematic way of curbing freedom of expression – with a method in madness. “First it was vague, Draconian law on IT. Then Mamata Banerjee arrested a cartoonist for merely emailing a graphic. Now, plans for censoring on facebook and twitter.”

The cartoonist clan feels it is not going to stop here as now they are targeting newspapers. “They have tasted blood,” fears Tailang. Neelabh takes it as “Talibanisation of cartoonists.” I think we all cartoonists can be jailed in the near future,” he adds.

The big question is: does Kapil Sibal, who himself is a sensible poet, really feel offended by Shankar's cartoon? Or, he only tried to gain some brownie points but fell on his face?

(The writer's email is ranaafrozsiddiqui@gmail.com)

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