Those subversive lines

Like every other professional, I too learn from best practices. I have learnt a lot from the work of Michael Getler, a former ombudsman at The Washington Post and at the Public Broadcasting Service, in handling various complaints from readers. He once said, “An ombudsman shows that the press can take a punch, if necessary, not just deliver one, and that there is also an independent voice to counter the daily claims of ‘fake news’ and to defend, when appropriate, against the sea of unfair and inaccurate criticism.”

Complaints about two cartoons

I was reminded of Getler’s wise counsel when I received two complaints within a span of 20 minutes about cartoons published in The Hindu over the past week. The first complaint was from Dr. P. Rajagopalan from Mylapore, Chennai. He wrote: “I am shocked and outraged beyond belief by two cartoons — one involving the Prime Minister dooming democracy to death and the other showing the NSA [National Security Adviser] as an attack dog rounding up innocents, criminals, activists and journalists with [the] Home Minister (like a Nazi) holding the leash, which were published in the September 7th and 8th issues, respectively, of your newspaper.” He went on to suggest that the cartoons should have been aimed only at former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi and not at the present Prime Minister or the Home Minister.

Vijay S. Raghavan, a regular writer from Navi Mumbai, wrote: “ I wish to take objections to two cartoons by Surendra in The Hindu in the last few days. In one cartoon, Mr. Modi is shown cutting off the hook link from which a rope is hanging down and held tightly at the other end by a lady illustrated as Democracy. However hard the media, including The Hindu, tries to show the Modi government as anti-democratic and dictatorial, [what is seen] by the public is the other way round.” The cartoon in question was drawn by Satwik Gade and not by Mr. Surendra. Mr. Raghavan also took exception to the cartoon that criticised the way the NSA is being used to silence dissent. He wrote: “Just because some official steps were taken to control law and order, it does not mean that Mr. Modi is acting against democratic norms.”

Talking truth to power

Readers must remember that the excesses of one era do not justify the excesses of another. Cartoonists have been a critical voice throughout contemporary history. For instance, Abu Abraham drew some really subversive cartoons, including one that showed the President of India busy signing documents from his bathtub during the Emergency, which were later compiled as an anthology titled The Games of Emergency. When V.C. Shukla, the Information and Broadcasting Minister during the Emergency, justified censorship and said “it was needed to stop the spread of rumour”, Abraham famously retorted: “But why stop the spread of humour?” It is true that, in the words of another Information and Broadcasting Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, some journalists were “told to bend, but they chose to crawl” during the Emergency. The question before us is clear: do we want Abu Abrahams or those who choose to crawl when asked to bend?

C. Rammanohar Reddy, a senior journalist and a former news ombudsman, has a very positive take on Mr. Surendra’s cartoons. On Mr. Surendra’s cartoon on the media trial of actor Rhea Chakraborty, Mr. Reddy tweeted: “A picture tells 10,000 words not a 1,000 words. Shame on Indian journalism. @surendracart’ a biting comment.”

It is important that we not only understand the role of a cartoonist in our democratic space but also internalise it. In his excellent exposition on cartoons and cartoonists, Jonathan Moreno del Rio said: “Cartoonists are more than mere journalists who explore news and current affairs through their illustrations. They are not a source of information for the public; instead they are participants in public debate and engaged in commenting rather than reporting.” Taking a historical look at political cartoons, Harry Katz, former Head Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress, said: “In an age when reality is defined by sound bites and spin doctors, pandering pundits and partisan politics, political cartoonists must remain relevant and above the fray, talking truth to power in all its forms and clarifying with insight, intelligence and accuracy the difficult, complex issues and events shaping our daily lives.”

I think Mr. Surendra’s cartoons live up to Mr. Katz’s prescription.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 5:18:32 PM |

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