Srinagar: “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge the truth,” thus spake comedian John Cleese.
On November 5, a renowned cartoonist from Tamil Nadu, G Bala, was arrested for drawing a cartoon that allegedly showed the state’s chief minister, E Palaniswami, in “poor light”. The police claimed the cartoon was “obscene and derogatory, prompting protests by journalists and opposition politicians in the state”.
In August this year, Nituparna Rajbongshi, a cartoonist from Assam, approached the police after receiving threatening calls over a drawing he had made criticising the Central government over the death of 70 infants in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
While threats and action against political cartoonists are not new to India, they are much worse in a conflict-ridden state such as Jammu and Kashmir.
“Fifteen years ago, when I started drawing political cartoons, I had more freedom,” said Suhail Naqshbandi, one such cartoonist who works for local Kashmiri newspaper Greater Kashmir.
According to him, 15 years ago, though there was more bloodshed, the press had more freedom simply because “the government had different things to deal with”.
“It was only and only during the Kargil War that I was asked to tone down my drawings and not make anti-Central government images,” he revealed. But today, he says he can no longer be direct because there exists an unspoken censorship, especially in a conflict zone where emotions are so high.
How is a political cartoon different from text?
Malik Sajad, author of the second graphic novel from Kashmir, Munnu: A boy from Kashmir, and a former cartoonist for Greater Kashmir, believes a cartoon is a visual experience where there is an instant connection with the subject, while Naqshbandi says the biggest advantage a cartoon has is that it transcends language. “Cartoons cut across class and are accessible even to illiterate people. Thus they have a wider reach than text,” he said.
Cartoonists are also never bound by objectivity. The freedom to be opinionated has given room for ridicule and criticism.
Ilan Danjoux, author of Political Cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, argues in his book that “political cartoons have long been safe havens for extreme opinion and unfounded accusation”. He further says that because cartoons are not bound by truth, they are one of the best ways to gauge public opinion.
According to him, though opinion polls give figures on a certain subject, they may not reflect the “entire truth” because people usually respond to opinion polls with socially acceptable answers.
“The instruments employed by the cartoonist, such as exaggeration, symbols and metaphors, can convey the mood in a country better than polls,” said Danjoux.
Kashmir recently observed October 27 as Black Day to mark 70 years of its accession to India. For over seven decades, the Valley has been in a state of turmoil.
South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) recorded that in the last 10 years, 28,684 people, including military personnel, have lost their lives to violence. Last year, post the killing of militant Burhan Wani, the Valley saw its longest ever shutdown of 132 days, and this summer saw the loss of 306 lives.
As Kashmir prepares for a harsh winter ahead, it is evident that what remains is a strained and fatigued civilian movement.
Censorship on drawings
When the streets of Kashmir erupted with resistance slogans from locals, a few chose to draw the revolution.
Political drawings in Kashmir have often been under regulation, with cartoonists warned and threatened, and asked to work within a “certain acceptable narrative”.
“I remember how a bureaucrat friend once casually told me that the Centre is opening a file for me (keeping tabs) so that they can strike at the right moment,” said Naqshbandi.
Mir Suhail, who now works with Scoop Whoop in Delhi, claims “he got thrown out of Kashmir”. “I was endlessly threatened and told to tone down my work. The newspapers I worked for refused to provide any security. I left Kashmir fearing for my life,” he said.
But despite the harsh censorship on Kashmir cartoonists, they have relentlessly kept up their work.
“The tough censorship, although unfortunate, helped me evolve. It made me think more, understand more deeply and produce more nuance in my work,” said Malik Sajad. His illustration novel Munnu: A boy from Kashmir, published globally by Harper Collins, was not published in India.
Although copies made their way to stores in India through global distribution, Harper Collins refused to publish copies in India because of the “sensitive nature” of content.
“Art thrives in conflict,” said Naqshbandi. “One must never underestimate the cathartic effect that cartoons have, especially in Kashmir.”
According to him, cartoonists in the Valley have learned to live with censorship. “They can’t stop me. The more they try to curb my drawings, the more I realise that I have so many different ways to depict the violence inflicted on us,” he said.
He, in fact, has noticed that ever since he started drawing indirect cartoons about the establishment, his readers have also begun engaging more. “Since my drawings became more provocative, my readers interact with my work a lot more now,” he said.
Role of cartoons in conflict
It is the ability of cartoons to threaten the legitimacy of leaders/establishment, question their moves, boldly criticise their decisions and leave a mark on their public image that makes them stand out.
This seems to be one of the most potent and terrifying characteristics of political drawings. “Leaders are acutely aware that what most people see is not their official portrait but their newspaper caricatures,” says Danjoux in his essay Reconsidering the Decline of the Editorial Cartoon.
Dannagal G Young, in an article in the Columbia Journal Review, points out how “leaders have always capitalised on emotions, of course”. So when a cartoon, an artistic vehicle characterised by metaphor and satire, takes on an establishment, it has the ability to touch the rawest of nerves.
It’s not just a laugh
Humour in conflict regions holds a lot of value, especially if it is humour which doesn’t fear to acknowledge the mood of the people and dares to comment on it.
“A cartoon is not just about being funny,” said Suhail. According to him, every time a political cartoon is produced in Kashmir, it is produced from a place of hopelessness. “Kashmir is going through a dark phase. Our humour has turned dark. If you find a Kashmiri looking at a cartoon and laughing, he isn’t laughing at the comedy in the drawing, he is laughing at himself, his condition. He is laughing at the irony of his situation,” he said.
Young says in his article that the playful space that a piece of political satire occupies isn’t a realm that exists separate from politics – “for most people, this is politics”.
“Political cartoons in which the ridicule leverages the emotion, simplifies the complicated and takes on the powerful form is an extremely powerful weapon for resistance in a conflict narrative like Kashmir’s. In this way, cartoons can do what text wouldn’t dare to simply because it has the audacity to break hegemonic structures of conflict narratives,” said Heeba Din, a Ph.D. scholar researching on political cartoons in the state.
She adds cartoons become an archive of cultural memory of a population at a given time. Thus, they bear the responsibility of standing testimony to the emotional and cultural experience of a land.
As it was once said, if you want to know what a society is, look at the cartoons.