India’s High Court upholds cartoonists’ right to ridicule

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Since a cartoonist's task is to shape public opinion, the threshold for suing them for defamation must be much higher than that of other cases, Madras High Court Justice Swaminathan ruled. Photo: AFP/Sam Panthaky

It isn’t easy being a political cartoonist or satirist in India. They incur the wrath of politicians, are subjected to vicious trolling on social media and in some cases, even face arrest on charges of sedition, leading to prolonged, expensive lawsuits. 

A recent ruling by the Madras High Court, however, stands out as a beacon of hope for those who revel in lampooning. 

The ruling came in the case of Tamil cartoonist Karna, who was charged with criminal defamation for a cartoon on M Karunanidhi, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the tallest leader of state political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

In 2013, popular Tamil newspaper Dinamalar featured Karna’s cartoon, depicting Karunanidhi as a cap seller, and some legislators of his DMK party as monkeys. Three members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of the party took umbrage at this and bought criminal defamation charges against Karna. 

A lower court accepted the case and sent it to trial, leaving Karna to move it to the high court. Ruling in his favor, Justice GR Swaminathan handed down a order which has been unanimously hailed by cartoonists who often have to bear the brunt for speaking and sketching without fear or favor.

The ruling will also safeguard satirists and caricaturists from being attacked on defamation charges.

‘Duty to ridicule’

Upholding cartoonists’ unbridled freedom of expression, Justice Swaminathan stated that the “art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or even-handed, but slashing and one-sided.” 

He went on to quote extensively from US Supreme Court Justice William Rhenquist’s celebrated judgement in Hustler Magazine Inc v Falwell (1988): “The political cartoon is a weapon of attack, of scorn, ridicule and satire; it is least effective when it tries to pat some politician on the back. It is usually welcome as a bee sting, and it is always controversial in some quarters.”

Justice Swaminathan also quoted celebrated American political cartoonist Isabel Simeral Johnson, who in 1936 said that “controversy is a cartoonist’s stuff of life; he starves in times of brotherly love.” 

Since a cartoonists’ task is to shape public opinion, the threshold for suing them for defamation must be much higher than that of other cases, Justice Swaminathan said.

Tamil Nadu cartoonist G Bala is no stranger to controversies, which arise because of the way he practices his art. In November last year, he was arrested by police in the dead of night because some politicians and a senior district official were enraged by a cartoon in which he had shown them as stark naked, only with wads of currency notes guarding their private parts. 

Bala drew the cartoon to voice his dissent against those responsible for the tragic fate of three members of a family who died of self-immolation. The family patriarch was allegedly being harassed by a moneylender, with support from local police. As a result he doused himself, his wife and two daughters with kerosene, outside the office of the district collector.

Bala’s arrest drew widespread condemnation, including a scathing criticism by a former judge of the Madras High Court.

“Great leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and K Kamraj never objected to political cartoonists poking fun at them,” Bala told Asia Times. 

He spoke of the freedom cartoonists enjoyed in the US, referring to The New Yorker’s cover showing Donald Trump in the nude, and lamented that such space was impossible to think of in India. He asked that politicians either enjoy cartoons or leave cartoonists alone.

EP Unny, the cartoonist for leading English daily The Indian Express, thanked the high court for its “fine appreciation of an art practice that values and pushes the democratic debate.”

“The judgement is valuable not just in its conclusion but in its insight into the art of caricature and the language of cartooning. For instance, the court affirms that when the cartoonist employs animal metaphors it is allegorical and not necessarily defamatory,” Unny said.

The judgement, he said, could not have come at a more critical time, considering politicians and the state are routinely cracking down on dissent in the country.

Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who was similarly arrested on sedition charges in 2012 and finally acquitted by the Bombay High Court in 2015, also hailed Justice Swaminathan’s ruling. 

He told Asia Times that rarely does one get to see a ruling upholding cartoonists’ right to freedom of expression in such clear, unequivocal terms. Because the court has ruled that it is part and parcel of a cartoonist’s duty to raise controversies, no more would it be a disgrace if a cartoonist is called “controversial,” he said. 

“We are living in such times in which dissenters face severe backlash; even after six years, I am still facing trial in a case where I was booked under the National Emblems Act. The next hearing is in August. I am hoping that this Madras High Court judgement would come to my aid,” he said.

Baseless distinction

Comedian Kunal Kamra, who regularly launches no-holds-barred attacks on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its politicians, and has to go through many trials and tribulations for that, used the high court judgement to draw attention to an interesting point. 

Speaking from Bombay, he told Asia Times that it was good of the court to speak boldly in favor of cartoonists, but then went on to ask – why do the law and the courts draw a line of distinction between those who practice their art on paper and the internet and those who do it through videos? 

“Are the people so excitable that they would get incited by watching a video in which he is taking political holy cows to the cleaners? This distinction, besides being arbitrary, is also profoundly condescending towards the people because it distrusts their sensibilities, and must go,” said Kamra.

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