“Aama... intha cartoon aathirathin uchathil thaan varanthen”. Yes...I drew this cartoon at the height of my anger.

This was Tamil Nadu cartoonist G Bala’s statement on Facebook on October 24, as he shared a cartoon depicting a burning child lying face-first on the ground, surrounded by the Nellai Commissioner of Police, the Tirunelveli Collector and the state Chief Minister. Their eyes are downcast and they cover their genitals with wads of cash.

The cartoon was a scathing comment on the state’s inability to prevent a family of four in Tirunelveli from immolating themselves in public the previous day. The head of the household, a daily-wage earner named Essakkimuthu had complained to the police several times about the harassment he had been facing from a money lender. On October 23, he killed himself and his family, including his 18-month-old daughter, in front of the District Collectorate. The incident sparked shock and outrage across Tamil Nadu – and Bala’s cartoon was one such expression of horror.

The cartoon was shared among more than 25 lakh people in just six days. “That child who stood and burned has shaken everyone’s conscience,” said Bala, when he re-posted his cartoons six days later. “I drew this cartoon in that emotional state.”

Social media gag

But two weeks later, on Noveber 5, the 36-year-old was arrested by the Tirunelveli police in Chennai.

The Tirunelveli Collector, Sandeep Nanduri, had filed a complaint with the Tirunelveli District Crime Branch on November 1, about the “obscene representation” of Chief Minister EK Palaniswami and the government officials, reported The Hindu. On Saturday morning, the cartoonist was arrested in his home in Chennai. He was charged under Section 501 of the Indian penal code, for “printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory” and under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, for “publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form.” The Tirunelveli district court granted him bail on Monday.

“It was an ordinary cartoon,” said Bala, in his statement on YouTube after he was released on bail. “It was my anger against the government and the death of the child. The cartoon just expressed those feelings. I never expected them to take such drastic steps. Both under Karunanidhi’s and Jayalalithaa’s rule, I have drawn even more scathing cartoons. Although they are thought to be intolerant of criticism, I was not arrested.”

Chief Minister Palanisamy: Don't worry, we've taken all preventive measures.

Social activism

Over the past couple of years, Bala has been an independent cartoonist, publishing his work on his blog and Facebook page. For 12 years before that, he had been a cartoonist and special correspondent for the Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam. In January 2015, he published a 136-page book of cartoons titled Namakku Ethukku Vambu, why loosely means “Why take the trouble”.

“It was a hit among the youth,” said Ilangovan Rajsekaran, a senior Tamil Nadu journalist for Frontline magazine. “His opinions on politics are still in the process of evolving. He has good potential and needs to grow into a more mature artist.”

Bala also began a digital media venture called Linesmedia.in, of which he is the chief executive. Introducing the new platform for political cartoons and news, Bala wrote, “We would like to begin our journey with freedom and stand one of a kind from other media, who are all at present bowed before Anna Arivalayam [headquarters of the DMK party], Poes Garden [where Jayalalithaa resided] and Kamalayam [BJP’s headquarters in Chennai].”

In an interview with a Tamil channel in October, Bala said that he did not stand for Tamil nationalism, Dravidian nationalism or Hindu nationalism. “I believe in humanitarian causes,” he said. Bala has worked closely with several activists and social movements, including anti-nuclear activist SP Udayakumar and the anti-liquor movement organised by National Alliance of People’s Movements. The convener of the movement, Arul Raj, who has been in close association with Bala since 2009, when the cartoonist was also interested in the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils. “He has highlighted social issues in his cartoons, like alcoholism and the oppression of women,” he said.

True enough, many of Bala’s cartoons feature a poverty-stricken farmer caught in the middle of political tussles between leaders.

Palanisamy and Panneerselvam wage a political battle, while the poor man suffers.

Tamil Nadu’s leaders have not been the only subjects of Bala’s cartoons. Bala refers to the Bharatiya Janata Party as “trousers”, highlighting their ties with the Hindu nationalist outfit, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Criticisng the BJP’s policies as “useless”, Bala writes “The new India Modi is trying to give birth to is dangerous to the public.”

Journalists protest

On Monday, the Chennai Press Club held a demonstration protesting against the arrest of the cartoonist. Outside the Press Club were large posters featuring Bala’s contentious cartoon. “We put this up because what the government did was wrong,” said Bharathi Tamilan, the joint secretary of the Chennai Press Club. “It will remain here until Bala arrives.”

Tamilan said that if the government wanted to take action, it could have taken filed a defamation case. But using the powers of the Collector and directing the police to arrest Bala like a common thief was not acceptable.

The Foundation for Media Professionals also issued a statement calling Bala’s cartoon “a valid journalistic critique” of the government’s failure to prevent a family’s suicide in Tirunelveli. The statement went on to say that Bala’s cartoon “sought to highlight administrative insensitivity by showing the three authorities covering themselves with the fig leaf of currency notes in the presence of a charred body.”

Translation: Modi's magic is to steal even people's loincloth.