‘Drop the cartoon and carry a photo.’

That’s how my cartoon column with Mail Today ended on Saturday.

That’s how the editor looked at a cartoon and cartoonist’s opinion.

That’s how the editor chose to shut a voice.

The cartoon he rejected was about how China is surrounding India by spreading influence in countries like Maldives and others.

The editor said the cartoon is “Very defeatist and the China problem is being overplayed.”

I thought it was how a cartoonist looked at the growing influence of China around Indian interests. So I said it was debatable and the cartoonist’s opinion should be valued.

In response, he asked the news desk to drop the cartoon and carry a photo.

I have been battling to protect my freedom, to protect the sanctity of a cartoon column for many days. Maybe for the editor it is just three-column space, but for a cartoonist it is a whole world. A world where the cartoonist is free to express his opinion. A world to challenge his own creative boundaries. A world to voice protest, criticise, lament, cheer, and more.

  • First they rejected a cartoon showing a cow, saying, “The editor is not too happy with the cartoon with cow.”
  • For a cartoon on lynching I received this message: “There’s a bit of an issue. India Today Group has decided not to come out with any community-based cartoons.”
  • For one cartoon on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they asked if I could “replace Modi’s character with any general BJP character”.
  • And then, “Editor is not comfortable with Muslim angle in the cartoon.”
  • And, “Editor didn’t like the demonetisation link with 100% electrification.”
  • And more of “this doesn’t make sense”, “this is unacceptable” et cetera. 

(And many of these rejected cartoons were used by other clients and some of them went viral, shared/retweeted by even many journalists.)

It was very difficult to do a cartoon, as too many barriers were installed around me.

Out of desperation, I approached many senior journalist friends for feedback. They sympathised with me, some asked me to wait, some asked me to stay strong.

Giving up is easy in such a situation as I’m a freelance cartoonist contributing to other clients too. I thought I need to fight for my right. I thought I need to do justice to the cartoon space that goes with my name.

But at the end, I was rudely reminded that, that space is owned by the editor, the paper. And they could just drop my cartoon and carry a photo!

Of course, there’s a strange relief. Now there’s a thought that when I sit to draw a cartoon, I don’t have to worry about, what my editor thinks/says about the cow in the cartoon, lynching in the cartoon, Modi in the cartoon or a Muslim/Hindu guy in the cartoon!

But this humiliating experience is hurting.

As a cartoonist I expect my editor to respect my opinion and also trust the boundaries I have drawn for myself. Cartoonists are not bound to mimic editor’s voice. Cartoonists are supposed to, and expected to express, independent voice.

Of course, editor is within his right to differ with a cartoon and inform the cartoonist. But he should be open to discuss, without being dictatorial.

My cartoons used to appear in Op-ed page of Mail Today, where I thought some of the columnists enjoyed more freedom than my cartoons!

Luckily I have few other clients, where the editors respect my opinion and trust my cartoons, even when they don’t agree with me. Hope we will have more such large-hearted editors.

And I also have social media, where independent voice gets an audience.

Ironically, the personal website of the Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah carries most of my cartoons featuring him, though many of them are very critical of him.

As is famously quoted, when they were asked to bend, they chose to crawl.

Update: On Sunday evening, Mail Today editor Dwaipayan Bose had this response to queries Scroll.in sent him earlier in the day. “Satish Acharya’s cartoons have been carried everyday and this is the first time it was dropped (do check back issues of Mail Today),” he said. “As to why this has been done – please note that editorial decision-making is an internal exercise and the prerogative of the Mail Today editorial team. Our editorial freedom is absolute, and it stays unaffected by false allegations and unjust insinuations. We are under no obligation to carry content that fails to pass our editorial filters.”

This article first appeared on Satish Acharya’s website and Facebook page and is reproduced here with his permission.