An email from social media giant Twitter on June 4 telling cartoonist Manjul that “Indian law enforcement” claimed that his account “violates the law(s) of India” has prompted an outpouring of support from his fellow cartoonists.
Over the past few days, several of them have drawn cartoons criticising the government’s attempt to silence Manjul, who uses only one name, and emphasising that free speech and humour are essential for a healthy democracy.
In the email message he received on Friday, Manjul, whose cartoons have been featured in publications such as Daily News and Analysis, The Economic Times and India Today, was told by Twitter that it had not taken any action against his account because it believed in “respecting the voice of its users”.
Manjul said that this was the first notice of the sort he has received in his 32-year career. While “no government likes criticism, the current government is showing a concerning level of intolerance”, he said. He added that the notice has put the publications in which his work appears under pressure and has hurt his business prospects.
In response to the message, he reposted a recent cartoon pointing out that the authorities were frittering away their energies rather than focussing on the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed 3.5 lakh deaths in India so far.
The email message to Manjul has resulted in his fellow cartoonists taking to social media to explain why their work is important. In a Twitter thread on June 6, Sandeep Adhwaryu, a cartoonist with The Times of India, sketched a brief history of political cartoons, highlighting work by RK Laxman and Keshav Shankar Pillai about Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
As he noted in a series of tweets, “Political cartooning by nature is a subversive and negative art. It can be considered positive only to the extent it attacks status quo and hypocrisy in the hope of seeing a positive change in the health of body politic.”
Rachita Taneja, who draws a strip titled Sanitary Panels, emphasised that political humour was essential for a democracy to stay in good health.
“Comics and cartoonists hold up a mirror to those in power, and when they are attacked by the government it means the government can’t handle scrutiny,” she said. She knows something about the risks involved in speaking out: she is facing a contempt of court charge in relation to a cartoon about the Supreme Court’s handling of a case involving television anchor Arnab Goswami.
Adhwaryu of The Times of India said that he “wasn’t surprised” at the notice to Manjul, considering the current political climate and the Narendra Modi government’s attempt to regulate social media through its new IT rules. “However, these aren’t the signs of a healthy democracy,” he noted.
The move against Manjul comes against an increasingly restrictive environment for journalists in India. This is reflected in the country’s position in the Press Freedom Index: with a rank of 142 out of 180 countries, it continues to be classified as “bad” for journalism – a title it shares with nations such as Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
The acceptance of satire reflects the maturity of democracy and attempts to stifle it reflect the insecurity of the government, Adhwaryu said.
But he predicted that the government’s attempts to stifle satire and humour will ultimately backfire on it. “Cartoons act as an outlet for public emotions,” said Adhwaryu. “They cannot control every outlet. If they silence one, 10 more will come up.”
Manjul said that he is now examining the specifics of the notice to establish which of his tweets prompted the warning and which law enforcement agency sent it.
“I am nobody,” he said. “I see paradoxes and draw cartoons on them. How could an elected government with over 300 seats [in the Lok Sabha] be troubled by me?”
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