Why Manjul’s Toon-Kit Is Making The Modi Government See Red
Manjul has a question for those who are trying to intimidate him: “What law have I broken”, he tells Priya Ramani.
Despite critiquing nine Indian prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi (see the cartoons used in this piece) from the newsrooms of the country’s top mainstream English newspapers over three decades, and being no stranger to ‘pressure’ from powerful people, political cartoonist Manjul was taken aback on June 4 when he got an email from Twitter.
Twitter said it had received a request from “Indian law enforcement” that the content of the veteran cartoonist’s account @MANJULtoons “violates the law(s) of India”. The microblogging platform said it hadn’t taken any action. Manjul read the email, then reread it to confirm it wasn’t a prank. Then the tax-paying, law-abiding citizen who describes himself as “a common man who understands things in simple ways” got angry and tweeted the email.
“Thankful that the Modi government didn’t write to Twitter to shut my handle,” he added in the next tweet I’ve translated from Hindi. “This cartoonist is a sinner, an atheist, and doesn’t consider Modiji as a god.”
Anger is what shaped Manjul’s career in the first place. “One day a policeman asked for a bribe. I was angry and upset and channelised the anger into my drawing,” says Manjul who has no formal training in this art. “I was a science student who knew how to draw.” He got his first appointment letter as a political cartoonist in Lucknow in 1991.
Industry insiders say that unlike in the cartoons shared and circulated on social media—where Modi appears front and centre—you’ll rarely spot the Prime Minister’s mug in the cartoons of national newspapers, even in cartoons that are critical of the government. Browse The Times of India archives here for example. Some, like The Hindustan Times, once the home of Keshav Shankar Pillai, or Shankar as he was known, no longer even have a political cartoonist.
Alok Nirantar, who works for the Sakal Media Group, owned by Pratap Govindrao Pawar (the brother of NCP leader Sharad Pawar) says regional newspaper cartoonists who are not based in the cow-belt have it slightly easier. “In the Congress era we did similar, critical work but nobody thought too much of it,” he says. “Now the same work is an act of courage.”
One popular feminist web-comic creator even faces a criminal contempt of court charge because of what her cartoon stick figures said about India’s Supreme Court. It’s important to remember though, that modern India’s most famous case against a cartoonist for holding up a mirror to the India he was witnessing, occurred under Congress times in 2012 when Aseem Trivedi, 25, was charged with sedition for his Cartoons Against Corruption campaign.
Nirantar’s WhatsApp display picture is a photo of a younger him with RK Laxman. Growing up, he says, his father took him from Nasik to Pune every month to visit the famous political cartoonist. Over time, the budding artist befriended Laxman. “The art was dying until recently. Now you see so many cartoonists, more people are coming in this profession,” he says. “It’s the most impactful way to share your opinion.”
Authoritarian regimes tend to have this effect on artists. As Kashmiri political cartoonist Mir Suhail told me last year, “Before I had to think what to draw. Now it’s become so easy I can’t stop.” He was referring to the daily news that inspires his terrifying images.
Many legacy-media political cartoonists now operate without the traditional support of the strong newsrooms that once looked out for them. Like Manjul, they raise funds directly from their social media followers, using websites like Patreon.
“Here the cartoons reach readers directly without being stopped by editors,” said cartoonist Satish Acharya during a recent fundraising drive. “This platform will give me a great amount of freedom to question the mighty people from every political party.” Acharya quit English daily Mail Today in 2018 because editors were censoring his work and he has never looked back.
Manjul has a question for those who are trying to intimidate him: “What law have I broken so I can course-correct?”
“I’m a law-abiding citizen, when I cross the road I try to cross on a government-made zebra crossing,” he says. “I’m that variety of citizen who feels guilty if we ever break the law. If we cross a red light we apologise profusely and pay the fine.”
He even donated to the PM CARES fund after the first national lockdown was announced. “It was only later that I realised the money was being mishandled,” he adds.
Modi is the face of the government in his cartoons because Modi is the face of the government in real life, Manjul says. “If I want to do a cartoon on examinations being cancelled, I can’t draw the education minister. Modi announces everything. Ask a man walking on the road to name five ministers, he won’t be able to name them.”
“If you've built a whole image that this is the Modi government, you're not leaving too many options open for professional cartoonists to blame someone else when things go wrong,” Manjul adds. “We can’t blame Rahul Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru for everything that happens today.”
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.