Stick Figures and Subversion

Despite shrinking space for dissent, amateur comic artists are continuing India’s long tradition of political cartoons and commentary.

Charukesi Ramadurai

September 15, 2020

Stick Figures and Subversion
Comic by Sanitary Panels

In a comic strip of two panels, the top panel shows two older men in Nehru jackets — the current Indian prime minister and his most trusted advisor — pointing to the floor. “Look!” they say. “He’s waking up.” The second panel zooms out onto three men, drowsy and intoxicated. A bottle labeled ‘religion’ lies next to them. “Two million COVID cases,” one of them mutters weakly. He is lulled right back to sleep by the soporific effect of the swinging pendulum in the hands of the saffron-clad prime minister, who is chanting “Mandir…Mandir…”

Amateur cartoonist Ishtyaque Ansari created this sucker punch of a cartoon in the wake of the bhoomi puja ceremony for the new Ram temple at Ayodhya, on the spot where Babri Masjid stood. It is part of a larger trend of expressing dissent through online satire: cartoons lampooning the present government are everywhere on social media, from simple stick figures with thought bubbles to elaborately-sketched recurring characters who take digs at the latest political blooper. For these young online artists, no topic is too taboo, no subject too sacred: the chopping down of forests to make space for new industries; a slick PR video featuring the prime minister feeding a peacock, the national bird of India, while COVID-19 rages unchecked; news about Facebook’s collaboration with the government in spreading hateful propaganda. These cartoons reflect, in equal measure, the displeasure and dismay of millions of Indians watching their country tilt far right. As India continues to clamp down on voices of dissent, several young amateur cartoonists have chosen to express their protest in the form of comic art.

Satirical cartoons are not new to India. Caricature as a form of journalism may have been imported from the British, but it was quickly and deftly trained on the British Raj itself: as early as the 1860s, Indian newspapers such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika and Sulav Samachar carried cartoons criticizing colonial rule. The popular British weekly, Punch, spurted several Indian versions, such as the Oudh Punch and Punjab Punch. In 1925, The Hindu, which remains Chennai’s foremost daily, published its first cartoon. In post-independence India, there is an apocryphal story about the prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request to the most influential satirical cartoonist of his times: “Don’t spare me, Shankar.” K. Shankar Pillai featured him in more than 4,000 cartoons, and not always kindly — when asked about them, Nehru responded, “It is good to have the veil of our conceit torn occasionally.”