Last week, a comic artist, Rachita Taneja, was charged with contempt of court, because her work (a satirical cartoon) portrayed the Supreme Court being biased towards the ruling party. Taneja founded ‘Sanitary Panels’, an extremely popular social media page that engages with contemporary issues.   

The Attorney General of India stated that Taneja’s work "... is clearly calculated to undermine the public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the Supreme Court of India.." and granted consent to initiate contempt proceedings against her, The Courts are yet to try her case. This piece briefly looks at few instances on how satirical cartoons and cartoonists have been viewed by the British and Indian political leaders.

During the colonial era, it appears that the British were rather tolerant of satire that was aimed at them. The infamous Press Act, used to liberally by the British to come down on newspapers in India, was curiously rarely used against satirical cartoons. Mushirul Hasan, former Director-General, National Archives of India states that satirical political charged illustrations and cartoonists seemed to have thrived in colonial India.  

But what about Indian political leaders? 

During the constitution-making process and the early 1950s, a large number of cartoons were published that criticized and mocked the Constituent Assembly and its members. Jawaharlal Nehru appeared to have been the most privileged in this regard – with over 4000 cartoons aimed at him. These cartoons were mainly the handiwork of the legendary cartoonist – N Shankar Pillai. We do not have any record of Nehru reacting negatively to Pillai’s work, on the contrary, he seemed to have encouraged Pillai. 

Not all the prominent figures of India’s political landscape nursed Nehru’s attitude towards cartoons – M.K. Gandhi was one of them. Gandhi criticized Pillai’s work and said that he did not know how to make a joke without offending. He added that ridicule must not bite and claimed that Pillai would never rise in his profession if his cartoons were offensive. 

Another regular target of satirical cartoons was B.R. Ambedkar – who played a key role in framing India’s Constitution. A controversial cartoon by Pillai highlighted the slow pace of Indian constitution-making and showed Ambedkar in poor light. Ambedkar responded to this criticism in the Constituent Assembly. We do not have records to indicate that Ambedkar took on cartoonists who mocked him.  

Returning to Nehru, it is interesting to note that while Nehru enjoyed and encouraged Shankar’s work, during the emergency in India, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, adopted a rather different attitude towards Shankar. In 1975, Shankar had to shut down his weekly during the emergency.

The decision of the Court on the current contempt case against Taneja is likely to have ramifications on how freely cartoonists (and other artists) can criticize not only the Court, but also other powerful institutions and individuals in India.