Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some Ethical and Cultural Questions with Regard to Mayawati Cartoon Controversy

I WAS seriously in trouble last week as I decided to publish a cartoon of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ms Mayawati, in a provocative posture, following the pubic outrage over her acceptance of a currency garland which is said to be valued anything between Rs 5 crore to Rs 20 crore. It was a disgusting scene, the chief minister of a state accepting such a garland from people who evidently had strings to pull. It was corruption through and through and a cynical expression of contempt for all norms of public decency by one who holds power under our Constitution.

That perhaps explains why our cartoonist Sudheernath decided to draw a very provocative cartoon with Mayawati in her toilet, asking for a bunch of 1000-rupee-notes for use as toilet paper.

I was in two minds as to what to do with the cartoon, whether to allow it to go or ask for a milder one. Finally I decided it to go in the paper, dated Wednesday, March 17.

Next day, there were severe protests from many friends, including Dr M S Jayaprakash, a long-time friend and a leader of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Kerala unit. The points raised were that the cartoon was per se obscene, and secondly it put a dalit leader in a poor light and thirdly, by using the image of a lady sitting in a toilet, the cartoon was demeaning to women. In addition to the protest letters, there was also an attack on the Thiruvananthapuram office of the newspaper on Friday, March 19.

I was anticipating objections to the cartoon, but I never expected the kind of fierce protest that was witnessed after its publication. I think this incident, hence, needs to be reexamined, to draw its lessons.

First, was it obscene? I am not sure where lies the dividing line between obscene and not obscene in a piece of art, whether it is a cartoon, a painting or a poem. This is an age old question and I feel there is no final answer. But of course for an editor, there is always this question to answer, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a particular newspaper. It is tough to arrive at a proper decision, keeping in mind the social attitudes, the readership's tastes and views, and the need for intellectual honesty, professional standards and ethics, artistic freedom and freedom of expression.

The second aspect was the allegation that the cartoon made a pointed attack against a dalit political leader. Why Mayawati was singled for such a demeaning treatment, was one line of criticism.

This, I realize now, is not a very easy question to answer. The evident and ready answer to this argument is that it was not because she was a dalit that she was attacked, but because she was a chief minister and she was corrupt.

This is absolutely true. A chief minister is holding a public office and hence under public scrutiny. The media cannot but criticize them in public interest. We cannot tone down the criticism only because one belongs to a weaker community.

But when I was deciding upon the cartoon one question I failed to ask myself was whether I would have allowed such a cartoon if it was, say Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi on the seat of the toilet? And whether the cartoonist would have drawn such an image of them?

Well, here comes the cultural question; the question of middle class rationalizations of one’s preferences. I am sure no editor would dare to publish a cartoon of Indira or Sonia on the toilet seat because that would mean a massive public outrage on the part of their middle class readership and they know it beforehand. There the self censorship would work.

When I failed this test in Mayawati’s case, it is a reminder that I was insensitive to this cultural aspect. I was perhaps being dishonest intellectually as I failed to ask the right and most critical questions.


Unknown said...

sir,i appreciate ur broad mindedness to have an introspection.evn though i'm utterly against the policies n methods of smt.mayavathi,i feel her womanhood should be respected..also i feel there r hundred other weapons wid a journalist.or 4 tht matter a media-person to convey the contempt 4 her.

Unknown said...

i am a reader of ur daily. i am also appreciate u to publish that cartoon.