When Laughter becomes a laughing matter: Statement by CSSSC Faculty Members on the Cartoon Controversy

Going by the ruckus surrounding cartoons these days, by the angry, at times violent, reactions of elected lawmakers against any kind of caricature of prominent personalities, it seems ‘laughter’ itself has become a laughing matter in contemporary India. And, this indeed is puzzling. The emerging trend of automatically equating lampooning with character assassination, of treating every expression of joviality targeting persons deputed by people to run the republic as being fundamentally slanderous and libelous, cannot but result in undermining the nation’s democratic charter.

Those who now readily question the public right to parody celebrities or icons are also guilty of forgetting that India has a long tradition of producing social and political commentaries in the form of hilarious visuals and words. The lack of sense of humour of persons at the helm of power today is so profound now that we may very soon lapse into a state of amnesia in relation to the deeply admired and dearly loved cartoonists, such as, Gaganendranath Tagore, R. K. Laxman, K. Shankara Pillai (better known as Shankar), Attupurathu Mathew Abraham (known popularly as Abu Abraham), O. V. Vijayan, Mario de Miranda (better known as Mario).

It is on behalf of the ‘little men’, from whose perspectives the celebrated cartoonists dared to make light heavy-going matters, that we condemn the somber Indian politicians’ and their lathi-wielding goons’ zeal to persecute persons committed to the cause of irony, irreverence and critical humour in public life.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta

Sibaji Bandyopadhyay                                                                     Lakshmi Subramanian

Indraneel Dasgupta                                                                        Sugata Marjit

Manabi Majumdar                                                                           Jyotsna Jalan

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya                                                          Prachi Deshpande

PranabKumar Das                                                                           Priya Sangameswaran

Rosinka Chaudhuri                                                                        Anirban Das

Saibal Kar                                                                                           Somnath Ghosal

Bodhisattva Kar                                                                               Partha Chatterjee

Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC)

May 14, 2012

5 thoughts on “When Laughter becomes a laughing matter: Statement by CSSSC Faculty Members on the Cartoon Controversy”

  1. Majority of Indians lack a sense of humour, possibility with the exception of Parsis and Sikhs who have so far not taken any objections to the jokes on them.

    The WB CM had recently claimed that one cartoon had a hidden message to assassinate her!!!!!!


  2. I am responding here somewhat obliquely to Lawrence’s and more directly to today’s newspaper reports that many of the senior academics at JNU (K.N. Panikkar, Romilla Thapar) flay the MP’s response to the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon.

    Why do we as academics defend our cartoons so seriously? (the review of textbooks should perhaps not be immediately conflated with the defence of the cartoon)

    Have we forgotten that the women’s movement was also something that had a great deal unamused to say about cartoons that depicted women as buxom, wasp-waisted, wide-hipped, dumb broads, or as flatchested, bulge-waisted doormats who were angry and vicious to boot? It seems obvious now that such stereotypes are offensive, but they weren’t until women objected. Even today, women have the right to object to the cartoon on the TImes cover about how the woman is depicted — see Amrita Nandy’s parallel guest post. More direct was the problem with verbal assault with humor and rhyme — ‘Baboo Ganesh Chunder Sen…” (I don’t remember the exact name of the person who went to England and was the subject of a limerick), or “Einie, Minnie, Minie Moe…”. True all these examples are about cleavages in society, not about ‘laughing about ourselves’.

    As I said in another response (to Aditya Nigam’s post) there is something very fluid about the visual image — you can’t pin it down. What it means is often what you choose it to mean. Also we must remember it is addressed to immature students, not to balanced academics. When a member of parliament objects to a cartoon, it is a visceral response — the verbalization of the objection may not be entirely accurate. The analytical skill of the member may not be entirely up to the task (as opposed to the ability to convince at that moment). It is likely that the thought behind the objection is extremely nuanced: for example, to me, my personal truth is that Ambedkar was the main person behind the drafting of the constitution. Nehru (in spite of any ‘historical objective’ truth) was not so directly connected with it. This is a cherished belief, that Ambedkar, was indeed the chairman who drafted the most extraordinary constitution in the world. If I look at this cartoon, I feel cheated. But it took me days to figure out what was actually the problem with it. I would not like this subtle sleight of hand pulling-the-rug-from-under-Ambedkar to be conveyed to my children or grandchildren. I would also feel suspicious that there were other such instances in the books that carried them.

    The question is are we laughing at ourselves, or at some sub-section? The tough luck is that if someone feels they are being laughed at, this naturally constituted ‘ourselves’ collapses and has to be examined.

    We need to think quietly about the objection that spread like wildfire. True, MPs are everything bad we say about them. But they also succeed in representing opinion in an organic way none of us academics could ever dream of achieving.


  3. In 1997-98, Partick French wrote book titled” Liberty and Death” fair comparison of M.K.Gandhi and Md.Jinnah. Whole group (barring a few) in JNU Centre for Historical Studies abused in joint article published Outlook Magazine (check Outlook on 1998 issues). Because the author for writing truth with substantive evidence to larger public. Patrick reply to them all was kindly read my book and then react. Today, all those academic call for freedom of expression. What a ‘objective’ academic they are? Further, they started given sermon about artistic expression, how to read cartoons …… Shame on them. On the contrary the academics completely mute on the “Worshiping False God” Why dont they keep the same mute silence to now also? what prompted them react?


  4. The cartoon nowhere indicates that Nehru drafted it or Ambedkar had no role in it. Cartoon is part of the textbook. If the text book over states Nehru’s role and under estimates Ambedkar’s role then there is a case for concern. When that is not the case why all this fuss about the cartoon. This personal truth argument can be extended to any such controversy.
    Some can say that it is their personal belief that Valmiki’s Ramayana is the best and is beyond comparison and hence Ramanujan’s article should not be in the text books. Hindutva groups can take this forward that it was the personal truth of crores of Hindus that the Babri Masjid was built in a place that was sacred to them.


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