In 2007, a national storm erupted from unusual quarters, with a famous Indian – more commonly associated with the country’s IT revolution – right in the middle of it. Infosys Chief Mentor and Non-Executive Chairman NR Narayana Murthy came under all-round criticism over his justification for an instrumental version of the National Anthem played during then President APJ Abdul Kalam’s visit to the IT giant’s Mysore campus.
Murthy was reported as telling reporters that singing the National Anthem would have “embarrassed” Infosys’s employees from other countries at the function.
Even before the Supreme Court rejected a petition seeking action against Murthy under the Insult to National Honours Act, he apologised. He said, “We are a proud Indian company, with strong universal ethos of transparency, accountability and honesty. If the media statement has hurt anybody's sentiments, I deeply apologise.”
Indeed, you expect no less foresight, realisation and courage from someone celebrated as foremost among icons credited to have truly taken India abroad.
That the Maharashtra Government has ordered an inquiry into the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for ‘sedition’ and the large-scale outrage preceding the state action over the controversy demonstrates the power of democracy we live in.
Trivedi is a free man today. Most likely, the state inquiry – and the SIT formed by the Mumbai Police to probe the issue – will find that the charges of sedition levelled against him untenable. In fact, the state government has indicated that the charges would be dropped much before the investigations conclude. Perhaps, the investigators would only be left to name the concerned police officials and lawmen responsible for leading the nation to the controversy.
As citizens of a democratic nation, where freedom of speech is our birthright, the cry against Trivedi’s arrest outmatched those who favoured it. The media projected, and a majority of us agree, that the Maharashtra government went overboard in booking him under IPC Section 124 A for sedition, Section 66 A of IT Act and under National Emblem Act, 1971.
But did Trivedi not himself go overboard in trying to portray what every thinking Indian hates – corruption, and the useless and unscrupulous leaders – in his country? Did he not paint an anarchic picture of the largest democracy in the world?
India is still a ‘symbolic’ country. Its culture and heritage is steeped in symbolism, where rituals and customs have relevance and significance, and are consequential. Elsewhere, it’s no big deal for children to smoke and drink liquor in front of their elders but in many parts of India, children don’t even chew paan in front of their parents. That’s a mark of respect.
We leave our shoes behind when we enter houses of worship, lest we dirty them. We fold our hands to show respect and we hug to show affection. Plants and animals we have known for thousands of years have some ‘roop’, some importance, some relevance in our epics and mythology. Symbolism is a way of life for us, elaborate and intricate, passionate patterns of our lives. Continuity is what we believe in; our philosophy represents our objective character as a nation, where everything fits into the bigger intent of the universe. We understand our country as a mother we love, cherish, live and die for.
Does anyone, even an artist, have the right to desecrate, mock or insult the symbols of our nationhood? Sure, a cartoonist can be irreverent, but can a cartoonist go so far as to assault symbols of national sentiment?
No, he cannot. For, Mother India is as sacred to all Indians as are the holy books of all religions the nation practices. We revere the National Emblem or the Constitution as much as the Bible, the Quran, Guru Granth Sahib, The Ramayana or any other religious book. Likewise, the parliament house is not just a place where the representatives of the people gain entry to but a symbol of a free nation whose strength lies in its ability to bring people together, irrespective of their caste, creed or colour.
It is a symbol of equality. Trivedi has belittled the agony Mumbai suffered by showing Ajmal Kasab – one of the terrorists who spread fear and mayhem in the Financial Capital on 26/11 – urinating on the Constitution. He has insulted India’s democratic process by depicting the parliament house as a commode, a vessel of waste.
His caricature of the National Emblem is perhaps the most damaging. Inspired by the Ashoka pillar in Sarnath, Varanasi, the national emblem symbolises power, courage and confidence, while the Dharmachakra (wheel) at its base represents the law of creation or progress. By caricaturing the national emblem, does Trivedi mean that we as a nation have ceased to exist? A nation without power, courage, confidence and where progress only means lawlessness, anarchy sans future!
Despite the reservations I have, I don’t want to sound as if I am against his ‘Cartoon against Corruption’ or anti-internet censorship ‘Save Your Voice’ campaigns. I do not even endorse Mumbai police’s ban on cartoonagainstcorruption.com last year or the sedition charges he faces. Absolutely not! Since press became a voice of the people, cartoons have been around.
RK Laxman, Shankar, Abu Abraham, Mario Miranda, Sudhir Dar, Sudhir Tailang, Ravi Shankar, Maya Kamath, R Prasad, Kaak, and many, many others – they have put smiles on the faces of generations with their wit and humour to relish with the first cuppa’. Reading the newspaper is quite boring if you don’t get to see the cartoons of these masters.
At the same time, the likes of Trivedi need to learn where to draw a line from these masters. For, they have been diligent political commentators and social critics for decades, but have been careful not to lampoon issues the masses value or are touchy about. Perhaps one of the classiest examples of such sensitivity is the Amul cartoon released last year during Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign.
Under the catch line, Hazare Khwaishein Aisi (Hazare’s wishes such as they are), the cartoon depicted Amul Baby with Anna. Playing on the line of a couplet by Mirza Ghalib – Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A thousand wishes such as they are) – the cartoon was bang on, on the aspirations of Anna Hazare and the rest of the country of a corruption-free India. For more than three decades, artist Kumar Morey and scriptwriter Bharat Dabholkar have been creating the original and brilliant Amul Baby series, commenting on current issues but keeping clear of controversies most of the times.
Though Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Deputy CM Ajit Pawar have been critical of the Indian Penal Code section dealing with sedition slapped on Trivedi, he might still have to face the music for the offensive portrayal of the Parliament, Constitution and the National Emblem. The 25-year-old cartoonist can take a lesson from NR Narayana Murthy and apologise to the nation. Trivedi’s Wikipedia entry says he is a renowned Indian political cartoonist and activist. Time he begins acting like a national asset.
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