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We got both our cartoon art and the sedition law from Britain. The two have carried on all these decades, including those 21 months of Emergency and censorship in the mid-1970s, without coming to televised blows. Now Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year-old cartoonist, has been sent to a Mumbai jail for the seditious act of insulting a national symbol. The Indian state seems to be more loyal and lawful than the queen. If you google Steve Bell, The Guardian's editorial cartoonist, you would think he is cooling his heels in Her Majesty's prison. Through some 30 years of merciless cartooning, he gleefully tore into most things British, symbolic and otherwise. Often reduced to bottom-wear in Steve's work, the Union Jack still flies high over Westminster Palace.
Do four Asiatic lions, standing back to back and tall, need protection from a doodler, however agitated? There is bound to be inherent tension between any national symbol and the cartoon. One is meant to be revered and the other is nothing if not irreverent. The two should naturally clash as they do in mature democracies. Between spats, they manage to live together — the symbol on its pedestal and the cartoonist at the drawing board. Back in 1976, in a Playboy interview, when Jimmy Carter confessed to having looked at a lot of women with lust, a cartoonist put a denuded Statue of Liberty in the presidential thought balloon. Carter didn't wage war on the cartoonist; he worked his way to the Nobel peace prize.
There has also been that rare case of the nation thankfully accepting symbols crafted by a cartoonist. The 19th century American master, Thomas Nast, visualised the party symbols for the Democrats and the Republicans — a donkey and an elephant. Santa Claus was brought to life by the same wicked pencil that did little to please the ruling classes — even less than the Anna activists and their cartoonist. Nast ran a relentless campaign against the venal Tweed Ring that reigned over New York far more brashly than the UPA can ever preside over New Delhi.
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