‘Sanitary Panels’, Contempt and Arrests: A Brief History of Political Cartoons in India

On December 1, the Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal assented to a law student’s request to initiate contempt of court proceedings against cartoonist Rachita Taneja, over tweets containing cartoons on the Supreme Court and Republic TV head Arnab Goswami.

Taneja is the creator of a social media webcomic page ‘Sanitary Panels’, which has over 14,400 followers on Twitter. On November 12, she had tweeted a pair of caricatures mocking the Supreme Court’s decision to grant bail to Goswami, who had been arrested in a 2018 abetment to suicide case by Maharashtra police.

A lot of social activists, political groups and young creators have condemned the Attorney General’s decision, calling it a yet another nail in the coffin of the public’s prerogative to practice free speech.

While social media is brimming with countless debates, what is noteworthy is the ironical emergence of more cartoons aimed at the decision itself. The relentlessness of political cartoons, it seems, is like a Greek beast, which, when decapitated, revives itself with two heads in place of one.

Over the past one week, many cartoonists have graced the internet with artwork dowsed in subtle – and some not so subtle – political commentary. The minds that are otherwise brimming with harmless creativity have now found a vulnerable target. The consensus has been reached that there is, in fact, something more fragile than Achilles’ heel – an autocrat’s ego. And the humour of the circumstance is in the irony that the art of caricature, the very means to exploit such fragility, was provided to us, over a century ago, by our oppressors.

History of political caricatures

Contrary to the popular belief, the concept of caricaturing is not homegrown and was rather imported under the colonial regime. In an essay titled ‘Political Caricature in Colonial Bengal (1872- 1947)’ , Srimati Ghosal writes that the harbinger of the caricature wave was a British magazine, titled Punch, which was heavily distributed at the time, across the colonised nation. The caricatures in the London-based magazine usually purported the subjects of colonisation – in this case, the colonised Indians – in exaggerated elements with the intention to ridicule.

It was, however, at a time when the educated middle class was on the rise that the concept garnered a bitter acknowledgment and was culturally intertwined. This interaction, unanticipated by the colonisers, was later transmuted into a medium for nationalistic articulation. A newspaper titled Delhi Gazette, in 1850, marked the maiden publication of a cartoon that was aimed at the colonisers. The trend shows other regions following suit in the subsequent years, with Bengal publishing its first dissenting caricature in the year 1872. It was also in Bengal that the caricature and art movement was catalysed by numerous artists.

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One of the more significant artists was Gaganendranath Tagore who after a brief stint in lithography left a timeless impact. Tagore was responsible for spearheading the caricature movement under the nationalistic banner. His work was extremely critical of the British Raj and its methods of subjugation. But more importantly, Tagore’s work is known for being openly reproachful of certain sections of the very society he lived in.

One of Gaganendranath Tagore’s cartoons.

Tagore had a peculiar distaste for urban pseudo-nationalists who he believed had the privilege of choosing either to participate half-heartedly in the nationalist movement or to simply be anglicised and pretentiously succumb to western standards. He would often refer to these individuals as ‘Baboos’ in his work and their representations were noticeably scathing, often showcasing them with exaggerated features, struggling to fit into Western customs, and ultimately cracking under the embarrassment of their own making. Another class of society that was often ridiculed by Tagore was the Brahmanical class. His work often showed overweight figures, devoid of responsibilities, committing gluttony and indulging in other sinful vices.

Other artists, such as Chittoprasad Bhattacharya also contributed immensely to the growing sentiments of dissent. Bhattacharya gained popularity for covering the Bengal Famine using pen and ink drawings. Kafi Khan and Amal Chakraborty also aided in fanning the flames of protests in Bengal. As Dr Subhendu Dasgupta, a prominent figure in archival documentation of political cartoons, mentioned in an interview, artists like Kafi Khan were responsible for bringing out “the contemporary debates in the Indian nationalist struggle,” Dasgupta said. “You would not even have to read history.”


In addition to the invaluable contribution of political cartoons, Dr Dasgupta also acknowledges that despite being an almost ancient tool of political relevance, political caricatures have also faced a fair share of criticism. Their primary drawback, since 1872, has been the fact that political cartoons are not accessible by all sections of society. To interact with and understand a political caricature requires a level of understanding and awareness.

“Cartoonists always stood up against despotic tendencies,” he says. “But then, only a limited set of people read cartoons. Cultivating a readership requires a certain amount of initiation and cultural and social capital.” Ironically, the art of caricature, which is known to criticise classism and other social hierarchies, has itself become a luxury to those who are not inadequately versed in social and political issues. Additionally, caricatures have been accused, rightfully so in my opinion, of legitimising stereotypes, especially those pertaining to the female population. This has harmed not only its readership but the moral aesthetic that political caricatures are expected to sustain.

The drawbacks, however, as legitimate as they may seem, still fail to outweigh the indispensable role of political satire using caricatures in a democracy. Looking at these caricatures now, one realises that these pieces, inked decades ago, are not so much as antiquities as they are relevant literature. Tagore’s work, for example, affirmed the notion that caricatures are not just limited to the political commentary but also a medium for any society to practice self-criticism. This notion applies to the current political climate with utter relevance.

Sedition charges, arrests 

Caricatures, as history suggests, have always been a tool to inflict damage upon undemocratic institutions. Even though it might seem targeted, the artistic subtlety of political cartoons is aimed not at individuals but a class or an establishment. Moreover, caricatures, like any form of art, are incapable of having political affiliations, and thus, unsurprisingly, artists like Taneja are always liable to be held for contempt, regardless of the political party holding the seats in the parliament. Those who hold hegemonic superiority – regardless of the side of the aisle they sit on in the capital – are collectively threatened by the creative minds that can question their intentions.

One instance of this would be the arrest of Aseem Trivedi, another cartoonist, on sedition charges. Trivedi was arrested for drawing cartoons criticising facets of a corrupt government. As similar as this incident may seem to that of the many recent ones pertaining to sedition and contempt charges, it occurred in 2012, under an entirely different government. The campaign group, India Against Corruption, for which Trivedi was an activist, gave out a statement saying: “The appropriateness of the cartoon should be judged by the public, not the police.”

Aseem Trivedi’s cartoon from 2017. Photo: Twitter/@AseemTrivedi

The trend of labelling satire as sedition has been extant since the dawn of politics.

The threat that political cartoons pose to any institution that is aware of its wrongdoings is what makes them an essential part of the free speech arsenal. Just a few coherent yet witty dashes of ink can back an individual or even an establishment into a corner. To have an emotional response elicited out of the individual would prove the potency of the caricature, while on the other hand, any attempt to curtail the caricature itself would reaffirm the fact that art can, in fact, sway educated minds; the legitimacy of satire as a powerful political tool becomes cemented either way.

R.K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’. Photo: YouTube

If anyone understood this dynamic impeccably, it was R.K. Laxman, the country’s most famed contemporary cartoonist. His most valuable creation, the “Common Man”, managed to transcend previously held notions of satire and reimagined political caricatures. Laxman refused to follow his predecessors’ ways of incendiary cartooning, even though he did notoriously indulge in it when his mood dictated.

Instead, with the Common Man, Laxman managed to provide context with utter simplicity. He placed his character, a common man, in social or political scenarios to create an immersive experience with a tinge of wit. In doing so, he not only offered context to his readers but something more thought-provoking – he reminded them that even though it might seem otherwise, we are not immune to the injustices faced by others.

Aryan Rai is a final-year undergraduate student and a freelance editorial writer.

Featured image credit: Pictures: Twitter and YouTube/Illustration: LiveWire