Cartoonist RK Laxman was one of India’s finest post-Independence institutions, easily the best of his generation, and the next. His cartoons have a timeless epic feel to them, in the sense that what he drew in the 1950s and later is relevant even today. Perhaps even more so, because the assault on our freedoms has never been so sharp, so directed and so dangerous.
Many say he operated in simpler times. Not really. It was a time when the freedom of expression enshrined in our constitution was amended by a prime minister to put restrictions on our ability to criticize. He drew cartoons at a time when a prime minister wanted to become a dictator and run our country like a fiefdom. He expressed his views at a time when the state-run media had nothing else to offer on news television and radio except the events our head of government attended and inaugurated.
Cartoonists today face a similar choice, and a bigger challenge. In the age of the internet where free speech should have found wings, people instead are facing greater restrictions than before. It is not just the establishment that wants to control and restrict our freedoms; it is every single interest group that wants to do it.
The enduring question that cartoonists may well ask is, “What would Laxman do?”
Laxman was a gentle rebel. He used the softest words like a sharp Samurai sword. Writers and cartoonists face these very challenges: one, of ability to nudge the establishment into action with the fewest words. The other is to be persuasive without seeming to be offensive. The latter might be a bigger mountain to climb, because contemporary wisdom says that freedom of expression can be demanded only by being offensive. Laxman had showed us that this was an exaggeration.
As we navigate through the complex route of multiple media, it is imperative that we step back and wonder where we are headed. Laxman could well be our guide, our GPS to help us reach our destination.