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Madras HC Quashes Complaint Against Cartoonist, Upholds India’s Right to Laugh!

“No doubt, law has to come to the rescue of a person who feels defamed. But then, law envisages a reasonable person and not a touchy and hyper-sensitive individual like the respondent.”-Justice GR Swaminathan

Political satire across any medium in India is a tough gig.

Unlike in the United States, where performers constantly take potshots at the ruling establishment without fear, Indian comedians, cartoonists and satirists always have to contend with rampant trolling on social media, lengthy legal proceedings based on someone filing a case of criminal defamation, and even arrest on sedition charges.

For those on the side of the free speech and expression, however, there is hope.

Last month, the Madras High Court ruled in favour of Tamil cartoonist Karna, who was charged with criminal defamation for portraying Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M Karunanidhi in a not so favourable light. The case pertains to a 2013 cartoon in popular Tamil newspaper Dinamalar, where Karunanidhi is depicted as a cap seller, and fellow DMK MLAs as monkeys, taken from the children’s story, ‘The Cap-Seller and The Monkeys’.

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Three legislators from the DMK took serious offence to the cartoon and filed criminal defamation charges against Karna. However, it was Justice GR Swaminathan of the Madras High Court, who issued an order that will hopefully protect cartoonists and other artists of their ilk from expressing themselves without fear of incurring defamation charges.

Upholding the cartoonist’s right to free expression, Justice GR Swaminathan said:

“The present cartoon is seen by a normal newspaper reader; s/he would just laugh. In fact, the very object of cartooning is to produce such an effect in the reader.

No doubt, the party workers have been lampooned. But, they would definitely not come down in the esteem of the general public on this account. If the moral of the story is borne in mind, the cartoon would be seen as complimenting the party president for his sagacity.

No doubt, the law has to come to the rescue of a person who feels defamed. But then, law envisages a reasonable person and not a touchy and hyper-sensitive individual like the respondent.”

He added that the “art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.” In other words, since cartoonists play an important role in framing the public opinion, the threshold for suing them for criminal defamation has to be a lot higher than other instances.

Justice GR Swaminathan (Source: YouTube/GR Swaminathan)
Justice GR Swaminathan (Source: YouTube/GR Swaminathan)

Quoting the famous US Supreme Court Justice William Rhenquist’s celebrated judgement in Hustler Magazine Inc v Falwell (1988), he said, “The political cartoon is a weapon of attack, of scorn, ridicule and satire; it is least effective when it tries to pat some politician on the back. It is usually welcome as a bee sting, and it is always controversial in some quarters.”

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Although this judgement is welcome in a country where freedom of speech and expression are under constant attack from the establishment irrespective of who holds office, it raises further questions on whether there is a distinction between what is printed on paper by a cartoonist or a video posted on YouTube by a political satirist or a stand-up comedian.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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