Political cartoonist and graphic novelist Vishwajyoti Ghosh is no stranger to speaking out about the importance of free speech both in India as well as the wider world. Recently, he sat down with the Hindustan Times to talk about what it means to be a modern satirist and the responsibility of cartoonists to stand up for their right to free expression.
Best known for works that take on many of the controversial social issues that have historically represented threats to freedom of speech and even citizenship in India, Ghosh has become a satirical opponent to these threats, revealing the injustices that are still occurring in India today. Ghosh’s works focus not only on educating new generations of readers about historical events that have impacted — and still impact — the state of civil liberties in India and its surrounding countries, but he also strives to incite readers to take informed action against injustices. His graphic novel Delhi Clam decries the 21-month span known as “The Emergency,” during which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended several civil liberties and mass censorship of opposing parties occurred under the guise of a state of emergency. His graphic anthology This Side, That Side collects comic works from creators in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who elucidate the violent events around the Partition of India, which led to the formation of the nations.
Ghosh sees comics and political satire as ideal tools for this cause:
It is up to us to keep political satire alive in [India]. Of course, some will find it offensive or disagree with it, but that doesn’t mean it has to fade out. There are umpteen cases in India where a cartoon has been taken off, without even a debate. That has to be resisted and fought.
Being so involved in the fluctuating political climate of India, though, Ghosh understands that material that is satirical and poignant in one country has the potential to be misconstrued and offensive in another — this is what modern cartoonists face when they choose to express themselves and their views freely. Ghosh also notes that this conflict leads many cartoons to impose self-censorship for fear of repercussion:
Different cultures have different vantage points and references when it comes to humour. What’s funny to one can be vulgar for another. The danger with satire is that it can be construed in many ways, hence we are entering a sad phase, where one has to hashtag as #sarcasmalert.
Ghosh points out from his own experiences and research that there is an increasing fear of expressing oneself:
I’ve been saying this in the world of cartooning forever. Over time, we have forgotten to laugh at ourselves and mastered the art of getting hurt! Too many times, political cartoons have been taken off, and even banned. A lot of good humour in our times happened during the period of Emergency, where a repressive regime was imposing censorship. Humour was an act of rebellion then. That unfortunately is on the decline now.
Regardless, Ghosh expresses the hope that new cartoonists will not only continue to produce their works but also continue to fight for their fundamental right to free expression.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!