Cartoonist Bala’s Arrest Reveals TN’s Record of Strong-Arm Tactics

Bala says he created the political cartoon at the peak of his anger with the state of affairs and the government.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The line has been drawn yet again. And this time, the targeted messenger is in the theatre of Tamil Nadu. Cartoonist Bala has been arrested for his cartoon depicting the terrible tragedy of a family of four immolating themselves at the Tirunelveli Collectorate in October, unable to bear the harassment by private moneylenders.

Despite Isakimuthu and his wife repaying Rs 2 lakh as interest (monthly interest of 10 percent) on the principal of Rs 1.40 lakh, the daily humiliation did not stop.

Although the couple had appealed to the Collector’s Office for help, no help was reportedly offered to them. Pushed to the wall, Isakimuthu and his wife set themselves and their two children – aged five years and one-and-a-half years – on fire.

If you had seen the photographs of the two kids crying after being set on fire, it would have left you distraught. It is a picture of sheer helplessness, where a family has been forced to seek refuge in kerosene and a matchbox.

Bala wrote:

Yes, I drew this cartoon at the height of my anger.

Bala would have wanted Tamil Nadu to focus on the charred image of the 18-month-old child in flames in the foreground.

But it is his depiction of the chief minister, the collector and the police commissioner in the nude, covering their private parts with wads of notes, that has upset the powers-that-be. Tirunelveli Collector Sandeep Nandhudri filed a complaint, leading to Bala’s arrest from his residence in Chennai.

Tamil Nadu’s Default Reaction

Admittedly, Bala has gone over the top in the manner in which he portrayed the three public representatives, and the cartoon is in bad taste. The complainant found the cartoon casting aspersions on his integrity, which, prima facie, would seem a fair charge.

Bala has been booked under Section 501 (printing matter known to be defamatory) of the IPC and Section 67 (punishment for publishing obscene material in electronic form) of the IT Act.

In the past too, Bala’s cartoons have riled politicians in Tamil Nadu, who found them sexist.

Karnataka-based cartoonist Satish Acharya says:

The cartoonist not just expressed his opinion but also his anger. The anger may have made the depiction a little crude. But he does not deserve to be arrested. They had every legal option to file a defamation case if they found it offensive.

The problem in Tamil Nadu is that strong-arm tactics have become the default reaction of the state. Use of state power was Jayalalithaa's standard template, with folk singer Kovan’s arrest for criticising the state's prohibition policy in 2015 being a classic example. He was also slapped with sedition charges, no less.


A History of ‘Taking Offence’

Three activists of an anti-corruption NGO in Tamil Nadu, ‘Arappor Iyakkam’, were arrested in December 2015 when they removed hoardings of the AIADMK that were occupying pavement space in Chennai.

Though it was an AIADMK cadre that assaulted them for doing so, Arappor activists found themselves inside the Chennai Central Prison. Cases were filed against over 50 citizens for discussing details about Jayalalithaa's illness while she was hospitalised.

The judicial probe that has now been ordered into Jayalalithaa’s death shows that the people of Tamil Nadu were justified in harbouring those doubts.

But it is not as if only the AIADMK wields state power with impunity. Last week, a fan of actor Vijay was arrested after a BJP leader accused him of sending abusive messages about Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a private conversation on Facebook Messenger.

Before that, Mersal ran into trouble, with the BJP objecting to a 30-second scene in which GST is criticised by the protagonist.


The Govt Won’t Tolerate ‘False Accusations’

Politicians have failed to be amused by cartoons elsewhere, too. In Andhra, a political satirist was picked up by the police in April for a cartoon that showed Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s son, Nara Lokesh, in a poor light.

More recently, the Naidu government removed former chief secretary IYR Krishna Rao from the post of the chairman of the AP Brahmin Welfare Corporation because he had commented on and shared posts on his Facebook account that were deemed to be critical of the state government.

A bus conductor in Telangana was suspended last week after he complained to the Chief Minister over Facebook about the working conditions in the Road Transport Corporation.

A police constable in Karnataka's Dakshina Kannada district was suspended for reportedly sharing a message on Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's decision to enter a temple after consuming non-vegetarian food.

The Tirunelveli Collector has defended his decision, arguing that he “won’t tolerate false accusations and baseless allegations’’ when his conscience is clear.

The problem is that the government has done little to guard the common folk against the strong-arm tactics adopted by the private moneylender mafia.

The Govt Needs to Get its Priorities Straight

There is something seriously wrong if the administration takes more affront at a cartoon that shows it in a poor light, than at its inability to save four lives. The photographs of the children in flames that had gone viral were enough to pierce anyone's heart.

Yet, suicide attempts at the Collectorate are seen as routine, an attempt to blackmail, not to be taken seriously.

Lawyer and civil liberties activist L Ravichander points out that pre-trial, an arrest ought to be made only for the purpose of gathering evidence or if the accused is likely to tamper with evidence or influence witnesses.

A Country for Only the Rich & Powerful?

“Here, the evidence in the form of the cartoon is out in the public domain. This is a clear pattern emerging where the state wants to convey ‘you dare not say anything against me’,” says Ravichander.

The latest episode is certain to result in self-censorship among cartoonists and writers. It also alters the relation between the state and the citizens of India. The Preamble to our Constitution could well read : ‘We the People (In Power) of India...”

(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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