Karnika Kahen.When Kanika Mishra, a cartoonist and web-animator living in Mumbai, got word that a popular religious leader, Asaram Bapu, had been accused of raping the 16-year old daughter of two of his followers, she reacted in the most powerful way she could. Within hours of hearing there was a police manhunt for Asaram – who claims a religious footprint of more than 400 ashrams and millions of devotees worldwide – Kanika posted a cartoon to her Facebook page putting the soon-to-be-charged holy man squarely in the crosshairs of her cartoon everywoman,
Bapu was already on Mishra’s radar for suggesting that the victim of the infamous 2012 gang rape on a Delhi bus was partly responsible for her rape. Saying at the time that “Mistake is never from one side alone,” Asaram suggested the rape would not have taken place had the woman chanted a mantra and referred to her attackers as “brothers.”
“Asaram’s statement against Nirbhaya, the Delhi bus rape victim — that she should have called those rapists ‘brothers’ — made me every very angry at that time,” Mishra says, “and then news of allegedly raping a minor girl was the point where the artist inside of me could not take it anymore and needed to express her anger.”
Mishra followed that with more cartoons of Bapu – one of him being hauled off to jail with her cartoon everywoman, Karnika Kahen, suggesting that Bapu might escape justice by referring to the arresting officer as “brother.”
Reaction to Mishra’s cartoons was immediate, first from friends lauding her courage in taking on a prominent religious figure; then with interview requests from the popular weekly magazine, India Today, and India’s most watched news channel, Aaj Tak. And finally, following the media interest, there came a groundswell of threats from supporters and followers of the jailed and soon-to-be-charged Bapu.
“The abusive comments and threats started before India Today and Aaj Tak,” Mishra says. “But once the cartoons got published in India Today, they started coming in hordes and the intensity and severity of abuses became beyond tolerance.”
“I deactivated my Twitter account. But I could not delete my Facebook page. They also got my contact number … and started abusing me and my husband severely on the phone, threatening to kill us. They were calling non-stop … from different areas of India.”
Throughout the siege by Bapu’s supporters, as her email account and her Facebook page were hacked, and despite fearing for her husband’s safety and her own, Mishra continued to take on Bapu through cartoons.
She commented on the guru’s fear of a lie-detector test (Narco) with a cartoon.
She noted the arrest of Bapu’s guru son on his own rape charges with a cartoon.
And Mishra gave testimony to the murder threats she and her husband were receiving from some of Bapu’s followers by means of a cartoon.
“I decided not to send this message that I am afraid of these goons. I made more and more cartoons on Asaram as his followers abused and threatened me. I thought that if a minor girl who was allegedly raped by her parent’s Guru can stand up against these monsters, why should I send this message that I am afraid? I decided to make cartoons until these goons were tired of abusing and threatening me.”
Following four months of intense harassment, as news of her ordeal spread through the efforts of Cartoon Movement and other advocate, the abuse by Asaram Bapu’s supporters finally dropped to a murmur in 2014 [As of June 29, 2014, Asaram Bapu remains jailed on the rape charges.]
But the possible extremism of some of Bapu’s followers continues to cast an ominous shadow. A former aide of the guru, who reportedly testified against Bapu to a commission investigating the death of two boys at one of the guru’s ashrams, died victim to a drive-by shooting earlier this month. Soon after, Bapu devotees mounted a Twitter campaign to get the guru released on bail.
At the same time, the election of Narenda Modi as prime minister has ramped up police and judicial harassment of people posting criticism on social media, in student newspapers and, in one instance, for publishing a clue purportedly critical of Modi in a crossword puzzle.
Despite the stifling of free speech, India — where newspapers are thriving — is rich in cartoons and cartoonists, but remains poor in cartoons from a female perspective.
“Cartoons are very much there in India’s mass media, both on web and newspapers. I can say that we have this culture of cartoons and I hope that it will only grow bigger and strengthen our democracy,” says Mishra, who continues producing hard-hitting political cartoons on a wide range of topics, featuring the country’s only cartoon ‘common woman’ to counter scores of cartoon ‘common men.’
“I believe it is almost like a duty to keep Karnika Kamen going. One thing is very clear: People are very comfortable in insulting a cartoonist if the cartoonist is a woman,” says Mishra. “But I have high hopes from the youth of India who have this very open mental attitude — and they are ready to welcome change.”