CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Indian cartoonist Kanika Mishra, aka Karnika Kahen, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2014 and currently one of our Regional Representatives at Large with special responsibility for women.
Kanika describes the gendered abuse that outspoken women receive in a highly patriarchal society, doubly so when using satire and how things have changed in recent years, not necessarily for the better.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Kanika, can you tell us about the origin of your alter ego Karnika Kahen?
Karnika Kahen means “Karnika speaks” and she speaks fearlessly. Karnika was always there inside of me in the form of anger and frustration caused by the incidents against women in our society but she came out in her cartoon avatar on 31st August 2013 when I heard the news that guru Asaram Sirumalani Harapalani raped a minor girl. I saw in the news that the police were searching for him and he was underground. His devotees were very upset, crying and helping him to hide. While watching all the drama on the news, I felt a surge of anger inside of me and I immediately drew a cartoon where a young girl (later naming her Karnika) was ridiculing the guru’s devotees.
I drew a few more cartoons where a policeman was heckling Asaram. I published these cartoons on my social media accounts. Some appreciated me and some criticised me. Then a big news channel picked my cartoons and published them on its portal. I then faced a huge backlash; rape and murder threats on the phone, which went on for three months. But I kept drawing the Karnika Kahen cartoons and sought help from the authorities.
Like many political cartoonists you seek to criticise the powers that be in India, but the matter is made more challenging by your gender and the patriarchal nature of both cartooning and politics. Tell us about your experiences.
Yes, this is true. People are in the business are very insecure and mean and I face it from time to time. They have some prejudiced points of view that women CANNOT speak their mind on politics or on other sensitive issues even though we had a lady Prime Minister many decades ago. Mrs Indira Gandhi was one of our more popular and successful Prime Ministers. But people still have these medieval mindsets. I had many encounters with such people. But this discrimination is not practised only by male fraternity, it is spread in the whole society like a virus. So we can’t blame only one gender. I received an interview call from a feminist website from a reporter who wanted to write a story on why there are very few women cartoonists in India. I happily answered all the questions but when the article came out there was no mention of me at all and the irony was that the title of the article was “Why We Need More Women in Editorial Cartooning”. I openly registered my dissatisfaction about this discouragement and the reporter then promised to write a separate article about me, but I lost interest after that and requested her not to do that. If after winning an international award, being recognised by magazines outside of the country and with many very popular cartoons on social media (shared by thousands) I am excluded on purpose, what’s the point of an addendum that comes only after I protested?
On that latter point, you won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2014; what did this recognition mean to you?
It was a great honour! I realised that I am not alone in this fight and a whole fraternity is ready to fight my battle and stand with me always. It gave me international recognition and, finally, in my own country. Local people started to recognise my work and efforts. Basically, it changed my life. But the most valuable thing was the long-lasting friends I gained in CRNI when I visited San Francisco to receive my award.
Were there other ways in which CRNI supported you?
Investigations had been underway in India for six months – I had already filed a complaint with a cybercrime unit and in the local police station – when I came in contact with [CRNI’s founder] Dr Robert Russell through Tjeerd Royaards of Cartoon Movement. CRNI invited me with my husband to the AAEC summit, it was a huge morale booster and so encouraging. We had a great time and founded some long-lasting friendships.
Authoritarianism is on the rise everywhere, India included. We know colleagues living elsewhere in the country were criticised for their opposition to the Citizen (Amendment) Act and of course those in Kashmir have had to contend with enormous pressure through 2019/20. Do you think satire has come to be seen as an act of dissent?
Things are definitely not the same. Today some blind foolish followers of political leaders label criticism of the government as an act against the nation, which was never the case before. We need to understand that in India we have people of different faiths, religions, castes and communities. I follow the simple rule to ruthlessly criticise the political party in power, speak the truth through my work and not deliberately mock or make fun of symbols of a particular religion, caste or community. I receive lots of criticism from followers of the ruling political party and I do not mind it because they too have their right to express displeasure, until or unless they threaten me or tell me to stop my work. Otherwise I am fine with any kind of criticism. In fact, I have become used to it and consider it part of my job. But thankfully I have never faced any official resistance from any political party, including the ruling party, despite making many ruthless cartoons.
To retrun to the topic of parity, despite the best efforts of many we’re still not seeing enough women in political cartooning. What more can be done to address this?
I think there is not much encouragement and on the other hand it is risky too. We all know lots of cartoonists including female cartoonists that have endured jail terms and other hurdles from their respective governments. So maybe there is some fear. I think we should encourage and highlight the work and achievements of female cartoonists to inspire more women. We also need to tell them that they are not alone and they must express their talent because you get only one life and fear is too small a prison to contain your true self, your self-expression.
We’ve just seen a rash of arrests in Bangladesh under their Digital Security Act, all pertaining to anti-government posts on Facebook. You’ve already said that criticism of government or political parties is being foolishly conflated with disdain for the state or its people. This is definitely what is occurring in Pakistan where a real cult of personality is forming around Imran Khan. Do you worry about the nature of politics and democracy changing permanently? And what do you plan to do next, as India faces the coronavirus crisis?
Oh, it is too exhausting. I feel that it is killing my creativity instead of enhancing it, contrary to many on social media. I am busy watching the news, telling my relatives and friends how to tackle it, arranging groceries, sanitizing items. On my social media accounts I am trying to raise awareness about the crisis, spreading the message of government to strictly adhere to the lockdown and maintain social distancing. Fighting blind religious beliefs, fighting the agenda to give it a communal colour. It is too much, so complex and exhausting, takes my whole energy for days on end.
I can say [the situation across Asia] is unfortunate. People saw some hope in Pakistan’s new leadership but [Imran Khan] turned out to be just another politician. To be frank, these days, I am not following the news much as it has become very depressing, especially when you are stuck at home for months. I hope to resume a normal routine once this virus nightmare is over.