Madras High Court Upholds the Right to Laugh

One of the earliest stories that all of us have heard is “The Cap Seller and the Monkeys”. A cap seller was passing through a forest with a box full of caps. He got tired. He sat down under a tree and slept. When he got up, he found the box open and almost all his caps missing. He was startled to find that the caps had been taken away by the monkeys who were wearing them. He wondered how to retrieve his caps. He thought for a while. It then struck him that if he threw the cap which he was wearing, on the ground, the monkeys also may follow suit. He threw his cap on the ground and the monkeys did likewise. This tale has been told from generation to generation to impress upon the children with the moral that one must use one's brain to get things done.

Justice G R Swaminathan, Karna, R Lakshmipathy, R Krishnamoorthy vs M Jothisorupan

The recent Madras High Court judgement, passed on 5 April, which defends a cartoonist’s right to ridicule, begins with this allegorical story.  The judgement does draw the line for freedom of expression, but reminds the petitioners that the line must really stretch far to constitute defamation.

According to a report published in Asia Times, the matter relates to an incident on 7 January, 2013, when the cartoonist Karna’s cartoon was published in a Tamil newspaper Dinamalar. It depicted the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Karunanidhi as a cap seller and some of the legislators of the DMK party as monkeys. Hence, the allegory at the beginning of the judgement by Justice Swaminathan.

A lower court had accepted the case against Karna which prompted the cartoonist to move to the High Court. Justice Swaminathan came out in defence of the cartoonist, adding a couple of ironical lines himself: “Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India embodying the fundamental right of the citizens to freedom of speech and expression includes within its scope the cartoonists also.”

In one place he also admonishes the petitioners, calling them “touchy” and “hyper sensitive individuals”:

If the present cartoon is seen by a normal newspaper reader, he would simply 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, 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.

On being asked about the judgement by a member of our editorial collective, senior cartoonist E P Unny, who works with The Indian Express, said, "The verdict stands out for its appreciation of this adversarial art as an entirely legitimate work. This is a great companion piece to Justice Kaul on M F Husain's case."

Apart from upholding the right to freedom of speech of the cartoonist, Justice Swaminathan also made a case for monkeys. Such hyper-sensitivity, in this particular case, came from an arrogant “anthropomorphic bias”, he contended. Monkeys, he said, can genuinely take offense from the respondent’s sense of entitlement:

Apes are, after all, our primitive ancestors. They are our distant cousins. Our culture sees divinity in every aspect of nature. Hanuman, the monkey god, is a hero as well as a venerated deity. Mahakavi Bharathi in his Papa Paatu calls upon us to love and take inspiration from birds and animals. Man occupies a higher spot in the evolutionary hierarchy. But, that does not make him superior to others. This is because, in the natural scheme of things, one is integrally linked to every other.

Unny was also particualrly happy about the judgment for this reason. "The honourable judge sources global cartooning history to underline the cartoonist's right to ridicule in a democracy. The best part is when he goes on to remind those who take offence to animal metaphors in cartoons that theirs is an anthropocentric view. There is no hierarchy among living organisms, the judge concludes. In one stroke, the judgement is as egalitarian as it is mocking," he said.

Orijit Sen, who makes several politically engaged cartoons, shared the news of the judgement on his Facebook page saying, “For the past four years, many of us have lived with the idea that we're probably going to land in jail one of these days. So this judgement comes as a bit of a relief to me and to man(sic) of my fellow cartoonists, I'm sure!”

How do we go ahead from here? Unny says, "The next step is to see how last mile bullies, often district level officials, can be prevented from harassing cartoonists."

Read the entire judgement here.

Also read Have We Lost Our Sense of Humour?