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Kanika Mishra: Championing India's First Cartoon Everywoman

06/29/2014

Photo: Rahul Katyayan

When Kanika Mishra, a cartoonist and web-animator living in Mumbai, got word that popular cult 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.

The spiritual entrepreneur Bapu, who claims on his website a religious footprint of more than 400 ashrams and millions of devotees worldwide, was already on Mishra’s radar for suggesting that the victim of the 2012 gang rape on a Delhi bus that made international headlines was in part responsible for her attack.

Saying “Mistake is never from one side alone,”  Bapu 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.”

So -- four hours after hearing that there was a police manhunt for Asaram Bapu -- Kanika Mishra tweeted  and posted to her Facebook page a cartoon tweaking Bapu supporters’ blind faith in their on-the-lam guru.

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 were 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, the abuse of cartoonist Kanika Mishra by Asaram Bapu’s supporters has dropped to a murmur in 2014 -- as news of her ordeal, through the efforts of Cartoon Movement and other advocates, has spread.  [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.  The Committee to Protect Journalists  recently posted a slideshow documenting "authorities misuse of existing Internet laws" within India.

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 -- with 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 [her cartoon everywoman] going."

Kanika Mishra interview with CRNI director Dr. Robert "Bro" Russell

“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.”