Sketching 35A

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Tens of thousands of rims were printed in reporting, analysing and commenting on the attempts aimed at proving the illegality of Article 35(A) in India’s constitution. But a bunch of cartoonists used less ink and least newsprint to tell the same story more effectively and in a bigger detail, reports Masood Hussain

Kashmir has been living in interestingly terrible times for a long time now. Witnessing crises almost on daily basis, some at huge human and economic costs, what is peculiar about this society is that it ends up more informed on almost every single issue.

From Srinagar streets to a rice field in remote south, anybody in Kashmir can deliver a mini-lecture on the United Nations and its history on Kashmir front. Two-third respondents anywhere across Kashmir can explain Article 370 and now even kids know what the Article 35(A) is all about.

Kashmir’s keen interest in deciphering the complex legal, political or judicial processes is rooted in its history. But if some institution deserves credit for this informal education and awareness, media will fall in the top stockholding category. But that is about a population that can read the newspaper.

What about the people who cannot read? They read the cartoons in newspapers listen to TV and radio discussions and follow news like the cats in chase of the mice. Kashmir is politically highly conscious and everyday discourses add to its better-informed image. The recent phenomenon that has added to a common man’s informal knowledge basket is the internet-connected cell phone with inbuilt social media platforms. Scores of visual stories appear in the social media that help commoners add to what they know and crosscheck their information, the net difference in the political reactions to an event or a process.

Newspaper cartoons play a huge role in this process. While the illiterates read them quickly, these comic narratives improve the knowledge base of those lacking full comprehension of the processes and the crises.

The ongoing campaign against the possible tinkering of Article 35(A) of the Indian Constitution explains this phenomenon. All the newspapers’ cartoonists continue to be very sensitive to this issue that, if withdrawn, can push Kashmir into ethnic assimilation and mark the end of the distinct identity that it retained for centuries.

When it comes to cartoons in Kashmir, it is the BAB (Bashir Ahmad Bashir) that tops the chart. Now the editor of Srinagar Times, BAB has been part of the political counter-discourse for decades and knows the art of communication better. In 2018, however, he is Guru of a group of young men who think a lot to draw the few lines that are, sometimes better than longer copies being printed on rims of newsprint.

At the peak of militancy, a minor knocked the door of Greater Kashmir offering the editor to draw cartoons. After decades of work, Malik Sajad is a celebrity who has drawn a novel on Kashmir, Mannu: A Boy From Kashmir. The book was widely acclaimed. Now he has left his seat for Suhail Naqshbandi, also an emerging hand.

But what is important is that all these cartoonists have created a long visual narrative on the 35(A), a key Article that has been challenged by the Hindu right in the Supreme Court of India. After a series of hearings, the case is being deferred and the new date of hearing stands fixed on January 19, 2019. But the political parties here have started taking the frequent adjournments as a deliberate tactic in absence of a clear stand on the issue. The government of India has not taken a stand on the issue in the courtroom so far.

The Division Bench in the Supreme Court has been considering the plea by the state government that the case may be adjourned because it will hamper the preparations for the local body polls in Jammu and Kashmir. Now the political parties understood that the election is being used as an alibi to defer the court decision-making even as state and the central governments have not committed their stand in the courtroom so far. It was on this basis that the National Conference announced a boycott of the exercise unless Delhi takes a stand on it and makes it clear within and outside the courtroom.

“Now it is impossible for any other political party to go for polls,” senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter said.

These cartoons tell the long story in lesser spaces and greater detail. The first series of cartoons was focussed at educating people. These small drawings started conveying what it means to have this Article in the constitution.

In the second stage, these cartoonists started drawing about the consequences of its removal. That was a political satire. One sketch shows the apple of Article 35(A) on a Jammu resident’s head with Modi aiming at the fruit. Another BAB sketch shows the same apple on the accession head with Modi taking the aim. In a third sketch, BAB shows the very accession of Jammu and Kashmir with India resting on the two pillars: Article 35(A) and Article 370. Taking the same theme forward, S Tariq in Kashmir Images showed how a saffron leader was cutting the article of faith to sever himself from Kashmir.

Suhail Naqshbandi in Greater Kashmir suggested the abrogation of Article 35(A) would completely inundate the special status. A cartoon by Suhail explicitly suggested why the Article 35A is being used to keep the Kashmir pot boiling, apparently for the political reason in wake of fast approaching elections across India.

In the stage third, the cartoonists hit the political landscape of Kashmir reacting to the development. In one BAB showed Kashmir shadowing it with hartal – a criticism for lacking any other protest; and in the other very impressive one, BAB sketched the entire pro-India club dancing in protest against possible tinkering of Article 35(A) on the ruins of Article 370 draft. This was more or less an indictment of the unionist camp. In yet another sketch, BAB took on the governance structure showing how it invokes Section 144 in fighting the movement against the abrogation of Article 35A.

While there has been a lot of written data getting into print and online about all these stages of reportage and concern, the cartoonists scored on a different level – in the fourth stage of their sketching. This part, lacking any written word, suggested how the BJP and Delhi now understood the costs of the gamble, its members pushed their party into by getting with a writ-petition to the Supreme Court. This series of cartoons is fascinating. S Tariq shows an angry Parivaar zealot with an axe moving towards Article 35(A) without seeing the slippery banana shells almost under his footstep.

BAB did a series on this theme: one showing Modi literally caught in 35A, another showing him making a difficult balancing act in a bid to do away with it and in another, he sketched how the BJP axe breaks and in yet another, he converts it into 35Atom. S Tariq showed the BJP literally caught while netting the 35(A) elephant. But the best on this was drawn by Saleem, a cartoonist working for the Chattan. It shows the BJPs head completely trapped into the small pot of 35(A).

Kashmir has a history of political cartoons and credit goes to BAB for making it a phenomenon. In order to show, 1975 accord between National Conference and Congress as a surrender of Sheikh Abdullah, he showed the Sheikh offering his head to Mrs Gandhi. But he triggered the real crisis in state assembly when he showed the lawmakers as animals. The assembly saw it a breach of privilege and he got a notice and summon.

Being a politically unstable place and a territory contested by India and Pakistan, the pressures on media have been consistent and enormous, throughout. Ideally, media is a neutral observer of happenings but the conflict has made Kashmir media from being observers to being an observed institution. The killing of more than a dozen journalists in last three decades and the conflicting narratives have made Kashmir media itself a subject for the media in mainland India and abroad. So there are times when the crisis around prevents writers from actually commenting on a situation and literally trying to avoid analysing it after the happenings basic report is over. It is the time when the sketches do the talking. At times, these artists journalists go for, what is called graphic defiance that tells a story even at the cost of the publisher’s patience.

Over the years, cartoons have successfully emerged as purest forms of expression of speech, counter-narratives, comic pieces of critical journalistic texts and paradigmatic rituals of journalistic criticism. These decipher complicated situation by using a simple drawing of symbols and local metaphors. Though political cartoons appearing in Kashmir newspapers are almost the same as elsewhere but invariably this graphic criticism is an artistic resistance to the abuse of power, authority and history. That is why the tradition of lampooning important persons in public life is seen less in comparison to the media outside Kashmir.

The story has its own flip side, however. Barring BAB whose family owned a newspaper that was made popular by his sketches, the youngsters joining the profession lack the same cushion. They work as hired professionals in the media. Their biggest problem is that the media itself, despite knowing the significance of the political cartoons, will take some more time to accept them at par with the reporters.

One key factor is the resource limitation of the media houses. The other is the publishers seemingly are slightly less sensitive about the importance of telling complicated stories by drawing a few lines, almost in hurry. But these factors will not reduce the significance of the cartoon as an effective medium of storytelling to a person who understands graphics better than the words.

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