“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
-Evelyn Beatrice Hall
Thousands of writers, journalists, cartoonists - anyone who has ever conceived of the power of the pen - rose in shocked solidarity around the world in the wake of the news on January 7, that three masked gunmen had infiltrated the office in a horrific attack that injured four and left 10 journalists, amongst which Charbonnier was one, and two policemen, one of whom was stationed outside, dead. The Islamic radicals suspected have now been identified to be two French-born brothers, Said Kouachi, 34, and Cherif Kouachi, 32, who remain at large, along with 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, the youngest who surrendered after he “after seeing his name circulating on social media”.
The attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris is one of the worst terror attacks France has seen in decades, and one of the most barbaric clampdowns on press freedom in recent times, the very thing the editor of the publication Stéphane Charbonnier fought to the last for.
First having taken to the pen in 1969, Charlie Hebdo ran until 1981, before folding, only to recommence publishing since 1992. The newspaper’s satire was built on an irreverence that threw caution to the winds time and again, despite having been courting controversy for years with their cartoons, they persevered in publishing exactly what they wanted to with Charbonnier at the helm through the backlash they faced - lampooning personalities in the limelight and indulging in the non-conformist satirising of topics like religion, politics, culture and feminism consistently.
“I don’t feel as though I’m killing someone with a pen. I’m not putting lives at risk,” Charbonnier told Le Monde in 2012. “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”
In recent times, most of the serious threats Charlie Hebdo received have been the ire created due to their cartoons on Islam, which Charbonnier had mentioned they would make fun till until it became “as banal as Catholicism”. You can’t help but harbour the utmost respect for the sheer tenacity at the defiance of the publication; in 2011, the newspaper published a caricature of Prophet Muhammed on the cover ‘making a facetious comment’, naming him the ‘editor-in-chief’ of the next issue, which resulted in the office being firebombed the very next day. In the wake of the first physical attack on the newspaper, Charbonnier emphasised that the team remained undeterred. This was, to say the least, not the last controversy the newspaper had found itself embroiled in.
He said: “If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying.”
Charbonnier stood staunchly behind his staff throughout; in the aftermath of horror attacks, personalities in comedy like Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien and Louis C.K. have spoken out condemning the brutality.
Salman Rushdie, in a statement on English PEN, that defends freedom of expressions, said, “Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”
Homegrown reached out to Indian artists, illustrators and comic book artists to get their reactions on the tragedy, and the underlying spirit of freedom of press it stands for. Many of them responded not just with powerful narratives, but with cartoons in reaction to the Paris shootings, as a lot of political cartoonists have all over the world.
I. Sumit Kumar
Independent cartoonist Sumit Kumar put up a cartoon in reaction to the incident, that has now been pulled down due to concerns for his safety.
”The backlash began within minutes of my uploading it on Facebook,” he tells us. “I had uploaded an image I had drawn of Narendra Modi kissing Gautam Adani, who had sponsored his campaigns during elections and has since witnessed a boom in his business over the past year, with an incredible growth rate. He also recently received a loan from SBI amoutning to US$1 billion, and has also recently bagged the the contract to implement the City Gas Distribution (CGD) project in Ernakulam. The idea behind this was to investigate how a few lines and drawings - a cartoon - could scare people so senseless? It’s just a cartoon - not a threat. As soon as I put it up, it started catching on and a lot of my friends called me up asking if I knew what I was doing - there were even messages posted to the effect of “This guy is screwed.” My girlfriend, too, was very apprehensive of the implications it might have. It seems like, in our country, this is as taboo a topic as Prophet Muhammad was, with reference to the Charlie Hebdo incident. Political cartoons today are very subdued, and have lost their bite, with editors choosing to stick to jlly and safe cartoons that don’t provoke. It was the tones of fear that stood out the most, and the number of calls I got telling me I was just asking for trouble. I’ve noticed that the media always kicks a man while he is down, while there is never any effort to provoke a man in power. I hope that we, cartoonists all over the country, find it in ourselves to create what it is we want regardless of who is in power, and to say what we have to.”
Sumit Kumar, who has been working independent since August 2014, created covers for Brunch, has been creating comics for Newslaundry including the acclaimed ‘Kashmir ki Kahani’ and ‘The Red Corridor’, and he has also created covers for HT Brunch, done assignments for BBC, some for Webchutney, a strip for Guardian London, and more.
II. Irfan Khan
“It is terribly saddening to hear news like this, and I strongly condemn the attacks in Paris. Cartoons are should be one of the biggest means of freedom of expression, not just in India but all over the world. Even if someone has an objection to a certain cartoon, there’s a democratic way of going about things. How can someone just get up one day and decide to go kill those who have offended them? It’s not like the attacks have scared society, or cartoonists - look at all the cartoons that have come out in reaction to the attacks; we are not scared. Media needs to persist in maintaining its freedom of expression, and to come forward and say what they want to without any qualms. Security is another important issue that has come to light - if the headquarters had maybe been well-protected, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Secondly, I feel that it’s unnecessary to provoke someone’s religious sentiments - there are a hundred other things that we can draw about instead in the world.”
Boasting of a 27-year long cartoonist career, Irfan Khan has pioneered the concept of political cartoons in electronic media in India, and has held five solo cartoon exhibitions till date. Having worked with Zee News, Times Group and Indian Express, he was selected to represent India in Tokyo in The Tenth Asian Cartoon Exhibition organized by Japan Foundation in 2005. Irfan was recently in news worldwide for his cartoon on the Former Chief Justice of India YK Sabharwal, for which he was held guilty on grounds of contempt of court and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. The issue brought the media around the world together in protest. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court of India.
III. Satish Acharya
“Without a doubt, what happened with Charlie Hebdo was gruesome and ghastly. But why are the deadly terrorists, who possess the latest arms & ammunition and who aren’t afraid of taking on the military power, scared of cartoons or school-going children? Because they don’t believe in what they’re doing. They realise that their war in the name of religion is not valid. And they are losing support of the majority of Muslims all over the world. They’re scared that education, literature, art will expose their fake war, and push their sympathisers away. So, this war is more about protecting their own fake war rather than protecting their religion.”
Satish Acharya, a renowned cartoonist with Mumbai’s Mid-Day tabloid, has had his featured on ESPN and Sify websites as well. Satish is from Kundapur, where he still works from, and studied at Bhandarkar’s college and Mangalore University in Konaje. He is a self-taught cartoonist who wonders what they teach at cartooning schools. Passionate about all aspects of journalism. Satish Acharya quit his MBA finance job to pursue cartooning. His other passions include cricket and cinema, both career candidates once upon a time. A keen follower of Satish’s cartoons will tell you that he has this uncanny knack of finding humour in the most drab situations. Satish Acharya’s determination to not give in to political pressure is indeed noteworthy.
IV. Mukesh Singh
“Freedom seems to be a chimera. Perhaps it always was. That said even a chimera is better than nothing. Freedom of expression and, by extension, freedom of the press, is vital for the health of our collective minds. It is tied to the very fabric of modern human society and if it is to function, we need to ensure that no wrongdoing will go unchallenged. For such an assurance to materialise, freedom of the press, flawed as it maybe, needs to be protected. One can go about outlining the band-aid solutions, but really the only solution is to respect the opinion of each other, so long the opinion itself is well informed, of course. Violence must never be the response.”
Mukesh Singh is an Indian comic book artist, famous for working with various international comics book companies like Liquid Comics and Marvel comics, for which he has created several covers, along with designing an armour for the Indestructible Hulk. Born in Mumbai, he is one of the leading concept art and comic book artists in the country today.
“The Charlie Hebdo massacre came as a shock to me, of course, but it was not exactly unexpected. They had trod on too many tails, made too many enemies. In the aftermath, opinions are flying all over the place, labelling them everything from ‘racists’ to ‘martyrs’. All I have to say is (and I’m paraphrasing Neil Gaiman here) you cannot have selective freedom of speech, you cannot just stand for statements and artworks that please you, because that’s hypocrisy. As long as it is not a direct criminal act (like persuading someone to kill in the name of god/country/race/caste), it has a right to exist, to question, to provoke. That’s what I believe. Charlie Hebdo’s idea was to be an equal-opportunity offender, and (as Alan Moore said) ideas are bulletproof. Je suis Charlie!”
Avik Kumar Maitra was born in Calcutta in 1978, and currently lives in New Delhi. A comics-lover from the age of 2, he finally became a professional at 26, and has been working in the industry ever since (except for a two-year break to study Interactive Media in Netherlands). He likes Scarlett Johansson, street dogs, and alcohol ñ in no particular order, and definitely not in the same way.
“What happened in France has clearly sparked an outrage across the globe to claim back the freedom to express and share, in this age of information overload. Provide adequate security to press persons under threat. Curb any attempts as such curtailing the freedom of press and media.”
Amyth Venkataramaiah is an independent illustrator, musician and artist from Bangalore.
VII. Dhimant Vyas
“In the support of freedom of Press, media and cartooning alive from all dark forces of the world, not to be afraid! Show Solidarity and tribute to great cartoonists who lost their life fighting with those terrorists!”
Dhimant Vyas is a veteran Animation Film Designer, worked as a creative director at Zynga games India. He has worked on famous Shaun the sheep series two and Purple & Brown with multiple Academy Award winning Animation Studio - Aardaman Animation Ltd U.K. Dhimant Vyas is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design (NID) His previous work includes the title animation sequence for the highly acclaimed Hindi feature film ‘Taare Zameen Par’, which was directed by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan.
VIII. Amir Rizvi
“Cartoonists/artists/ visual communicators are the mirror of society. Killing them today in Paris justifies that they were right about fanaticism! Instead of going crazy and getting angry, please retrospect and cure the disease of intolerance among your own societies. I strongly condemn the attack on cartoonists. .. condolences to their families and friends. In solidarity with freedom of speech, Amir Rizvi.”
Amir Rizvo uses existing photos/cartoons/visuals from the internet and adds text & typography to create an artwork. He says, “I am not a cartoonist, I feel I am a photomontage communication designer/artist. I am inspired by the artists who expressed their view through graphic design during the Nazi Era such as John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld; 19 June 1891 – 26 April 1968), who was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon. Some of his photomontages were anti-Nazi and anti-fascist statements.” He earns his bread and butter by visualizing and writing for TV promos and by designing print media in his studio called DESIGNBAR.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari