Swathi Vadlamudi: Speaking truth to male power, and paying the price

Like many writers and artists in India, cartoonist Swathi Vadlamudi has attempted to speak out against sexual violence. And like them, she has found it tough — dangerous, even — to challenge the underlying culture of patriarchy and misogyny that’s ingrained within elements of India’s ascendant religious right.

Vadlamudi, a Hyderabad-based journalist who makes political cartoons as a hobby, had to deal with death threats and a police probe when she dared to highlight the hypocrisy surrounding a horrific rape that occurred January 2018.

A group of men in Kathua, a district in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, abducted an eight-year-old girl from her family of Muslim nomads as part of a campaign to dislodge her community. The men locked little Asifa Bano in a temple and spent three days raping and beating her before strangling her to death.

In response to a demonstration by Muslims calling for justice, Hindu politicians organised a counter-protest, defending the men who had been arrested for the rape. A mob of Hindu lawyers tried to obstruct police from filing charges.

The alleged rapists belonged to the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement that swept to power in 2014 under Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP. The movement’s parent body is the paramilitary RSS — the world’s largest voluntary organisation. Championing an ideology called Hindutva, RSS claims to be the defender of India’s Hindus, but also harbours plainly misogynist tendencies.

The Kathua case was not the only sexual violence scandal making political news at the time. In Uttar Pradesh state, two ruling party politicians accused of separate rapes seemed to be getting away with it. One was a state assemblyman, another a former minister.

“All these cases pointed to a kind of fear and subjugation that the ruling party and Hindutva elements want to use against the women of this country,” Vadlamudi told me when I met her in Hyderabad last month. “Control of women’s sexuality is an essential part of communal hatred right now. You insert objects into the vagina and you torture her. In Kathua, they used an innocent, small child. It’s not sexual gratification. It is much much more heinous. I can’t even call it beastly because even beasts don’t do that.”

Her cartoon depicted the Hindu deity, Ram, and his wife Sita. In the ancient Indian epic, Ramayana, Ram rescues Sita from the demon king Ravana. But Vadlamudi’s cartoon suggests that the Hindu Right’s extreme followers, or “bhakts”, are worse predators than their prime deity’s arch-enemy.

Posted on Swathi Vadlamudi’s Facebook, 11 April 2018.

“My intention was to tell them, you claim to be devotees of Ram, but going by your actions, even Sita, the wife of your beloved God, would be scared of you,” Vadlamudi explained. “It is not about religion. It is not about devotion. There are many Ram devotees who supported me. It is about the communal divide these people want to create. They are consumed by this propaganda that Hindus are in danger. It is one more means to keep control of women.”

Unfortunately, the cartoon did not prompt the required soul-searching among its intended audience.

When intolerant segments of India’s many faith groups are challenged, they tend not to pray for divine wisdom or forbearance.

They reach for Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code:

Indian Penal Code, Section 295A

This colonial-era piece of legislation works like blasphemy law, allowing the most intolerant groups to demand punishment for anyone who (they claim) has offended them.

Sure enough, people who did not like Vadlamudi’s cartoon were swift and persistent in pushing for her to punished. The Hyderabad police eventually summoned her for an interview. Vadlamudi stood firm, defending her right to to comment on an issue of great public interest.

Fortunately, only a small proportion of Section 295A cases against writers and artists result in conviction. Higher courts in India take the accused’s intention into account, and can usually be counted on to quash frivolous complaints. But it can take years for the legal process to run its course.

Until then, the target must endure police questioning, pay legal bills, and cope with uncertainty. If arrested, the accused could be forced to languish in judicial custody, since Section 295A is a non-bailable offence. The process is the punishment, as one Indian human rights defender once told me.

The police didn’t charge Vadlamudi with any crime, but did not officially drop the case either. The accusations still hover over her, like the sword of Damocles.

Aside from the legal threat, there was the omnipresent danger of vigilante violence. Online trolls warned that she would share the fate of Charlie Hebdo, whose cartoonists were murdered in Paris in 2015, and Gaury Lankesh, the Indian journalist and activist who was assassinated the year before.

“Those sorts of threats made me scared, not for myself but for my family,” the cartoonist told me. “I could not sleep in the night, fearing somebody might barge in. Unless you experience it first hand, you will never know the kind of stress it can put you under.”

Publicly, Vadlamudi tried to show a brave face, aided by support she received from within India and overseas. But she acknowledges that the attacks have taken a toll. “In spite of all the posturing, that I will keep drawing, that these right-wing elements cannot deter me, I have noticed that I am thinking twice before posting. I’m thinking, will something hurt these nutcases’ sentiments.”

The chilling effect on people who are not media professionals is probably much more significant. Meanwhile, those who harass and intimidate writers and artists enjoy impunity — which can only encourage India’s most intolerant elements to ramp up their attacks on anyone who dares to challenge their worldview.

Kanika Mishra: Plain-speaking girl vs the gangster-godman

Another female cartoonist who was hounded for challenging the patriarchy is Mumbai-based Kanika Mishra.

In December 2012, India — and the world — was rocked by a rape that beggared belief. A Delhi college student on her way home from watching Life of Pi at a cinema was gang-raped by strangers on a moving private bus. The savagery of the attack — the men even penetrated her with a metal rod — sparked unprecedented public outrage.

The surging mass movement dubbed the victim, “Nirbhaya” – “Fearless” – and demanded government action against sexual violence. Was this to be a new dawn for Indian feminism?

But the movement’s momentum annoyed conservatives. Chauvinists started speaking up, even questioning if Nirbhaya deserved the nation’s sympathy. Spiritual leader Asaram Bapu – one of India’s many “godmen” – was one of them. “Guilt is not one-sided,” the guru opined. “She should have taken God’s name, and held their hands and feet, and said, brother I am helpless, you are my brother.”

Mishra, a freelance graphic designer and animator, was infuriated by this callous response. “I was very much upset,” Mishra recalled when I interviewed her in Mumbai. “He has millions of devotees all over India. I wanted to break his magic. He is a fake man, he is not a godman.”

When news broke less than a year later that Asaram Bapu himself was wanted by police for raping an underaged girl, Mishra spoke up.

She created a female cartoon character, Karnika Kahen, a common girl who speaks fearlessly about political and social issues. Karnika Kahen’s first words were to mock Asaram Bapu in a series of social media cartoons.

Mishra was a relatively unknown artist. But when a few mainstream media outlets reported on her cartoons, Asaram Bapu’s family and devotees unleashed their wrath against her.

“They said we will come to your house, we’ll rape you, we’ll kill you, we’ll kill your husband. They were saying it openly, on my Facebook. They were so fearless,” she said.

“For three or four months, I stayed at home, I was afraid to step out. If there was any sound at night, we would get up and go to the window to check. I was very scared because there were witnesses in his rape case who were killed.”

The police were not much help. “I went to the police station to complain. They advised me to stop making these cartoons, until they could find these people,” she said.

Such responses from the police aren’t unusual in the Global South. When mobs indulge in violent bouts of offence-taking, the authorities often choose expediency over justice — it’s easier to silence lawful speech than to try to stop lawless action.

Mishra described her reaction: “I said, how can I stop? If I stop making cartoons, the message will be that I’m afraid of these goons, that the truth is very weak, and that these goons are very strong. I cannot do that.”

In 2014, Mishra became the first woman to receive the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonist Rights Network International.

Mishra continues to be trolled, mainly by far-right followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“They think it’s easy to shame a woman, asking how much do you charge a night, and so on. But it you do not fight for yourself, who will fight? Men and women are part of this society. You are no lesser and you are no greater.”

Cherian George interviewed Swathi Vadlamudi and Kanika Mishra for a chapter on gender-based censorship in the book Red Lines, being co-authored with Sonny Liew.