Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

PM Modi: The Joke Indians are Not Allowed to Crack

, by THOMAS Rosamma

The consistent rise of stand-up comedians, cartoonists, mimic artists has provided much-needed humour and reflections in these challenging times, but at a cost. Many have faced terminations, police cases and arrests as India descends in the global freedom and democracy indices.

“When I saw his friendly, lying look, I felt disgusted and I had a violent reaction,” confessed the man who slapped French President Emmanuel Macron recently, admitting his offence and accepting the punishment of four months in jail. As the video of that slap went viral in India, Twitter users remarked that the French President ought to have taken a few lessons from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who keeps more than an arm’s length from ordinary Indians – he never mixes with crowds, and he always only addresses them from podiums placed at a considerable height. Sometimes, when on camera he waves, Indians realise that their PM waves not to them but at the camera!

The 28-year-old who slapped the French President had an option. “The man who first flung an abuse instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation,” Sigmund Freud said. To express one’s antagonistic feelings and not hurt the one it is meant for is an art little appreciated.

Cartoonists, satirists, poets, essayists, filmmakers, dramatists – all those who practice the arts offer us means of such expression, and in the process, allow civilisation to blossom. Indeed, even speeches in Parliament are meant to be expressions of high civilisation, and archives of such speeches are often repositories of our shared heritage and culture.

Modi government’s obsession with narrative management
Cartoon by Satish Acharya

The Modi government, though, has neglected holding sessions of Parliament; the winter session of 2020 was cancelled; the budget session of 2020 was curtailed, the Pandemic was offered as the excuse. The prime minister has never once faced a press conference since he assumed office in 2014. Students and activists who have questioned the government and posed serious challenges have been thrown in jail.

Although demands were made for Parliament sessions to go online, these were not considered, and the Speaker later asserted that such a demand was never made on the floor of the house when it was in session.

In August 2020, concerned that the government was not acting to relieve the troubles of ordinary Indians, academics and activists got together to organise an online session of what was called a “People’s Parliament” – it lasted one week and dwelt on a range of issues of public concern.

With the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules at the Centre in coalition with other parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), hate speech, religious polarisation, targeted attack on minorities, and inciting violence has become almost a norm ahead of elections. After the crushing defeat of the BJP in assembly polls in the state of Delhi in early 2020, BJP leader Kapil Mishra was caught on camera saying people would be forced to take the law into their own hands if the police did not evict protesters in the national capital. Protests were raging at the time, seeking the revocation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that, for the first time, made religion a criterion for granting citizenship and excluded Muslims.

Famous Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty, who made ugly campaign speeches for the BJP in the West Bengal assembly elections early in 2021, is now forced to defend himself after the election loss. He is trying to convince people that the speeches were of “recreational value” – he had threatened to slap people so hard that they would land dead in the city’s crematoria; he said he would carve out the flesh – all outlandish dialogues, par for the course in Indian filmdom, but not as easily digested at election rallies.

If hurling abuse is indeed a step higher in civilisation than hurling a stone, then the speeches of Mishra and Chakraborty were also sparks that could set off fires. Words can kill.


Pervasive conformity that perhaps stemmed from fear lasted for a few early years of the Modi government. Old habits of freedom cannot be long suppressed, though. As protesters gathered across the country objecting to the inclusion of religion as a criterion for citizenship after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in December 2019, rousing poetry and fiery speeches were heard. One often-repeated poem was an old poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (a much-celebrated dissenter and revolutionary Pakistani poet) from 1979, written in the context of the military rule in Pakistan. The refrain Hum Dekhenge’ (we will see) was sung with passion at protest sites in India. Those protests were abruptly ended as the lockdown was called to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in March 2020. [see the chapter on cultural expressions during the anti-CAA protest].

As the lockdown made life hard for the rural poor and created a massive humanitarian crisis in the country; social media became a potent tool to counter the government propaganda, exposing the plight of the migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres on highways to return to their homes in the absence of transport services, ensuing hunger, police violence and others. Cartoonists, satirists, stand-up comics and others used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels to express their anguish.

By November 2020, farmers gathered in large numbers at protest sites on the borders of the national capital as three farm laws were passed in the Parliament, bypassing pre-legislative processes and without consulting them. The fear of these laws promoting corporatisation of Indian agriculture and further attacking the farmers’ sovereignty led to a massive uproar. Again, songs of defiance and poems of rebellion roared in the air. [see the chapter on cultural expressions in the farmers’ struggles]

Once again, as the second wave of the Pandemic hit hard in the months of March-May, the government was nowhere to be seen. People were forced to take care of themselves and manage on their own. As the Pandemic waned and controversies around vaccination erupted and celebrating the self-declared victory over Corona, #ThankYouModiJI banners surfaced all over the country, humour too begun to wiggle back into public discourse. His tearful address to the nation over TV became a subject of careful lampooning on social media, knowing fully well the cost of such acts.

Soon afterwards, one young woman posted a satirical video on WhatsApp, saying her heart went out to the prime minister. To see such a strong man, break down in tears was more than she could bear. She cursed TV anchor Ravish Kumar, a fiercely critical journalist, who listed all the many lies that PM Modi uttered as part of that address, saying the TV anchor was ruining it all. She added, when someone goes a little off his rocker in the family, the rest of us are expected to listen patiently, let him vent, and out his lies if he must. Admonishing the TV presenter, the woman reminded him that tolerance for those who need to vent is part of the expression of solidarity. It was warm-hearted ridicule of the PM’s habit of lying to his nation.

That such videos are not more common is the wonder — PM Modi, with his long, flowing white beard and frequently bumbling leadership, would be a treat for cartoonists and satirists. But so often does the PM bumble, and so gravely, that it costs lives each time. At the height of the Pandemic, as hospitals fell short of oxygen, doctors pleaded and cried. Some protested that they were doctors, meant to heal, not trained to decide who would live and who would die.

Cartoonist Satish Acharya on pliant media often refered as Godi Media

Data from the department of commerce showed that India had exported a much larger quantity of liquid oxygen than in the previous year, triggering the massive shortfall. It was clear government policy had laid the ground for deaths from lack of oxygen. Cartoonist RK Laxman, who died at 94 in 2015, said, “I pick up what is ridiculous, contradictory, ironical…” But when the absurdity results in death, can cartoons still be drawn?

That perhaps explains why Modi is not more lampooned. Besides, his administration has put the media on a short leash, with government advertisements being a considerable source of revenue for mainstream newspapers. Those who have toed the line are often referred to as ‘Godi media’ (Godi a pun on Modi, meaning lapdog media) and those who have not are faced with false cases, violence, threats, arrests etc. This is visible in the continuously declining ranking of the country in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), making it one of the most dangerous countries for the journalists trying to do their job properly.

Parul Khakhar, a poet from Gujarat, posted a poem on Facebook in May, expressing her anguish at the sight of bodies flowing down the Ganges at the height of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Shav vahini Ganga’ – Ganges the Carrier of Corpses – was read widely, translated into several languages and shared on social media. The state government’s literary mouthpiece came down heavily on the poet, claiming it was “misuse of a poem for anarchy”.

Ganges, the Carrier of Corpses
Translated by Salil Tripathi
Don’t worry, be happy, in one voice speak the corpses
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, we see bodies flow in the Ganges
O King, the woods are ashes,
No spots remain at crematoria,
O King, there are no carers,
Nor any pall-bearers,
No mourners left
And we are bereft
With our wordless dirges of dysphoria
Libitina enters every home where she dances and then prances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, our bodies flow in the Ganges
O King, the melting chimney quivers, the virus has us shaken
O King, our bangles shatter, our heaving chest lies broken
The city burns as he fiddles, Billa-Ranga thrust their lances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, I see bodies flow in the Ganges
O King, your attire sparkles as you shine and glow and blaze
O King, this entire city has at last seen your real face
Show your guts, no ifs and buts,
Come out and shout and say it loud,
“The naked King is lame and weak”
Show me you are no longer meek,
Flames rise high and reach the sky, the furious city rages;
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies flow in the Ganges?

One young couple Vishal Ghazipuri and Sapna Baudh, talented songwriters and singers known for songs that promote BR Ambedkar’s [1] ideas, sang popular songs about PM Modi’s talent for selling national wealth, increasing privatisation etc. The song went viral on social media and soon goons burnt down their studio and threatened them with murder, forcing them into hiding.

There is something to be said for India’s audience too. What cartoon could capture the dark glory of a man called ‘Maut Ka Saudaagar’ – Merchant of Death? That title was bestowed on PM Modi after the riots in Gujarat in 2002 when Modi was chief minister of the state. For about ten years, Modi was barred from travelling to the US due to his actions at that time.

Soon after becoming PM for the first time and travelling to the US, he stumped comedian John Oliver with his speech. Let me not spoil it for you, and please watch it here.


Cartoonists have attempted, with some success, to document even the disturbing; this does not sit well with the genteel sensibilities of those in authority at publication houses with which these artists are engaged. Cartoonist Satish Acharya, for instance, drew a striking image depicting the expanding tentacles of the Chinese in the region some years ago. If a cartoon could be prophetic, then Acharya’s depiction was; two years after that cartoon, a border skirmish between the two countries cost the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. That Cartoon also cost him his job at the newspaper.

In the years leading up to general elections 2014, NDTV, a prominent news channel, ran a series of puppet shows lampooning political leaders. Even after Modi became PM in 2014, this series continued. Modi was the butt of jokes on some of these shows, for his extensive travels abroad and his inane ‘Man Ki Baat (Talking My Mind) on TV. The series went off air after the government raided the founder’s home over a loan resettlement issue. The same fate was meted to one of the largest Hindi newspaper groups, Dainik Bhaskar, which extensively covered the death and mayhem caused during the second wave of Pandemic. The Government Tax department conducted searches and raids at 36 locations across the country, forcing the media group to change its reporting lines.

In a country so vast and so long accustomed to freedom, however, complete suppression of dissent is impossible. Poets and satirists continue to regale readers, and cartoonists are back in action. No large media house will carry their works, so these are often posted on Twitter, which is now in the government’s crosshairs.

Among the latest to face the music is cartoonist Manjul, who Twitter informed that it had received a request from the government to remove his account. Manjul did not know which one of his cartoons had caused offence. Days afterwards, Network 18, the online platform that featured his cartoons, decided to drop them. However, the Twitter community erupted in support through their own cartoons and drawings. To their dismay, despite the repression and harassment from trolls affiliated with the IT cell of BJP, there is always pushback from people. However, it is not enough to match the power and resources at the government’s disposal, which has tamed the social media technology companies through newly framed IT rules.

It is perhaps because we are still in the thick of it and too close to him in real-time that PM Modi is not laughed at and lampooned more – he has given us enough fodder to keep making cartoons for many years.

In January 2015, then US President Barack Obama visited India and PM Modi met him in an elegant striped suit – a photographer later zoomed in on the suit, to discover that the stripes were actually his own full name – Narendra Damodardas Modi – written several times over, and woven into the cloth. The suit was estimated to cost Rs 10 lakh (12000 Euros), a phenomenal sum for a piece of clothing for a man who claimed to have made a living as a tea-seller in his youth. Surprisingly, this rich material did not make it into cartoons in the local press. The suit was later auctioned, and made an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Even at the height of the Pandemic, as the whole city was shut down, construction work continued on the Central Vista in New Delhi – the Modi government plans to construct a new Parliament and a new home for India’s prime minister. This Rs 20,000 crore (2320 million euros) project has seen massive protests, given that the country’s workers were struggling to make ends meet under lockdown. The expense was seen as wasteful and unnecessary, since India’s Parliament and key government buildings are relatively new, some even built after independence. While reporters filed reports stating that workers were continuing work as the city was under lockdown, barricades were erected to prevent photography of the site. This too was not remarked upon humorously, despite the potential to make cartoons from such news items.

When it comes to PM Narendra Modi, the many occasions missed on an excellent cartoon are difficult to list – his educational qualifications remain a mystery, for it is widely known that his undergraduate degree from Delhi University and postgraduate degree from Gujarat University are both fake. Despite all the rich material that exists, the efforts to poke fun remain modest attempts by brave individuals swimming against the tide. What is heartening, though, is that there are several of them.

“He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind. Repeat mechanically your assumptions and suggestions, diminish the opportunity for communicating dissent and opposition. This is the formula for political conditioning of the masses,” said psychoanalyst Joost Meerloo. It was a formula that the Modi government has deployed effectively for some years with the help of a pliant media and immense resources from crony industrialists whom it serves. Thankfully, its potency is eroding with time.


[1Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891‑1956): One of the most prominent Indian leaders of the twentieth century, who founded the dalit discourse in Indian politics and helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India, a movement now known as neo-Buddhism. Also, as the first law minister of independent India and as the Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly for drafting of the Constitution of India, he is considered the ‘father’ of the Indian Constitution. He resigned from the post of law minister in 1951, following the stalling by Parliament of his draft of the Hindu Code Bill through which he sought to promote gender equality. His birth date, April 14, is now a public holiday in India and is known as Ambedkar Jayanti. As a sign of respect, many Indians use the title Babasaheb for him. “Jai Bhim!", referring to his first name, is used as a greeting among many Dalits and the progressive circles. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, the government of India’s highest civilian award.


Rosamma Thomas is a writer and freelance journalist.