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In January 2020, an estimated 250 million people have marched in protest across India, joining a movement that began in opposition to a contentious “Citizenship Amendment Act” (CAA). It’s a piece of legislation that explicitly excludes Muslim immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from being fast-tracked for Indian citizenship. Many see it as an overt erosion of India’s secular identity, and when paired with a “citizenship test” called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), could be used in draconian ways to exclude vulnerable groups from the Indian polity.
The movement was rooted initially in India’s northeast region and on university campuses, but brutal police actions in the state of Assam and at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi brought millions more on the streets in solidarity. The protests are now a cross-cutting, multi-generation movement, and it’s being chronicled and defined by a new wave of artists, both on the streets and across the Indian diaspora. Webcomics, in particular, are being used to cut through the noise, explain complicated issues, and spread the word online. In a fiercely divided social media landscape, these comic creators are representing the movement with style and wit.
Since the CAA was passed in parliament on December 11, 2019, artwork from established Indian comic creators like Orijit Sen and Appupen have become common sights on Twitter and Instagram. During some of the earliest protests, many creatives banded together in collectives to release posters that could be printed and shared.
Watching from afar, the USA-based duo Meher Manda and Mayukh Goswami felt compelled to start a “webcomic of dissent” that they called “Jamun Ka Ped” (which translates to “The Jamun Tree” and takes its name from a 1960s satirical short story about bureaucratic inaction). “It came out of a profound helplessness,” Manda told Hyperallergic. “It felt like none of us could afford to be centrist or apathetic.”
The pair releases weekly comics that are sharp, insightful and timely, amplifying voices from pockets of protest around India, like the women who occupied the roads in the South Delhi neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh. The panels also make connections with broader governmental issues such as the state of Kashmir, which has been under an internet and communications blockade for over 150 days.
Manda and Goswami are animated by a sense that the mainstream media is “failing” to present an accurate picture of the movement, with important context getting lost in the cacophony of editorials and online disinformation. India’s raucous TV news channels, in particular, have come under fire as a toxic news source.
“Webcomics and illustrators have an advantage,” said Manda. “They can make a succinct point by marrying essential thesis arguments about the movement with images that can stick and invoke curiosity from the fence-sitters.”
On the night of January 5, a large group of armed, masked men entered Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), muscled their way into dorms and hostels, and violently attacked students with rods. For artists like Vivekananda Roy Ghatak, the incident was a shocking escalation of violence that spurred him into action.
“More than the art, the amazing copywriting that goes into these works shows what super sharp, mature, aware and intelligent citizens of this country feel,” said Ghatak. “Their honesty and selflessness propel them further than any fake news or publicity stunt.”
Creatives like Ghatak, Goswami, and Manda have to frequently face online trolls. Protestors and groups associated with the protests are constant targets for harassment and the subject of rumors and insinuations that they’re “separatists” or have secret associations with neighboring Pakistan. As a result, many public figures — especially India’s powerful Bollywood film stars and cricket players — have been largely silent on the movement. In the absence of solidarity from the country’s icons, art and comics have stepped into the void to redefine the iconic, creating new symbols.
“As shareable commodities, they can combat the right wing-led propaganda,” Manda said. Creating symbolic images is key, she added, helping sustain what both Manda and Ghatak consider a “long movement.”
Despite waves of escalating protests, the government of India has made little attempt at compromise or conciliation. Another round of coordinated action is being planned during India’s Republic Day on January 26. Comic creators see their role expanding, from signal boosters for protests to bridge-builders, explaining and clarifying the issues and being a witness to what might come next. “Hum Dekhenge” (“We Shall Witness”), the title of an iconic Urdu poem by the Pakistan poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is a common catchphrase. What started as art in response to state violence is now something more lasting: a political consciousness.
“The true progress of any nation can be seen by how its art and its artists flourish,” said Ghatak. He’s confident that even more comic artists will join the fray, and the scene will only grow richer. “There’s a phrase someone came up with online that I love. It goes, ‘You divide. We multiply’.”