Rachita Taneja: Making Uncles Feel UncomfortableBloombergQuintOpinion
“Is free speech a right any more?”
I’m talking to feminist webcomic creator Rachita Taneja about the 2019 protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that broke out across India when she poses this rhetorical question. It lingers unanswered, weighing down the electrical signal.
The 29-year-old artist, whose Sanitary Panels comic has reached millions since it began in 2014, faces a criminal contempt of court petition by a final year law student who was offended by what the stick figures in three of her comics were saying about India’s Supreme Court. Ironically, Taneja is on the board of trustees of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties organisation that fights for our right to use the internet with liberties granted by the Constitution.
Taneja, who tells me she can’t discuss her case, must now wait for the Supreme Court to list the petition and decide whether or not it will issue her notice. The punishment for criminal contempt can include a jail term of up to six months.
Legal experts have questioned who is really making a mockery of the apex court: the dissenting artist who is a citizen of the world’s largest democracy or the Attorney General who okayed the petition agreeing that Taneja’s cartoons were “intended to denigrate” and “deliberately intended to shake the confidence that the people have” in the Supreme Court.
Taneja, who moved from Bangalore to Delhi last year for personal reasons, closely tracked the protests against the discriminatory CAA and National Register of Citizens; her impactful line drawings often showed up on protest posters. Poets, musicians, and graphic artists on Instagram were the creative backbone of that movement.
“I was always on my phone, drawing. I wanted to feel like I was being of service,” she says. “It was a glaring example of what we are up against, we saw the clear clampdown of dissent. Dissenters were detained, there was the attack on Jamia [Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi] and we faced the serious issue of free speech not being a right in this country.”
“There’s UAPA, sedition…all ready to be used when someone dares to question those in power,” she adds, referring to the assault on civil liberties by the state in recent years via industrial-strength laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, tweaked in 2019 to allow the state to term individuals “terrorists” and used to jail thousands. “They can’t make any of these allegations stick but by then people’s entire worlds have been turned around.”
And then there’s the chilling effect. Taneja articulates what the overuse of these laws leaves unsaid: “If you don’t obey, this will happen to you as well.”
Indian women are familiar with this kind of patriarchal bullying. “As youngish (at 29 she doesn’t think she’s young) women we’ve been told our entire lives, sit in a certain way, be respectable…but even if you follow all the patriarchal norms you won’t be treated as equal,” she says. “So why not do everything according to your own rules?”
That’s a philosophy I can drink to.
Her web comic, which she began in 2014 after two people were arrested, under the now-defunct Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, in separate incidents for posting comments on social media against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is always feminist, very political, usually confrontational – and sometimes plain silly.
Like the time she was having fun with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s name: Frida Kha-lo. “I like making bad puns,” she says, laughing. “After this, I found out that one of my favourite standup comedians, Mae Martin, had just followed me and I hoped she hadn’t seen this.”
Taneja says she’s always been bad at art. “My art teacher never thought I was an artist but I did it anyway and still had fun with it. I doodled in meetings, in my classes in college.”
The name Sanitary Panels came from the sanitary napkin, an everyday hygiene item that chemists still wrap surreptitiously before handing over. “I wanted to make uncles uncomfortable. In order to facilitate any kind of change you have to make people feel discomfort.” Her instantly recognisable stick figures chat about everything from Modi’s unfulfilled promises to love jihad and the garbage that is prime time television.
In a video created for the 2017 Town Hall in New Delhi where former U.S. president Barack Obama interacted with young Indians, Taneja explains what her comic tries to do: “I want people to think it’s alright to speak their minds because that’s what I'm doing through my work.”
I wonder if her comics make people think differently about the politics of New India. At a recent AMA (ask me anything), she says, a bunch of people told her that she had made them rethink their politics. “I can’t do that with my extended family but I can do that with you…great,” she thought.
The values she reiterates in Sanitary Panels are clear: “My work is heavily reliant on justice, reparations and…I don't know how to put this…the idea of not taking shit sitting down.”
That last trait is one that Generation Z was born with, she believes. “Gen Z is owning the internet, I’m completely cheerleading for them, they’re extremely funny. How are all of them funny? They shitpost a lot, they don’t take shit, I really like that. They’re significantly more queer and I like that too,” she says.
She watched Gen Z lead the climate march in New York last year and interacted closely with young activists who were speaking up against the draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification. “They’re fantastic. They know how to get people’s attention.”
One memorable collaboration was with her friend, Pakistani artist Shehzil Malik on Aug. 15, 2019. Both women wanted a way to express their solidarity with Jammu & Kashmir after the Indian government abrogated section 370 of the Constitution and imposed a strict curfew. “We were conflicted about putting out something on behalf of people whose voices weren’t even coming out.” Eventually, they used photographs from the streets of Kashmir and verse by Kashmiri poets in a series of six powerful images.
Apart from her unconditional love for Gen Z, her heroes include members of the Trans Lives Matter movement and, these days, the protesting farmers. “I see their pictures weight lifting and that is badass. How do they make it seem so cool? I’m loving all the visuals coming from the protest,” she says.
Like the one by photographer Himanshu Dua, where a four-year-old boy holds up a poster that articulates what so many Indians are thinking: Sadda Haq Aethe Rakh. Translated it means, give us our rights, now.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.