Kanika Mishra, a Mumbai-based editorial cartoonist, has won the “Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning for 2014,” an annual honor bestowed by Cartoonists Rights Network International, a U.S.-based nonprofit seeking to protect the creative freedom of social and editorial cartoonists.
CRNI said the award goes to “a cartoonist in great danger” demonstrating “exceptional courage in the exercise of free speech rights under extraordinary circumstances.”
Mishra and her family received numerous death threats from the followers of an Indian holy man and cult leader, Asaram Bapu, whom Mishra satirized for his alleged sexual misconduct.
Four hours after learning that there was a police manhunt for Asaram, who had been accused of raping a 16-year-old daughter of one of his followers, Mishra tweeted and posted to her Facebook page a cartoon lampooning the guru’s supporters’ blind faith in their leader. More cartoons followed showing him headed for jail.
Asaram was already on Mishra’s radar for his much publicized comments that the victim of the 2012 gang rape on a Delhi bus that made international headlines was in part responsible for her attack.
He was quoted at the time as saying, “Only five or six people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists…She should have called the culprits ‘brothers’ and begged before them to stop…This could have saved her dignity and life.”
“Asaram’s statement against…the Delhi bus rape victim — that she should have called those rapists ‘brothers’ — made me every very angry at that time,” Mishra told India-West in an e-mail, “and then news of (him) allegedly raping a minor girl was the point where the artist inside of me could not take it any more, and needed to express her anger.”
Despite more threats from Asaram’s supporters, she continued to criticize the guru and his followers in her cartoons.
After some of her cartoons were published in India Today and other publications, the threats intensified. “I deactivated my Twitter account. But I could not delete my Facebook page,” she said. “They also got my contact number…and started abusing me and my husband severely on the phone, threatening to kill us. They were calling non-stop…from different areas of India.”
Mishra even depicted the threats in another cartoon.
“I decided not to send this message that I am afraid of these goons. I made more and more cartoons on Asaram as his followers abused and threatened me.”
This year's ceremony to honor Mishra will be held at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in San Francisco Oct. 9-11.
“I thought that, if a minor girl who was allegedly raped by her parents’ guru can stand up against these monsters, why should I send this message that I am afraid? I decided to make cartoons until these goons were tired of abusing and threatening me."
“Cartoons are very much there in India’s mass media, both on the Web and newspapers. I can say that we have this culture of cartoons, and I hope that it will only grow bigger and strengthen our democracy," Mishra said.
Mishra told India-West in an e-mail that she started her career “with my studies (B.F.A. and M.F.A. from Lucknow College of Arts) and worked on a comic strip for children for the newspaper Swatantra Bharat…I always had this dream to become a cartoonist. I have not seen a single female cartoonist in India," she said.
“I almost forgot all about my childhood dream. I went to Delhi to learn animation (and) worked as graphic designer in various media houses. After marriage, I came to Mumbai.”
She then worked at various magazines. “My childhood dream was almost lost in all this, but my wrath against Asaram and other similar incidents became a reason for birth of ‘Karnika Kahen’ (her cartoon everywoman) and I felt as my dream got new life and new wings. And now, I want to fly high in sky in the world of cartoons. I believe it is almost like a duty to keep ‘Karnika Kahen’ going.”