This article was co-authored by Inji Pennu.
Kanika Mishra is so involved with her drawing that sometimes she dreams in cartoons. Some of the dreams end up in her artwork.
Art is often produced to question social injustice. Using cartoons or comic strips, authors sometimes can make serious statements while mocking society and dealing with complex and sensitive issues. Cartoons can be easier to absorb, to connect with, and to share.
Though activism through the graphic arts is not new, the growing presence of women in comics is. Female comics artists are working to express themselves often against perceived social norms. With the advent of Internet and blogs and social media, more voices of women can be more easily heard today. But for some, consequences can be vicious.
Kanika Mishra suffered retaliation when she began creating comics that denounced the abuses of a guru. In India, gurus play a relevant role in sectors of social life. Kanika calls them self-proclaimed “god-men”.
Kanika took on Asaram Bapu, one of these self-proclaimed “god-men”, a controversial figure who has been reported making sexist comments in a rape case, being part of a questionable land encroachment case and who was arrested for sexual assault of a minor.
In Kanika’s words from an interview over email:
India is a country where many spiritual scientists discovered new truths of life and presented it to the world. People here easily believe in someone if he says that he is God-man. Asaram is one of that kind of person who wears the garb of a saint and exploit innocent people. He tells the world to sacrifice your money, life, family, wife for [the] Guru…
Kanika further adds about Asaram:
Asaram has a property of multi-millions, has hundreds of real estate properties in different cities of India. He has his own private jet. Most of the Indian political leaders and people on influential posts, specially right-winged visit him to take his blessings which give them access to a particular vote-bank. He says that he is God and let people worship him as a God! His son also claims the same but now both of them are behind the bars for allegedly raping many women.
The rape case which would eventually put Asaram in jail inspired Kanika to speak out. She developed a character called Karnika Kahen who she calls, “a common girl of India” with a name meaning “Karnika speaks”.
In her first appearance as a cartoon character, Karnika mocked the simplistic beliefs of the guru’s blind followers:
In another episode, Kankika quotes Asaram speaking about the famous 2012 Delhi gang rape case. He had remarked that the victim, “Nirbhaya, was equally guilty with those who raped, tortured, and killed her.” According to Kanika,
Asaram stated that the unfortunate rape victim of Delhi bus should have called those monsters “Bhaipisoyaa” (brother) who raped her or she should have recited the “guru-mantra” to save herself from that disaster.
As Asaram was caught by the police for his rape crimes, Kanika Mishra depicted the news in another cartoon. In Kanika's cartoon, she used this saying and turned it against the guru:
Why fight a guru, Kanika?
When police caught Asaram (…), I made this cartoon where my cartoon character Karnika was telling him why does not he call Policeman “Bhaiyaa” (brother) or recite a “guru-mantra” to save his ass?
My purpose was to make people aware that this person is not a God but a normal human being like us or we even can not call him normal as in courts, lawyer told the judge that Asaram is suffering from pedophilia.
Kanika’s work did not go unnoticed in India. India Today, a “leading political magazine”, and Aaj Tak, “a national news channel”, published the Karnika Kahen character on their website. Asaram’s followers attacked back with threats, bullying, hacking into her social network accounts and terrorizing her with numerous anonymous calls to her mobile. Frightened, her mother advised her to give up. But to this, Kanika responded,
I decided to stand up with that 16 years old girl whom Asaram allegedly raped. If she can face these monsters and his blind followers and the whole world, why can’t I? And what answer will I give to my teenage nieces and other little girls whom I always told to be fearless. So I decided to make more cartoons on Asaram and make more fun of his followers until these Asaram's goons stop threatening me.
Ultimately, Kanika had to register complaints with police and their team investigators of Internet-related crimes, as well as to the National Comission for Women to fight back against a derogatory Facebook cartoon page aimed to attack her [Note: the authors of this article were unable to find the Facebook page and it appears to have been taken down]. Meanwhile, Asaram’s son was arrested, Kanika reported that soon after, the threats began to cease.
To Kanika, her cartoons were important not only to denounce the rape cases but also to give voice to a female perspective.
We have many famous cartoonist in India but most of them are male and they generally represent a common man (Aam Admi). I have not seen a single female cartoonist in India… [my character Karnika] raises her voice on various social and political issues but who can understand the problem of Indian girls better than a girl. Karnika Kahen is “ common girl “ or “ common woman” of India.