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FeaturesNewsA tasteless cartoon, Twitter and Indo-Sri Lanka relations

A tasteless cartoon, Twitter and Indo-Sri Lanka relations


To see the Cartoon clearly   click here

On Sunday, for some unfathomable reason, Lakbima – a newspaper with high circulation – decided to run this cartoon. Lakbima currently has no Editor. Whether it’s acting editor, a senior journalist, saw and approved this cartoon before publication is not known. What is a matter of public record is the response to this cartoon after it was discovered by The Hindu’sforeign correspondent, R.K.Radhakrishnan (@RKKrishnan),

Very quickly, the Sri Lankan President’s spokesman, Bandula Jayasekara (@bundeljayse), was involved in the discussion and asked for an official response. Given that the publication in a broadsheet of a cartoon that depicts the Indian Prime Minister underneath an uplifted sari of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and looking up isn’t exactly something that’s defensible, even for committed apologists, the response was unequivocal,

It is unclear however whether ‘we’ in this tweet actually refers to anyone else, since Jayasekara does not speak on behalf of, or represent, Sri Lanka’s MEA, and when that tweet was posted, it wasn’t made explicitly clear whether it was after consultations with the President, or his cabal. In the conversation with Radhakrishnan, reproduced below as an image, Jayasekara also makes pains to demonstrate that though the paper is owned by a businessman very close to the incumbent regime, it is actually a private paper over which the government has no control. The tweet does not endorse the cartoon, but stops short of an apology over its hugely offensive nature.

An artistic expression – Ranga Jayasuriya, Actin editor

In the meanwhile, Groundviews got in touch with a highly respected columnist for the newspaper, informing the paper of the furore over the cartoon and the rapid escalation of condemnation and discontent on Twitter (indeed, over and against Sri Lanka as a whole). Ranga Jayasuriya, who is Lakbima’s Acting Editor (@RangaJayasuriya), tweeted,

#The lakbima cartoon is a matter of artistic expression and therefore of freedom of expression. #lakbimacartoon
 A dose of tolerance is mandatory for any healthy society #lakbimacartoon

Jayasuriya was Lakbima’s International Editor and Defence Correspondent. Note that these are respectively
Jayasuriya’s 3rd and 4th tweets, and he is followed by a grand total of, at the time of writing, 3 people. The two tweets are Jayasuriya’s first after 234 days. The first tweet is incorrectly tagged (bizarrely, with #The instead of #lka and/or #srilanka) and does not address any of the paper’s key interlocutors at the time on Twitter, via the platform’s @ syntax. The second tweet attempts to create a hashtag for the discussion, but fails in this respect, because no one picks up on it, strengthening the point that no one really knows about Ranga’s account to begin with.

Indian responses

The newspaper’s owners and it’s acting Editor may not be fully aware of the cartoon’s fallout.
As Ranga was busy posting his two tweets (the only ones up until the time of this article), the conversation was tagged with the official Twitter handle of Dr. Manmohan Singh (@PMOIndia), the Prime Minister of India, guaranteeing that the Indian government – which monitors social media content very carefully for any “inflammatory content” – was, if not already aware of the cartoon, certainly pointed in its direction.

Vijay Sappani, a well known (Indian) voice on Twitter tweeting from Canada (@vijaysappani), then asked Radhakrishnan whether CM Jayalalitha’s party had any official response to the cartoon. Radhakrishnan’s answer was ominous and revealing,

Noting that he was sure the cartoon would get noticed, Sappani tweeted the official and home telephone numbers of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister (which are already in the public domain) and noted he had emailed the Chief Minister’s Secretary over the matter. In the meanwhile, Groundviews and others based in Sri Lanka were discussing how the cartoon and the paper could be brought to account under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). @teearuna, a Sri Lankan, had however the suggestion we agreed with the most,
In the middle of this conversation, well-known poet and writer Meena Kandasamy (who recently made an impassioned plea for a boycott of Sri Lanka in India’s Tehelka website) retweeted a tweet originally published by @banlankacricket.

@banlankacricket is followed by 47. @meenakandasamyis followed by 12,401. Groundviews hasn’t done a network analysis of her followers, but it would not be wrong to assume that her voice hits a chord with some of the most influential accounts in India, esp. in South India, and South Indians in the larger Indian diaspora.
Picking up from Kandasamy’s tweet was Jan Jananayagam (@jan_jananayagam), an influential voice from London,
By this time, the commentary had moved on from the specific condemnation of an outrageous cartoon to the outright condemnation of Sri Lanka, by very influential voices on Twitter from sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora as well as India. A selection of the anti-Sri Lankan sentiment this one cartoon alone has contributed to, at a time when Indo-Sri Lankan relations are already test, is captured in the screenshot below (search term Lakbima, taken at 0800hrs SL time).

 Inflammatory reports re TN attacks

While it is the nature of social media to peak quickly over an issue or event and then as quickly forget and move on, the fact remains that Lakbima’stasteless cartoon has given unnecessary fodder to voices, from the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora as well as from India. It’s interesting that this degree of outrage has not been seen since early 2009. It suggests the growth of Twitter in the past three years, but also clearly flags that content originally meant for domestic readership/consumption can and will be used internationally to support or challenge other agendas.
Lakbima’s cartoon emphatically does not speak for all Sri Lankans. It may not even resonate with Lakbima’s own readership. The decision to publish is deeply regrettable, and shows a marked lack of strategic foresight, contextual awareness and just good taste. Sadly, other leading mainstream media in Sri Lanka have in the past week published inflammatory images, purportedly of the bus carrying Sri Lankan pilgrims that was attacked recently in Tamil Nadu, but actually of a bus that was bombed by the LTTE in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, way back in 2008.
Lost in an melee fuelled by careless journalism are voices calling for more moderate, principled responses to a situation that can, for purely parochial and domestic reasons be used by many on both countries to more deeply harm and hurt physically as well as diplomatically. An example of the kind of voice drowned out is India’s Leena Manimekalai writing recently to Tehelka. For example, she notes that,

Ms Kandasamy praises Jayalalithaa as a self-respecting leader, packing up a school football team. Are those school children, an emissary of Rajapaksa? Or how brave is it to target them? As a democratically elected government Jayalalitha, if respectful of “Tamil sentiments”, would not have murdered six Dalit protesters at Paramakudi by establishing a police state or haunt every possible measures of the previous regime such as the uniform system of school education, new assembly building, Anna library and impose Section 144 in Koodankulam. All her statements and resolutions on the Lankan Tamil issue are not lesser political stunts than that of Karunanidhi’s, who championed the TESO conference. It is a paradox that her close ally BJP has invited Rajapaksa to lay the foundation for a Buddhist university at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. I wonder what will be her resistance show for that event when it happens.

Just as India is much more than Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, Sri Lanka cannot and should not be reduced to a file image incorrectly used in a leading newspaper, or a tasteless cartoon. Condemnation of specific comments, content and actions is to be welcomed. Blanket condemnations of entire countries and their people sadly only help the extremists, within and outside its borders, grow louder and stronger.

Edited Version form the Groundviews the full discussion is here

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