Art is supposed to move you: Sanitary Panels artist Rachita Taneja

Political cartoonist Rachita Taneja named her webcomic Sanitary Panels with an intention to make India’s “uncles feel little uncomfortable”.

But since its inception in 2014, her sticky figures with sharp satire has made many uncomfortable, overwhelmingly India’s right-wing groups.

In 2020, contempt of court proceedings was initiated against cartoonist Rachita Taneja, the creator of webcomic Sanitary Panels, over drawings that deal with the bail plea hearing of Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami.

Sanitary Panels now has 38,000 followers on Twitter and 1,25,000 followers on Instagram. The comics have become a resistance expression to many. The comics emphasize politics and gender.

Last week, Maktoob’s Saher Hiba Khan spoke to Taneja about satire, censorship and Sanitary Panels.


When and where did you get the idea to Sanitary Panels and what was behind the name?

I started the comic [Sanitary Panels} in 2014 and at that time students were being arrested for posting their political opinions on Facebook and generally on the internet. So, my first comic was in response to that. And when it comes to the name, I just wanted it to be confrontational and I wanted to reflect the kind of work I’d be doing which is to address taboos and I also wanted to make uncles feel a little uncomfortable.

What has been the reaction from your friends/family targeting the state/establishment?

I don’t go after the state, I criticise rather than dissent. And my friends and family have been very supportive. They’ve always had my back and always provided me with emotional support. They give me their feedback very often, I have a couple of friends I regularly go to with my comics before I post them and ask them for their thoughts. If they find it funny or if it’s sending out the message.

I depend on my friends and family a lot and they’re exceptionally supportive. 

In some of your recent comics, you have indirectly targeted a particular political party and do you think that because of them the situation has started to rot at a much faster pace?

Yeah, I think that the country is moving backwards under the current government. They are introducing a lot more hate and they’re fascist and they’re taking us farther to the right. But you see, even the previous governments aren’t without fault. I am a non-partisan actor in all of this, I am a political cartoonist and whichever government is in power, I will criticise them, anyone in positions of power, I will criticise them. But I guess under the BJP, India is kind of headed to a place that is not what our values are about and what our people are about. So, yes I will make comics when I see that happening when I see injustice happening when I see these kinds of things play out regardless of the government. 

Do you support the new bill which has increased the legal age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years?

I am not an issue expert, but I’ll say how it’s a smokescreen for the actual issues and crimes that women and girls face. So, it’s one thing to ask for a specific marriage age and it’s another to enforce existing laws that are set in place to protect women and girls. You see Child marriages are still happening, it doesn’t matter if you change the age.

This is just a way to distract from the actual issues, you can’t put a law in place without actually acknowledging the fact that child marriages are happening already, a high number of rapes and marital rape is still not criminalised. So, I think I am not an issue expert on what marriage age would be best but I believe that addressing things that already exist in society is more important.

I mean talking about, there are laws in place to protect women and girls, introducing new laws or changing laws will not go anywhere if you’re not enforcing the laws already in place. Patriarchy is deep-rooted in our society and there are also societal related changes that need to be made but the patriarchy is very much reinforced by the government right now. I mean to educate girls they’ll say “Beti Bachao” but the girl is always in relation to a man. When we stop treating women as objects or property, or in relation to a man, that’s when you see where the government is at with patriarchy. They’re a very patriarchal government and they’re reinforcing patriarchy. So changing these laws won’t make much of a difference. 

Through your comics, what are the issues that you usually try to cover and have you had an event where you were unable to draw a comic due to its content?

I make comics on everything, ranging from social issues like women’s rights to environmental rights to queer rights. And only one time my comic went against the community standards of Facebook and Instagram both because I made it about community standards. I was criticising the community standards of both and they removed that comic only. Facebook is quite sexist in ways, they don’t remove rape threats but they’ll remove comments like ‘Men are trash’ and joking comments like that. And then there was an uproar on it, Mirror now, scroll and a couple of media houses covered it and then Instagram and Facebook put it back.

Are you inspired by any comic artist and how do you see comics as a tool of resistance?

I am inspired by a lot of artists, comic or otherwise. I follow like 200 comic artists at least. Every type of art inspires me. And I feel that all art is political or all art should be political and art is a very important part of movements and revolutions. You see everyone creates art, whenever you go to a protest and draw a sign, you’re creating art. It is a significant part of any movement to create art.

I also think that political cartoons specifically also reflect the mood of the country, of what people are thinking. So often you’ll see satire is being silenced, comedians are being silenced and comic artists are being silenced, their work is being censored, they’re taken down. It is mainly because they are very correctly reflecting what people are thinking about. Comedy and satire are important because it holds the mirror to those in power. It is an important part of movement building. 

What were the challenges you faced when you started this comic?

I mean, all sorts of challenges that you face when you’re a woman and speaking your mind. You have people insulting and threatening you, doxxing you. And there is an endless number of trolls that you have to deal with. You see everyone is targeted based on their identity, so how a man would be targeted is different from how a woman would be targeted, and then it is different from how a Dalit woman and a transwoman would be targeted.

When they find out your identity, they try to use it to target you. The report by wire on Tek Fog, they’re showing how women journalists are targeted using gendered insults. So I think depending on your identity, you’re going to be targeted in a specific way and I think because of patriarchy women are generally targeted in a gendered way. My photos have been photoshopped, circulated and vile things have been written with those photos. So that comes with being a woman in any public space and the internet is a public space.

Patriarchy doesn’t disappear online and the IT cell people who come after me are men. The topic of Marital Rape is in the spotlight and innumerable men are against criminalising it is because they want to continue having power over women. They want to continue whatever they’re able to do in a marriage. This is how just a patriarchal society works, men don’t want to give up any of their power and without that happening women can’t have more power, there has to be a balance.

What are your views about the concept of “Art for art’s sake”?

I believe all art is political. And even the art that isn’t political is making a political point. I just think this concept is meaningless. Art is supposed to move you.

Do you think that your comics are stuck in an echo chamber and if yes, how do you plan to break out from it?

Yeah, the comics are stuck in an echo chamber but I think they hate my comics so much that they share it inadvertently, even if it’s to criticise they end up sharing it. They’re putting it out of the echo chamber for me but I think Facebook, Twitter and social media, in general, try to keep you as a user on their platform for the longest amount of time and the way they do that is by showing you content that you already agree with. I think it is very difficult as an artist to break out of that but as a political cartoonist when something is happening on Twitter and when people are already talking about an issue, I try to become a part of that conversation and give my point of view and the point of view of the like-minded and insert that into the existing conversation which is a good way to reach more people. 

A case was registered against you, what’s the update about it?

I am not at liberty to speak about it but it’s an ongoing case.