The Australian has defended a Bill Leak cartoon in yesterday’s edition that critics said was racist, arguing that the gag was not that Indians were poor and uneducated, but that the UN was sending them useless aid.

Academics, Indian journalists and social media critics said the cartoon depended on racist stereotypes to make fun of Indian people. It depicts a group of Indians in traditional dress complaining about the delivery of UN solar panels. “It’s no good, you can’t eat them,” one cries. “Hang on, let me try one with a bit of mango chutney,” another responds. The caption below reads Aid A La Mode, roughly, “Fashionable Aid”.


The Bill Leak cartoon in yesterday’s Australian

Catch News, an English-language Indian publication, weighed in on the controversy, explaining that India was a powerhouse of green energy generation. “You may send us your apology soon, Mr Leak. We’ll send you a few jars of scrumptious mango chutney in return,” it stated. The cartoon made the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and in the UK, The Telegraph. Meanwhile closer to home, Amanda Wise, associate professor of sociology at Macquarie University, told The Guardian Australia the cartoon was “unequivocally racist” and “draws on very base stereotypes of third world, underdeveloped people who don’t know what to do with technology”.

“India is the technology centre of the world right now and has some of the most high-tech industries on the planet in that part of the world. The underlying message is that people in developing countries don’t need all these technologies to do with climate change — they need food. But actually it is people living in poverty that will suffer the most through food security, sea level rises, dropping of the water table.”

Meanwhile, Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope described Leak’s cartoon on Twitter as “absurd racist rubbish”.

But in a statement this morning, The Australian’s editors said the critics had misunderstood the cartoon:

“We stand by this cartoon and believe it is a strong example of Bill Leak and The Australian’s exercise of its commitment to freedom of speech. The cartoon does not intend to ridicule Indians but the climate change activists who would send poor people solar panels rather than give them something they need — cheap power, aid and a hand up.

“This has been a long-running theme throughout the Paris conference.

“Those following the debates in and around the Paris conference run in our pages would have realised the target of the cartoon was not Indians. It was quite the opposite. Our readers would have — and, in fact, have — understood this.”

As evidence of the Oz’s focus on such useless aid, the statement offers up a recent piece by economist Bjorn Lomborg, which detailed the efforts of those in Dharnai, an Indian village in Bihar, to connect to the power grid. After a delay, Lomborg writes, Greenpeace decided to supply them with solar panels, which were “drained of power within a few hours”. When a visiting politician turned up to see the progress, he was greeted with villagers demanding to be connected to “real electricity”. Thankfully, Lomborg wrote, the villagers are today connected to the power grid.

Bill Leak’s cartoons have provoked accusations of racism in the past. Last year, The Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network slammed a Leak cartoon published that depicted a Palestinian militant with a hooded face bending down to pat his young child on the head, telling the boy to “go out to play and win the PR war for daddy”.

George Browning, the former Anglican bishop of Canberra, told Crikey he was shocked by the cartoon. “I immediately thought of my Palestinian friends. There is no one in the world who loves their children more than the Palestinians. Can you imagine how it would feel to see the cartoon after having lost a child in an Israeli airstrike?”

But the cartoon wasn’t making fun of Palestinians, but of terrorists, then Oz editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell said. “It depicts a Hamas terrorist, hence the black face covering and automatic weapon over his shoulder,” he said. “The cartoon could not be clearer.”

Leak is one of Australia’s most awarded cartoonists. He’s won nine Walkley awards, and is an awarded portrait painter — he’s won the Packing Room Prize twice and the Archiband People’s Choice award three times.