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India: Arrest of Cartoonist on Sedition Charges Sparks Debate

Categories: South Asia, India, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Human Rights, Law, Media & Journalism, Politics, Protest, Technology

On 8 September, 2012, award-winning political cartoonist was arrested in Mumbai, India, on charges of sedition and remanded to police custody. Twenty-five year old Aseem Trivedi [1], joint winner of the 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award [2] by the Cartoonists Rights Network Internationa [3]l (CRNI), is best known for his hard-hitting, cartoon-based online campaign Cartoons Against Corruption [4]. He is also a founder member of Save Your Voice [5], a campaign/movement that aims to mobilize public opinion against Internet censorship.

Trivedi has been arrested for “insulting [6]” the Parliament and other National symbols through his political cartoons,which parodied the symbols [7] in an attempt to depict a nation beset by scams and corruption scandal. The arrest was done on the basis of  private complaint(s) [8] filed against him with the Mumbai police and at the High Court. Earlier this year, Trivedi's website had faced a shutdown [9], though he has since then moved to another blog [4].

Screenshot of the blog Cartoons Against Corruption. [4]

Screenshot of the blog Cartoons Against Corruption.

Anti-corruption activists [10], his peers [11], as well as netizens are outraged at his arrest, which is widely being seen as a politically motivated [12] and wrongful act [13] by the government. Justice Katju [14], who is the Chairman of the Press Council of India, defended Trivedi strongly and said [15] that political satire was an occupational hazard that the political establishment must learn to put up with.

On his blog Musings, blogger Arun writes [16]:

The politicians are nervous, it seems, outrageously, and have gone after cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. See this. [17] This is outrageous!  What is happening to freedom of speech in India?

Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi arrested in India for "insulting" National symbols. Original image from Wikipedia, used and adapted by the author under CC BY-SA 3.0 [1]

Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi arrested in India for “insulting” National symbols. Original image from Wikipedia, used and adapted by the author under CC BY-SA 3.0

Expressing support for Trivedi, Sanjeev Sabhlok, an ex-bureaucrat, is scathing in his criticism of the political establishment. Drawing attention to a political cartoon that he himself had drawn in the 1970s, he says [18]:

Apparently, in India, it is criminal to depict the state for what it is: a monster that is sucking up the blood of the people of India…Apparently Trivedi has shown disrespect to national symbols…What is more important: symbols or reality? In my view the government of India is showing the GREATEST disrespect to national symbols. Trivedi has got it right.

Tweets reflecting popular sentiments and outrage have been pouring in, making #AseemTrivedi trend on Twitter. Some examples:

Nikhil Moro [19] (@nikhilmoro): Atrocious! Aseem Trivedi, Indian political cartoonist, arrested under Sec. 124A, the colonial law under which Gandhi was convicted in 1922.

Sujit Kumar Sahu [20] (@sujitsahu53): @janlokpal If a cartoonist can draw a political cartoon then that is crime, but fighting inside parliament is not a crime..!!Jago India Jago

PennyKin [21] (@pallavipinakin): Strange times indeed when a cartoon is classed as sedition but shameless corruption is acceptable. #AseemTrivedi #India

Chetan Bhagat [22] (chetan_bhagat): Scamsters who give away country's resources to friends for free are guilty of sedition, not cartoonists.

Sardar Khan [23] (@hussync_in): You know you are in India when as a cartoonist you are jailed, and as a terrorist you are safe n secured! #AseemTrivedi #iProtest

Tushar A. Gandhi [24] (@TusharG): Arresting and charging Aseem Trivedi is a contemptuous action it must be condemned & Government must be ridiculed.

However, some netizens are also raising questions as to why the outrage is against the government en bloc, when the arrest was made on the basis of private complaint(s) and a court order that followed. Others do not agree to such differentiation:

Abdulla Madumoole [25] (@AMadumoole): @TusharG But it is a private complaint, police has acted as per court warrant – why govt shld be ridiculed?

Mahesh Murthy [26] (@maheshmurthy): @probablytrippy cops = arm of govt, carrying out orders of politicians. since forever.

Some are also questioning  the appropriateness of some of Trivedi's cartoons, such as Gang rape of Mother India [27] (which shows a woman being pinned down) saying that these are in poor taste. However, others are seeing them as acceptable analogies. This has rekindled the discussion about whether or not there ought to be a fine line between art/satire and obscenity.

Siddhartha [28] (@srameshwaram): ashutoshibn7 Aseem Should be freed, everybody should get a chance, but Mother India cartoon should be removed ASAP.,

Shipi Tewari [29] (@shipitewari): Pls don't make ur DPs into trivedi's cartoons.. They are disgusting and cheap.. Pls find other ways to support him! Ughh!

R.K. Mishra [30] (@rkmishra100): @gsurya Both M F Hussain and #Aseem hurt the feelings of people. Everybody can't resist the reaction. #Aseem should apologize.

Sai Kumar [31] (@m_saiK): @PowercutIN and any sensible person knows that cartoon did not insult mother India… It insulted the people running it

Nilanjana Roy [32] (@nilanjanaroy): @aparnaray If you made tastelessness a crime, what would happen to Parliament? Jailing a cartoonist isn't an act of artistic judgement!

On his part, Trivedi remains defiant [33] and has said that he will continue his fight against corruption in political life and governance. Reacting to the popular outrage, the Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil has said that [34] he was looking into the matter but admitted prima facie that the police had no reason to take the cartoonist into custody. The police too it seem to have had a change of heart and are now open to giving up [35] his custody. Netizens were already seeing this as a possible win for digital media.

Mahesh Murthy [36] (@maheshmurthy) Is #AseemTrivedi [37] release a win for digital India? Maybe partly. We started the pressure & mainstream media amplified it

However, in court today, Trivedi refused to take bail [38] and insisted that all charges of sedition against him be dropped. Since the police too did not seek his custody, he has been remanded to judicial custody until September 24, 2012. Looks like the battle is not yet over Aseem Trivedi. The online petition demanding his release can be found here [39]. Another petition, asking the government to repeal the Sedition Law, can be signed here [40].