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Of harmless toons and a sensitive State

Sep 11, 2012

For all of India’s hallowed image of being the world’s largest democracy, the ‘freedom of expression’ enshrined in its Constitution seems to be under assault.

The latest in the series of censorship is the arrest of freelance cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. The cartoonist has been dominating the front pages of every national newspaper for the last two days, as civil society and the Opposition parties cry out about the State’s violation of the freedom of speech.

Trivedi on his part has taken a courageous stand, as media quoted him saying, “I am a terrorist if Gandhi (Mahtama) and Azad (Maulana Abul Kalam) were terrorists. Bharat Mata is us. Insulting us is insulting Bharat Mata. I am proud of what I did, will continue it. Anna says going to jail for the country is nothing bad….I will stay in jail till the dictatorial sedition law is repealed.”

cartoon on anti-corruption
Other cartoons by Aseem Trivedi taken from his Facebook page

Trivedi, who has been an outspoken activist, has been crusading for the freedom of speech in India through his cartoons. He is also the founder of the cartoon-based anti-corruption campaign, ‘Cartoons against Corruption’, which has been shut down, now. In the end, it were these very doodles of his criticising the government that brought about Trivedi’s arrest on charges of sedition.

The cartoons in question, amongst many, were the ones depicting the national emblem with wolves in place of ‘lions’ and the slogan ‘Satyamev Jayate’ replaced by ‘Bhrashtameva Jayate’. The State also took some serious umbrage on another cartoon of his which showed the Indian Parliament in the form of a toilet that needed some cleaning.

Of late, the Indian state has been quite in doubt of how much freedom to give its people. Earlier too, in August this year, the government cracked down on social media birds by shutting down twitter accounts which satirised and criticised the government. For all the brouhaha, developments like this are not new to India. Conservative groups and the State have been trying to gag alternative ideologies since quite some time. Whether it is banishing M F Hussain for his ‘Bharat Mata art’ or groups crying shame on historian Romila Thapar’s interpretation of India’s history and the Somnath temple in particular or the still exiled Salman Rushdie, we seem to have a long tradition of banning, and in the process fanning the flames of conservatism.

In a sort of trend settling all over, the ‘Google vs State’ battles have shown that general freedom of expression is at risk, almost everywhere. A recent Google report specifies that it got more than more than 1000 requests from countries worldwide to censor or remove such content. The acceptability of satire and caricature or healthy critique by a State, in many ways explains an evolution of its society. Would such events, in countries like India signal a going back to the Dark Ages, where any form of dissent or anti-hegemony was quashed and censored by the State? If India does not want to do a la China, it needs to pull its socks up and ensure ample freedom of speech to its people. On the other hand, the establishment needs to look at the spurt in growth of conservative groups eager to grab any opportunity to take the law in their hands.

As civil society cries out in anger over the cartoonist’s arrest, social networking sites too go abuzz lauding Trivedi’s bravery. Twitter abounds with updates like; Faking News tweets: "Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi makes ‘cartoons against corruption’ and is arrested for sedition. Never knew corruption was so dear to our state."

Quoting well-known cartoonist Sudhir Dar, a leading daily, ‘The Times of India’, said "We haven't yet developed a healthy sense of humour, we are becoming more and more intolerant." Paris-based media watchdog ‘Reporters without Borders’ said in its statement, “The prosecution and detention of the cartoonist are a gross violation of freedom of expression and information.”

As news reports trickle in, the latest is, the sedition charges would be dropped against Trivedi and he would instead be charged for insulting the national emblem. While the political parties indulge in histrionics and fight over the case, India’s freedom of expression seems to be soon becoming, a thing of the past.

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