Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Satire or Sedition???

So finally the high profile drama over the arrest of a political cartoonist comes to an end. Aseem Trivedi accepted the bail and was finaly released from Arthur jail earlier in the day while the charges of sedition against him are still being mulled over

Aseem Trivedi, a political cartoonist charged with sedition

The entire episode smacked of unusual high-handedness of the Govt. followed by a change of stance as soon as outrage registered from domestic as well as international intelligentsia. Typical behavior one might say based on similar episodes we have observed in the past couple of years.

Trivedi was arrested on Saturday for a series of cartoons lampooning politicians and the Parliament. He refused to apply for bail at Monday's hearing declaring that if telling the truth made him a traitor, he was happy to be described as one.

And the truth is out for everyone to see - from the shoddy handling of Kashmir protests, to the  Commonwealth Games scandal to the massive looting of food stocks to the latest Coalgate, there has been a string of scams in the past few years, each bigger than the other and ALL of them involving one or the other departments of Govt.!!!

 Aseem's cartoons

Enough has been said FOR and AGAINST the contentious cartoons so we won’t venture into that territory here. But what came to fore yet again was the really really low threshold our Govt. has for criticism of any form. It was visible in the demeanor of the police who, after the order, roughed Aseem up and literally pushed him into the van as if he is a dangerous criminal!

Swati Deshpande of TOI succinctly summarizes, ‘Intolerance has become Infectious’ in our country. The week long police custody for the cartoonist is the latest in the long line of crackdown seen this year on any form of criticism of the establishment.

Mahesh Jethmalani, the criminal lawyer, adds, “Trivedi is not dishonoring anything, he is expressing his ideologies and viewpoints through his cartoons. Only people of low intellect don’t understand that. His arrest is a complete curb on freedom of expression,” Several cartoons get printed everyday lampooning the government and top ministers, but they do not attract legal cases because most sane people understand that a cartoon is a humorous comment on a political event or situation, and is not meant for causing serious offense.

However, this is not the first time a cartoonist has been dragged to court on alleged defamation charges.In the 70s, Cho S. Ramaswamy a political commentator was charged with similar cases (but not sedition) in the Indira Gandhi era. In his own words -   

“One unforgettable episode relates to the Thuglak cartoon on the Kuo oil scam in 1976, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. I made a cartoon showing Mrs Gandhi picking up a can of tar with ‘Kuo Oil’ written on it and throwing the contents on the national flag, blackening it. The idea was to show that the Prime Minister had shamed the nation, bringing it disrepute. But a Tamil Nadu Congressman filed defamation cases against me and I was forced to go to the magistrate’s court repeatedly for hearings till they decided to discontinue the case."

It would be prudent to point out that the only time emergency was declared in our country with all constitutional rights outlawed was during the reign of Mrs. Gandhi. The Milwaukee Journal even came out with a cartoon depicting the state of affairs in the country which seems eerily similar to where we are headed right now!

Newspaper headlines the day Emergency was declared
Milwaukee Journal Cartoon on Indira Gandhi

Not surprisingly, the opposition BJP has accused the authorities of imposing "an undeclared emergency in the country". The media also weighed in, with the Indian Express newspaper describing the moves against Trivedi as like using "an H-bomb to slay a rabbit".

Rama Lakshmi of the Washington Post writes - "Trivedi’s arrest is the latest in a series of clampdowns against dissenters across India in recent years, as an increasingly nervous government battles rising public anger over corruption and what many perceive as misrule."

Earlier public outcry against corruption 

Senior counsel Yusuf Muchala, however says, "No writer or cartoonist can consider themselves to be above the law. If they have insulted the national emblem as alleged, they must face the law but it is not that grave an offense that requires arrest and custody." In the same vein, he also points out quite pertinently that there are cases where someone making hate speech have not faced the law!

Indeed the recent riots in Mumbai were incited by hate speeches that resulted in hooligans snatching rifles from cops and breaking the Amar Jawan Jyoti {Check the previous post - From Assam to Azad maidan} Have any of those speakers or those rioters that broke the Amar Jyoti at Flora Fountain been charged with sedition???

 Mobs attacked National monuments as well as police personnel

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch says,“Instead of trying to silence dissent by wrongly accusing people of sedition, the authorities would do far better addressing the reasons causing concern among citizens.”

India's sedition laws date back to the Raj, and were used for imprisoning Mahatma Gandhi, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and other freedom fighters. Our first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, called the same law "objectionable and obnoxious". The use of the law occurs despite a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that states that prosecution under this law requires evidence of incitement to violence and there is no evidence that Aseem Trivedi’s drawings have led to any violence. 

Yet such laws have survived for years. Why? 

The simplest reason is that these laws allow the government to gag any sort of opposition without going to the trouble of preparing a proper case! A very dangerous trend for the so called the biggest Democracy and a sure shot way of turning it into a Despotic Dictatorship!!

Kavitha Rao of the Guardian rightly points out - Trivedi is no Gandhi. But his fight, and our right to free speech, is Gandhian. He may have ridiculed national symbols but those in power have done far worse. To illustrate her point, let us look at another image of the national symbol that has surfaced on the net because of the current furor.

Should this be tried for sedition now?

A clear case of double speak by the party concerned. In the face of all such criticism, Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil finally declared there were no grounds for the police to arrest the cartoonist. "The police investigation was complete. There was no need to seek police custody. I am looking into the matter. We will say so in court," Patil said.

Too little too late??? There already are more cartoons out in the cyberspace that take a potshot at this entire episode and we can expect more to come.

For those who still don't understand the imagery and the inherent message in Aseem's cartoons, there is a need for a refresher course in the symbolism of Art! A popular tweeter Ramesh Srivats sums up the attitude with: "{We want to) screw the nation, cherish the symbols."

Jai Hind!