THE arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition has understandably roused passionate media interest as never before. A complaint had been filed against him by a 27-year old Central Railway employee, of all people, who told The Hindu that he felt offended by some of Trivedi’s works. Though Trivedi is now released on bail, his original arrest came as a shock to the media, not to mention distinguished lawyers and judges.
Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandey Katju was so outraged that he demanded that the Mumbai police who carried out “the wrongful arrest” be themselves put on trial. Claiming that a wrongful arrest is a serious crime under IPC Section 342, Justice Katju said “police officers who obey such illegal orders of politicians should be put on trial and given harsh punishment, just like the Nazi officials at the Nurenberg War Crimes Tribunal”. Strong words, these. Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney General of India, writing in The New Sunday Express (September 16) said that despite the clear pronouncement of the Supreme Court, there has been widespread and “persistent abuse” of Section 124A, “which is frequently involved against political opponents and vociferous critics of government” giving as an example the arrest of Trivedi “for his alleged vulgar cartoons”. Sorabjee suggested that wisdom lies in repealing Section 124 and replacing it “by another provision enacted in conformity with Supreme Court’s judgment in the Kedar Nath case”. “More important” Sorabjee pointed out “there should be no mention of the eight-letter dirty word, sedition, anywhere in the newly enacted Section” and “prosecutions for sedition should become bad dreams of the colonial past which have no place in a liberal democracy”.
Deccan Herald (September 12) said Trivedi’s arrest on charges of sedition “is absurd and appalling”. “By no stretch of imagination can the depiction of decline of our democracy and the quality of our elected representatives be interpreted as seditious”' the paper pointed out adding that the arrest “is the latest in a string of absurd instances involving misapplication and excessive use of the sedition law.”
The Times of India (September 11) said Trivedi’s arrest “contravenes the Indian citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression” and “underlines the growing targeting of cartoons by a nervous political class.” The paper argued that “the sedition law has become outdated in modern times” and “deserves swift elimination from our statute books.” It pointed out that “bad laws are laws that lend themselves to abuse” and the sedition law is one such. Importantly, the paper stressed that “in independent India, instead of being revoked, the sedition law has been used against a variety of dissentors.” The New Indian Express (September 11) reminded the government that sedition laws “are a throwback to the days of British rule” and their present justification “reflects an increasing tendency to invoke them against Human Rights activists, journalists and public intellectuals” raising “important questions on the undemocratic nature of these laws.” Trivedi’s cartoons, said the paper, “gave no provocation to invoke them.”
“Sedition? Seriously? questioned The Hindu (September 11). The paper said all that Trivedi had done was to lampoon “the corrupt and venal state of affairs in the country.” The paper reminded the government that the Supreme Court had noted that the sedition law should apply only if an accused was intending to create public disorder. Of that Trivedi was not guilty. “With the continuing misuse of the law, however, there is only one reasonable course” the paper argued, adding: “Scrap it at once, and quickly.” In another context, BS Raghavan, writing in Business Line (September 14) claimed that Indian Raj was outdoing British Raj. “If the British regime is indeed brought back” said Raghavan, “it will miss nothing”. “It can, in fact, pick up the thread exactly from where it had left it.”
The International Press Institute condemned Trivedi’s arrest. It said it is “gravely concerned” considering that “in any healthy democracy, all media must enjoy the right to criticise and lampoon officials and corruption….” The Telegraph (September 11) pointed out that the whole event is “embarrassing”. “It is even worse that those in authority who pounce on criticism at the drop of a hat either do not realise or do not care that this love of repression is contrary to the democratic principle of freedom of speech” said the paper. “And since when is posting ‘ugly and obscene content’ on a website, seditious?” it wanted to know. And angrily it added: “Do the police and law courts have nothing better to occupy their time with? Art, criticism, humour, concern for the country, belief in free speech, can be distorted by the use of repression.”
DNA (September 11) described Trivedi as “an extremely creative introvert person, albeit uttely intolerant of injustice.” Its correspondent said “even as the opinion remains divided on whether his position depicts black humour that discredits national symbols, or they are simply bold caricatures of a corrupt India, Trivedi is gearing up for a struggle against a system that is trying to bring him to his knees.” But can cartoons be so offensive? Why weren’t cartoonists of yesteryears every pulled up by government, cartoonists like Shankar Pillai, R.K. Laxman and even Bal Thackeray? Shankar could be very critical but one of his best fans was none else than Jawaharlal Nehru who told Shankar not to be scared of government angst. Way back in the thirties, Ramanand Chatterjee, then editor of a popular monthly Modern Review published an article highly critical of Nehru which upset many of his ardent admirers who, in turn, told off the editor. Then came the truth: the scathing article was written by none other than Nehru himself and everybody had a good laugh.
Our present-day politicians seem to think no end of themselves. Or can it be that Indians, by and large, have no sense of humour? Trivedi, one can be sure, will survive even when his sketches come under scrutiny more for their vulgarity, than for social concern. But then it is never too late to learn. After all, even cartoonists are human which cannot often be said of their victims. What is sad is that cartoonists seem to be out of favour with today’s media bosses who have their own agenda to fulfil, in which cartoons have no place.