"India is behaving like an autocratic nation"

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Cartoonist community of the country is a worried lot. They fear their "freedom of expression" is being violated by authorities in the name of protecting safety and security of the country.

A political cartoon

Arrest of Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition and two other charges for mocking Parliament and the National Emblem by Mumbai Police has brought cartoonist community of the country together under one platform. Aseem was arrested on Saturday, Sept 8.

Cartoonists across India feel that their right to freedom of expression against any social and political evils is under threat. They are concerned that political leaders and authorities are becoming more and more intolerant towards any kind of criticisms. Cartoonists and other like-minded people have alleged that police action is politically motivated.

The 25-year-old award winning cartoonist and India Against Corruption activist Trivedi was arrested on charges of posting 'ugly and obscene' content on his web portal. Aseem has been charged with sedition for insulting national symbols in his cartoons.

Members of Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Cartoonists (IIC), a first of its kind in India, promoting the art of cartooning in the country, has come out openly to protest against Aseem's arrest.

Managing trustee of IIC and veteran political cartoonist VG Narendra said the arrest of Aseem on charges of sedition depicts the autocratic mind-set of the authorities.

"India is behaving like an autocratic nation. The very arrest of cartoonist Aseem, on charges as serious as sedition for merely drawing cartoons on current political situation of country shows autocratic behaviour of the government," said Narendra, who had earlier worked as a political cartoonist in popular local Kannada daily Kannada Prabha.

"I have seen his cartoons. They are in no way hurting any kind of sentiments. Through his cartoons, Aseem has just expressed his views regarding sad current political situation of the country," added Narendra.

Members of IIC feel political establishment is misusing colonial era laws like sedition to crush dissent.

They are questioning the very fact that - Is drawing a mere cartoon can bring arrest to a person? Members of IIC want the government to relook at laws like sedition and make necessary changes.

A young Bangalore-based cartoonist Suprabhat Sharma said cartoonists had their own way of expression.

"Cartooning is a serious business. But cartoons are basically drawn to draw humour among the viewers. Cartoons should be enjoyed, appreciated and forgotten. Cartoons are not meant to draw anger from political establishment of the country," added Suprabhat.

What is sedition?

Experts define sedition as "overt conduct, such as speech and organisation that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent (or resistance) to lawful authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws. Seditious words in writing are seditious libel. A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interests of sedition."

Fellow cartoonist of Aseem, Mangesh Tendulkar said, "When there's such a kind of curb on any cartoon, the authority should think twice, because even though it is a little aggressive, this is the most essential thing in democracy."

However, many cartoonists have also said that artists should engage in self-censorship and avoid hurting sentiments of others.

"Controversies on cartoons are not new. We have seen row over Ambedkar's cartoons published in text books. But Aseem Trivedi's cartoons played on the sentiments of large section of the people. Aseem has failed to maintain self-restrain regarding the cartoons. Artists should have some self-restrictions in expressing their ideas. At the same time, it is not advisable to curtail freedom of expression of any artists by authorities. Government should not have taken the extreme step against Aseem," said Shekar, cartoonist of Andhrajyothy, a Telugu daily.

Aseem remained defiant and refused to engage a lawyer as a mark of protest against his arrest. Aseem has faced arrest for making cartoons as part of his work on the subject of "Cartoons Against Corruption". He has depicted the national emblem as comprising wolves in place of lions and the slogan Bhrashtameva Jayate in place of Satyameva Jayate. The eight controversial cartoons posted by Trivedi in his web portal include Gang Rape of Mother India, Commode Parliament, School for Corrupts, Kasab and Indian Constitution, National Emblem, National Food, National Drink and National Animal.

In his statement, which he had earlier written in the police lock-up, Aseem claimed his loyalty towards his country and constitution.

"My full faith rests in the Indian Constitution and its maker Dr Ambedkar. Therefore, I cannot bear to see the Constitution being insulted and I want to stop this from happening through my cartoons... Through my work, I oppose any insult to the Constitution," he said.

Citing the examples of Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, Mr Trivedi said that if raising one's voice against injustice was anti-nationalism, then he was an anti-nationalist. "Art and literature mirror society. I have depicted in my cartoons what I have seen all around me."

Apart from sedition, Trivedi has been booked under Section 2 of the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971, dealing with insult to the national flag and the Constitution and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act ("information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character").

Arrest of Aseem is not an isolated case. In the recent past, country has frequently seen curtailment of freedom of expression enjoyed by artists' fraternity at large. A professor of chemistry of the Jadavpur University in West Bengal was arrested in April along with his neighbour for allegedly posting a cartoon on a popular social networking site involving chief minister Mamata Banerjee, railway minister Mukul Roy and former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi.

Earlier in May, a cartoon on BR Ambedkar in a government schoolbook rocked Parliament, forcing HRD minister Kapil Sibal to apologise to the nation and order the removal of the "objectionable" caricature.

After nation-wide protest against arrest of Aseem, Maharashtra government is contemplating to drop the sedition charge against cartoonist Aseem, according to sources. However, no final decision has yet been arrived.

There is no doubt that both Maharashtra and Central government are under pressure to drop charges against Aseem and set him free as soon as possible after wide spread protest across the country against the cartoonist's arrest.

Whether Aseem will be freed of charges or not is something only time will tell us. But, the way the entire episode has unfolded in front of us has once again showed how political class of the country is misusing laws to muzzle up voices of dissent. It seems the government of the land is in no mood to end large-scale corruption from the country. Instead of punishing practitioners of corruption, government is harassing those who are raising their voices against corruption.

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