Cartoon row: Is freedom of speech in India under attack?

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Bangalore, Sept 10: The latest arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition has once again brought to light the question of "freedom of speech" enjoyed by people of India.

Aseem Trivedi

Artists, scholars and academicians, all in unison are asking one question. "Are we staying in a democratic country? What has happened to our constitutional right of freedom of speech? Is drawing a mere cartoon can bring charges as serious as sedition against a person?"

The 25-year-old award winning cartoonist and India Against Corruption activist Trivedi arrested on Sunday, Sept 9, in Mumbai, has been sent to police custody for a week 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.

Aseem said that he had done no wrong.

"I have done no wrong. I will continue to do my work," said Aseem, protesting against his arrest.

The entire country is under shock and are vocally expressing their angst against the arrest of Kanpur-born Assem in social networking sites.

Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandey Katju has also come out in support of Aseem. Justice Katju had clearly said that arresting a person who had not committed a crime was a crime in itself.

"In my opinion the cartoonist did nothing illegal. In a democracy many things are said, some truthful and others false. These are occupational hazards, and politicians, like judges, must learn to put up with them," added Justice Katju.

Activists fighting against corruption have expressed their support for Aseem in strong words.

They have said, "there was nothing unpatriotic about his cartoons."

Speaking to television channels from Uttar Pradesh, Aseem's father Ashok Trivedi said, "Why should the government arrest our son, a cartoonist when there are so many corrupt leaders roaming around freely? His cartoon was only helping draw attention to corruption."

"Our son has done nothing wrong. I am proud of my son. Corrupt leaders must be behind bars, not my son. His act cannot be called unpatriotic," his mother Pratibha Trivedi said.

Fellow cartoonist 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."

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 complaint against Trivedi was filed by a Mumbai-based lawyer at the Bandra Kurla Complex police station last December under the Indian Penal Code's section 124 (sedition), the Information Technology Act's section 66-A (sending offensive messages through communication services) and the Prevention of Insults to Nation Honour (PINH) Act's section 2 (imprisonment for disrespect to the national flag or the constitution or any part thereof).

Friends of Trivedi have alleged that police action is politically motivated.

"Aseem told us the government targeted him because he supported Anna Hazare in his fight against corruption," said a friend.

Another friend lamented the fact that Aseem is being treated like a criminal.

"He decided not to engage an advocate and wants to let the court decide. He maintains he is not wrong. That is why he does not see a need to defend himself."

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.

The cartoon was sketched in the 1950s by celebrated cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai, popularly known as Shankar and recipient of a Padma Shri (1956), Padma Bhushan (1966) and Padma Vibhushan (1976).

The cartoon, reproduced in NCERT Class XI political science textbooks, depicts Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip in his hand chasing Ambedkar, seated on a snail, urging him to speed up work on the Constitution.

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