India tries to gag critic cartoonist
A POLITICAL cartoonist whose drawings mock Indian government corruption has been jailed in a sedition investigation widely condemned across the country as yet more evidence of political leaders’ growing intolerance of criticism.
A defiant Aseem Trivedi refused bail at a court hearing yesterday in Mumbai, saying he would remain in jail until the sedition charges against him were lifted. The court then extended his stay in police custody from one week to two.
“I am proud of what I have done. If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one,” Trivedi said as dozens of police escorted him out of the court.
He was arrested on Sunday after police issued a warrant based on a political activist’s complaint that Trivedi’s cartoons were “insulting” to the country. Students, opposition politicians and free speech advocates have protested that Trivedi’s arrest – on the serious charge of sedition – showed politicians’ increasing sensitivity to criticism.
Taken aback by the vehement protests, state home minister RR Patel said the government would review Trivedi’s case and the charge, which is punishable by up to life in prison.
“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, a former supreme court justice who now heads the Press Council of India, said.
Trivedi, a freelance cartoonist, was one of two winners of the 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning award by the Cartoonists Rights Network International. His cartoons lampooning widespread corruption among Indian politicians were displayed at a Mumbai protest in December by the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare.
A Mumbai-based lawyer’s complaint to police cited one of those drawings that showed the four lions that form India’s national symbol replaced by four wolves and the national slogan “truth shall prevail” replaced by “corruption shall prevail”.
Information minister Ambika Soni stressed that the constitution guaranteed freedom of expression but “also lays downs that we as Indian citizens should respect all national symbols”.
“Our government is not for censorship; it is for self-regulation at every step,” Mrs Soni said.
Trivedi’s supporters say Mumbai’s cyber police had blocked the cartoonist’s website in December.
The cartoonist’s father, Ashok Trivedi, told CNN-IBN TV that his son was being hounded because he was involved in Mr Hazare’s campaign to mobilise middle-class India to rise up against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
Mr Katju said throwing Trivedi in jail was a criminal offence because he had not committed a crime.
“If you try to shut peoples’ mouth, public anger will erupt violently,” he warned.
The arrest came five months after police arrested professor Ambikesh Mahapatra in the eastern city of Kolkata for allegedly sharing by e-mail cartoons that ridiculed Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state. Mr Mahapatra was released.
Last month, a farmer in West Bengal was arrested and branded a Maoist insurgent after questioning the chief minister on her farm policy at a public meeting. Both are out on bail and face lesser charges than sedition.
Earlier this year, senior education officials resigned amid a parliamentary uproar over a textbook that included a six-decade-old cartoon criticising delays in crafting the constitution.
Indian law defines sedition as an act that brings hatred or attempts to excite disaffection toward the government.
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