The case of a cartoonist charged with treason and offending India's national sentiments reflects a growing debate over what constitutes freedom of expression in India. His accusers argue that while it is permissible to make fun of politicians, you cannot make fun of the state. Not everyone agrees.
Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year-old political cartoonist, was charged with treason and insulting the Indian national emblems, according to local news reports and CPJ interviews. The Bheed District Court, in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, has instructed police to bring Trivedi to court by February 6. Should Trivedi be found guilty, he could face up to three years' imprisonment and heavy fines.
The charges stem from a complaint filed by local political and social activist Hanumantha Upre. In a recent blog entry, I noted a similar effort by conservative local activists to stifle online content that they found anti-religious.
Trivedi, a freelancer from the central state of Uttar Pradesh, was inspired by the well-known social activist Anna Hazare's fight against corruption and graft. Trivedi drew cartoons criticizing the Indian government, some of which were exhibited while Hazare was fasting in Mumbai in December.
Back in Mumbai, Trivedi faces another legal attack. There, lawyer R.P. Pandey has filed his own complaint, alleging that the cartoons are "defamatory and derogatory" and requesting "strict legal action," according to news reports. While Mumbai police have yet to file charges, the complaint has had repercussions: Big Rock, a domain name registrar, suspended Trivedi's website, www.cartoonistsagainstcorruption.com, citing the criminal complaint, The Times of India reported.
Speaking to CPJ from Mumbai, Pandey said that while parodying politicians was a legitimate pursuit, mocking national institutions like the Indian Parliament and national symbols was "completely unacceptable."
Trivedi's activities are protected, countered the prominent Delhi-based human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who said expressing political dissent and questioning government policy are integral to free expression. For his part, Trivedi told CPJ that he sees the ban against his website as arbitrary and a sign of the government's growing intolerance toward dissent.
Banning cartoons and harassing cartoonists, though rare, is not unheard of in India. In 1987, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the editor of a weekly magazine was arrested and sentenced to three months of rigorous imprisonment for publishing a cartoon mocking politicians, according to a 2003 account in Frontline magazine. The ensuing furor from the media community saw him released within a few days.
Certainly, the blocking of Trivedi's website has caused a sense of disquiet. Sudhir Tailang, a well-known political cartoonist based in Delhi, says, "The very essence of cartoons are their anti-establishment note. Take away that and you take away dissent."