Sunday, September 16, 2012

Cartoons as Sedition

“Sedition” is a legal construct from less enlightened times, when the sovereign power claimed a divine sanction and subjects were expected to live in awe and fear. So what is republican India doing, in its seventh decade, in bringing a charge of sedition against a self-publishing cartoonist with a propensity for scatology and lurid imagery? A convulsive attack of folly that the agencies of the Indian state have been all too prone to? Or an overt signal that the space for dissent is shrinking?

Kanpur-based Aseem Trivedi, a volunteer for the Anna Hazare led civil society coalition, India Against Corruption (IAC), is by all accounts, possessed of the same obsessive self-righteousness that is the hallmark of the wider movement. Yet his cartoons would have languished in well-deserved obscurity had not the website hosting them been shut down by the Maharashtra police in December last year. 

Once invested with the halo of martyrdom in the cause of free speech, Trivedi’s craft acquired rather grandiose dimensions in the public imagination, well beyond anything warranted by intrinsic merit. And then came a succession of missteps by the police, which converted the criminal cases against him into a test case of India’s commitment to the free speech right.

Within just two days of Trivedi’s arrest, the Maharashtra Home Minister disavowed it as entirely futile, and the police put out word that with investigations completed, there was no reason to prolong his detention. The rather swift conclusion of investigations brought the police no credit. Neither did it afford a pathway out of self-inflicted embarrassment. Trivedi’s refusal to seek bail meant that the court had no option, short of his unconditional discharge, than the extension of his remand.

Trivedi’s case has excited a degree of public outrage, in part because IAC has thrown its formidable campaign capacity behind him. But he is by no means the only journalist currently facing sedition charges. In the insurgency affected districts of Orissa alone, four cases of sedition have been registered against journalists in the last few years, mostly to clamp down on public-spirited reporting that exposes serious abuses and deficiencies in local administration.

In June 2008, the commissioner of police in Ahmedabad brought charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against two journalists and the local edition of the Times of India, after the newspaper carried a series of reports about his less than distinguished service record. Though granted bail and not imprisoned like their counterparts in Orissa, the journalists were only absolved of all charges in April this year.

The established judicial precedent in the application of the relevant law -- section 124A of the Indian Penal Code -- is that it would be violative of the fundamental right to free speech, unless invoked to deal with an imminent threat of violence. This judgment by the Supreme Court dates back to 1962 and should have by now become part of the commonsense of all police personnel and judicial authorities. That it has not, suggests a degree of incoherence within the judicial apparatus, perhaps even a deliberate design to silence critical voices through the threat of criminal prosecution.

Trivedi also faces charges under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, a rarely invoked law passed in 1971, and section 66A of the Information Technology act, which pertains to the transmission of data or images through electronic means with deliberate intent to offend. Few judicial precedents exist in the interpretations of these statutes, but clearly, the test of intent would be key in any reasonable view. Was it the cartoonist’s intent to cause offence and insult, or to offer legitimate criticism of the state of governance?

Trivedi’s cartoons betray a rather unique sensibility. One of them depicts the Indian parliament building as a cesspool collecting the sewage from polling booths, depicted as toilets. Another represents the Ashoka pillar, the officially consecrated national emblem, with bloody-jawed wolves atop in place of the three lions, and the slogan “corruption shall triumph” replacing “truth will triumph” at the base. Still another depicts Mumbai’s 26/11 mass killer Ajmal Kasab as a canine, urinating over a copy of the Indian constitution.

Trivedi is obviously a deeply anguished and embittered person and his notions of taste would seem questionable to many. But bad taste is not a criminal offence. A clumsy police force and an obtuse judiciary though, have combined to propel bad taste out of an obscure corner of the virtual world, into the very centre of the arena where the struggle for basic rights is waged.

No comments: