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Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was targeted for a cartoon depicting four wolves in place of the lions on the national emblem, the Ashoka pillar. Photo: Hindustan Times (Hindustan Times)
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was targeted for a cartoon depicting four wolves in place of the lions on the national emblem, the Ashoka pillar. Photo: Hindustan Times
(Hindustan Times)

Cartoons, politics and hypocrisy

It’s important to remember that when we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy

It’s interesting that some of the most contentious political debate as well as controversial law enforcement has centred around cartoons.

Earlier this year, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee was angered by a university professor who had emailed cartoons on her to his acquaintances, and had him arrested (he was later released).

A 60-year-old cartoon on B.R. Ambedkar in a government schoolbook rocked Parliament and forced human resource development minister Kapil Sibal to apologize to the nation and order the removal of the “objectionable" caricature. And a controversy was raked up over a cartoon depicting an anti-Hindi agitation by Tamils in a political science textbook for class 12 students.

The most recent controversy related to cartoons is the sedition charge against freelance cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested and then released by Mumbai police after a groundswell of criticism greeted the action.

Trivedi, 25, a member of social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign, was targeted for a cartoon depicting four wolves in place of the lions on the national emblem, the Ashoka pillar, blood in the mouth of the beasts and the caption that read Bhrashtameva Jayate (corruption shall prevail) in place of Satyameva Jayate (truth shall prevail).

While some claim the cartoons are in bad taste and disrespectful to the state, legal experts and free speech activists have been shocked by the sedition charge, arguing that the most serious charge Trivedi could have faced was one of insulting the national emblem.

Indeed, it is perhaps the first time that such a serious charge as sedition has been laid against a cartoonist. Even the selective ban on a few Internet sites and social media recently did not have such a chilling effect as the arrest of Trivedi for alleged sedition, implying conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state.

To be sure, the cartoons were intended to provoke; they were representative of the anti-establishment stance of the anti-corruption campaign Trivedi backs.

The juxtaposition of satire, humour and hard-hitting facts in a cartoon gives the reader an alternative point of view of the subject that’s being lampooned. Every politician, event, cause and situation has at some point been catapulted into the public imagination through a cartoon.

The questions that perplex me are—why are cartoonists such easy and frequent targets for the authorities? Why have the more provocative programmes, discussions and articles in the mainstream media not been as provocative as cartoons? Not that I am in favour of gagging any voices in our democracy, but this repetitive targeting of cartoonists is disturbing.

Are these confrontations meant to serve as a warning to the media given the delicate political scenario in the country? Against the backdrop of a series of corruption scandals, the recent case clearly exposes the hypocrisy of a government which claims to support free speech.

The intolerance of critical voices and symbols of dissent are gaining ground with a recurrence of such incidents.

Although free speech is central to our democracy, it comes with a caveat of “reasonable restrictions". There is a sharp disagreement about what we mean by free speech and about where the line can be drawn between right and wrong. We have the right to criticize the government, but can we also advocate its ouster? Does the right to free speech allow us to incite hate or use foul language in public?

Freedom of speech is our most fundamental—and our most contested—right. It is an essential freedom because it is how we protect our other rights and liberties. If we are not able to speak openly about the policies and actions of government, we cannot effectively participate in the democratic process or protest when we believe the government’s behaviour threatens our security or our freedom.

Freedom of speech guarantees us an individual voice, no matter how far removed our opinions and beliefs are from those of the society at large. The charge of sedition against an anti-corruption activist has diluted the right to that freedom.

Civil society, the media and academia have to unite to protest against this violation of our democratic right. It’s important to remember that when we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy. This is the way to keep the Constitution and our dreams of a just society alive.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. She studies and advises on policy issues in media and communication sector.

To read all of P.N. Vasanti’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/fineprint

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