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A 9 September photo of Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai. The cartoons for which Trivedi landed in trouble are neither great works of art, nor are they necessarily funny Photo: Vijayananda Gupta/HT)
A 9 September photo of Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai. The cartoons for which Trivedi landed in trouble are neither great works of art, nor are they necessarily funny Photo: Vijayananda Gupta/HT)

Aseem Trivedi vs the state

Whether Trivedi's humour is juvenile or witty is irrelevant. His right to express himself is fundamental

Aseem Trivediwas arrested on three counts—he is supposed to have insulted the nation’s honour; his act is supposedly seditious; and he is supposed to have violated the law governing the use of information technology in India. I use the word “supposed" deliberately, for each of these acts depend on careful interpretation by the executive and the judiciary. And both have profoundly failed in this case.

To begin with, notions such as sedition, and laws that define such grave terms, owe their origin to the colonial era, when the British raj wanted to jail, and that sometimes meant sending them to the Andamans, the men and women who wanted India to be free. Insulting national honour can be an oxymoronic term.

Often it is the dissident, and not the patriot, who brings honour to the nation, by reminding it of what has gone wrong, so that the nation can return to the right path. Sometimes, obeying the Constitution may mean disobeying the ruling class. This does not mean all laws are to be broken, but a nation’s collective whole has to be stronger than specific laws, designed to force patriotism upon a reluctant people. You can’t force love—in life, with people, or your own nation.

And finally, information technology is just that—a tool. If the government is so worried of images or words created or shared in the cyberspace, then it is difficult to imagine it being able to defend anything.

To be sure, the cartoons for which Trivedi landed in trouble are neither great works of art, nor are they necessarily funny. Like graffiti, some of his cartoons remind one of teenage toilet humour—the Parliament as a collective cess pit where muck gets drained, the lions of the Ashoka pillar turned into ferocious jackals or bloodhounds, a dog with the convicted 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab’s face urinating on the symbol of the rule of law, and other cartoons expressing his outrage over recent corruption scandals.

In the past, Trivedi has gone on a fast protesting the government’s crackdown on the Internet, and this time, he chose to go to jail. But whether Trivedi’s humour is juvenile or witty is irrelevant. His right to express himself is fundamental, even if it is a rant, and even if his interpretation of the Kasab trial process is questionable, if not flawed altogether. For the Constitution recognizes his right to express himself, without preaching violence. And he aims to taunt and ridicule, even if he may end up irritating and disgusting some. But that’s the point of the law.

The system is powerful enough to face down a fictional micturating Kasab, or Trivedi’s own understanding of it. Neither the Parliament, nor the Constitution, are so weak that they cannot handle criticism. These are only cartoons, not bombs.

When the laws are wrong and the defendant acts to exercise his freedom, what is the state to do? Err on the side of freedom. And yet, unfortunately, from the police who registered the complaint of a random busybody (who shall remain nameless here, to deny him the oxygen of publicity he craves), and the prosecutor who decided to argue the case, and the magistrate, who thought it fit to admit the case, the state has capitulated again to the hypersensitive, insecure among us.

All the drama—to what end? To frustrate the cartoonist, to make his life miserable. It is busybodies such as the present litigant who have unleashed their deeply ill-liberal tendencies on the nation. Some sue actresses who kiss in public, or an artist who paints deities in ways that some don’t like, or when a profession wants to change the name of a film, or, indeed, writers who want to read aloud from a novel whose import the country has banned. This is the hallmark of dictatorships, not a democracy; the busybodies show the petty little fascists that lurk within them, who resent the freedoms their compatriots too want.

Expecting the government to repeal any of those laws is impossible—even if it is now known that in matters of crime and social and moral values codified in law, India lives in colonial, Victorian era. (Think of the judgement decriminalizing gay sex, and the reluctance among many to accept that).

But surely, something can be done about Section 153A and Section 124A of the Indian penal code, so that individual litigants cannot attempt to narrow public discourse to the thin confines and band-width of their tolerance. Doing it is simple—amending, or repealing these sections.

To do that, of course, the Parliament needs to function, and parliamentarians need to act like responsible adults. If not, cartoonists such as Trivedi will continue to ridicule them, and in prosecuting the likes of Trivedi, the state will only ridicule itself further.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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