Indian Cartoonist Jailed After Arrest on Sedition Charges


Jason Burke – The Guardian

Satirist whose drawings highlighted corruption among India’s political elite imprisoned for two weeks after refusing bail.

An Indian cartoonist detained for his drawings satirising widespread corruption among India‘s political elite has been jailed for two weeks after he refused bail in protest at the sedition charges against him.

Aseem Trivedi, 25, turned himself in to police in Mumbai at the weekend. His cartoons included one depicting the parliament building as a lavatory buzzing with flies.

Trivedi was put in judicial custody. If found guilty of sedition, he could face a lengthy prison service.

News of the case sparked widespread protests among anti-corruption and free speech activists, who complain that India’s government, hit by a series of graft scandals, is increasingly intolerant of criticism.

“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, the head of the Press Council of India, told the local TV channel CNN-IBN.

Last month, the beleaguered government of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, temporarily blocked a number of Twitter accounts. Ministers have also responded angrily to articles by foreign reporters criticising Singh’s record, and have clashed with social networking sites such as Facebook over material deemed insulting to political figures.

Ambika Soni, the Indian information and broadcasting minister, told reporters that cartoonists “should stay within constitutional parameters”, saying “they cannot make national symbols the object of their cartoon”.

Though Trivedi’s arrest was prompted by a complaint from a private individual with no known political ties, campaigners point to a raft of recent cases in which political figures have used the law to muzzle criticism across the country. In April, police arrested an academic in the eastern city of Kolkata for allegedly sharing by email cartoons that ridiculed Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state.

A statement from campaign group India Against Corruption, for which Trivedi was an activist, said: “There have been many instances of harassment of cartoonists and other artists.

“The appropriateness of the cartoons should be judged by the public, and not by the police.”

Broader fears exist of censorship and intimidation. A new cinematic adaptation of Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which charts the life of a boy with magical powers in post-independence India and includes unflattering portrayals of major Indian historic political figures, has struggled to find a distributor in the author’s native land.

Indian television showed images of Trivedi shouting slogans as he was bundled into a police car outside court. The cartoonist refused the services of a lawyer, welcoming his own arrest. “If telling the truth makes one a traitor, then I am happy,” he said.

The case against him was filed in a Mumbai court by a lawyer, who said the pictures mocked national symbols. Trivedi was also charged with posting seditious and obscene content on his website, which is now blocked.

The sedition laws in India date back to the country’s colonial days. Nationalist heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi frequently faced the charge during the struggle for independence.

The cartoonist’s father, Ashok Trivedi, told CNN-IBN his son was being targeted because he was involved in a campaign to mobilise Indians for mass protests against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

The government has struggled to counter allegations that corruption on its watch has cost the country billions of pounds. Even top government advisers admit that “crony capitalism” is a major problem. Petty graft is present at all levels of Indian society and is one of the chief complaints of the new urban middle classes.

ADD The Congress Party, which current rules as part of a coalition, later distanced itself from Trivedi’s arrest.

“I have no hesitation in saying that the arrest is a bit too far over-stretched…over reaction is certainly not called for,” said Manish Tewari, a Congress parliamentarian”We are not in favour of arrest. A society which fails to laugh at itself runs the risk of getting atrophied.”

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