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17 November 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 6:26am

The Indian political cartoonist the government doesn’t want you to know about

Not just legislation, but hyper-nationalist patriots are an increasing threat to free speech.

By Bhanuj kappal

In early September 2012 cartoonist and free speech activist Aseem Trivedi was getting ready for his upcoming trip to Syria, to receive the 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning award. He shared that award with Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, who had just been beaten nearly to death and had his hands broken by masked gunmen who told him this was only “a warning”. 

Trivedi’s attackers had so far been more restrained – although he had already had his website banned and criminal charges filed against him. But then, in the midst of his preparations, he got a frantic call from his father in Kanpur. The police had turned up at his house and taken his father to the police station for questioning. 

Over the phone, a police officer told him that he was wanted on charges of sedition and instructed him to report to Mumbai within the week. His crime? A series of cartoons, published 10 months earlier in support of social activist Anna Hazare’s populist anti-corruption campaign.

The India Against Corruption (IAC) had parodied India’s national symbols to depict corruption’s corrosive effects on the country’s institutions. Trivedi, who had spent most of the year working to protect internet freedom with his Save Your Voice campaign, was expecting some sort of reaction from the Indian state. But he never anticipated that he’d be accused of trying to overthrow the state. 

“I was astonished that they had charged me with sedition,” he told me over the phone from Delhi last week, just before he took off for six weeks of workshops and speaking engagements in Europe organised by human rights NGO Front Line Defenders. “I already expected to be booked under the IT Act (Information Technology Act, 2000), because we were campaigning against its more draconian provisions. But sedition was a shock.”  

After days of intense deliberations with his team, Trivedi decided to surrender to the Mumbai police on September 9, 2012. Thanks to a groundswell of public support from IAC activists, free speech proponents and the general public, he was released five days later. Trivedi spent most of the next three years in court, dividing his time between his own case and a legal challenge against the IT Act’s controversial section 66A, which imposes up to three years imprisonment for sharing “offensive” messages online. The sedition charges were finally thrown out by the Bombay High Court in March 2015. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court ruled that section 66A – under which a number of people had been arrested over the past couple of years, including a Mumbai school girl – was unconstitutional. “The law was being used quite frequently to arrest people, and it had created an atmosphere of fear,” Trivedi says. “So when the Supreme Court struck it down, it sent out the message that free speech is something worth protecting.” 

By 2015, political cartoonists were back in the spotlight. In January that year, the Paris offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two Al Qaeda men with assault rifles because of certain cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In the wake of the attack, cartoonists, journalists and the general public from all over the world expressed overwhelming support for the right to freely satirise. 

Trivedi, too, was inspired to return to cartoons after a two-year hiatus. “I was pretty shocked that cartoonists had been murdered for their art, so when a publication asked for a cartoon I decided to sit down and draw something,” he said. That cartoon didn’t get published, but soon after Trivedi started an online cartoon “magazine of resistance” called Black and White. The magazine aims to support campaigns for freedom of speech, internet freedom and human rights all over the world. Its first issue featured cartoons on the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the arrest and torture of Bahrain human rights activist Hussain Jawad and on net neutrality in India. 

Trivedi has been releasing cartoons regularly ever since. He tells me that despite his legal victories, the ideals of free speech and freedom of the press are increasingly under threat in the country. “Even if we take one step forward, we always end up taking two steps back,” he said. His high profile arrest in 2012 marked a time when the colonial era sedition law – originally introduced to deal with “increasing Wahabi activities between 1863 and 1870 that posed a challenge to the colonial government” – was being increasingly used as a tool to silence dissent and opposition to the government’s policies.

The previous centre-left government used it to suppress protests against mining projects in environmentally vulnerable regions, even infamously charging an entire village with sedition. Since Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government took over in 2014, the law has been used to target Kashmiri students cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match, left-wing student leaders, Amnesty International, a Tamil folk singer who criticised her state’s liquor prohibition policy and an actress-turned-politician who had the temerity to assert that “Pakistan is not hell”. 

“The line between freedom of speech and sedition has been blurred by this government and it supporters,” said Trivedi. “Everything is treasonous now, and being labeled a ‘traitor’ is more dangerous in such a politically charged environment.” 

Free speech and press freedom are under attack not just in the legal arena, but also in the court of public opinion. The past two years have seen a phalanx of hyper-nationalist “patriots” turn India’s public discourse into a dangerous game of “spot the anti-national”. Our TV news debates resemble a sad parody of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. Critics of the government on social media are regularly met with a barrage of abuse, threats and exhortations to “go to Pakistan”. Trivedi lays much of the blame for this weaponization of public opinion at the hands of the current government. “You have ministers talking about ‘teaching lessons’ to public figures who dare to criticise the government,” he said. “You have ministers calling journalists “presstitutes”. Instead of protecting freedom of speech, the government is encouraging these attacks.” 

“If you look at the public discourse now, people talk about free speech as if it is a social ill, not a right,” he added. “The educated youth of this country are happily going along with this. They have no understanding of democracy, they scoff at secularism and freedom of speech. When the public starts thinking like this, the future of the country seems really bleak.” 

“We’ve become so obsessed with Pakistan,” he concluded, “That we’re going to become like Pakistan if we continue like this.” 

On November 18, Aseem Trivedi will give an illustrated talk on human rights and political cartoons at the Free Word Centre, London. 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.​

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