x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Indian cartoonist jailed for insulting national honour doesn't seek bail

The Indian government's use of a colonial-era law to arrest one of its citizens is the kind of story satirical cartoonists dream about. But instead of lampooning the story, the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has become the story.

NEW DELHI // The Indian government's use of a colonial-era law to arrest one of its citizens is the kind of story satirical cartoonists dream about. But instead of lampooning the story, the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has become the story.

He was remanded to custody on Monday after being charged with insulting national honour, with violating the information technology act by uploading his cartoons to a website, and with sedition. The latter carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The arrest of Trivedi, 25, whose work has vigorously lampooned political corruption, has sparked outrage among free-speech advocates in India and abroad.

Late yesterday, he was granted bail by Bombay High Court, but refused it until the sedition charge is dropped. In a statement on Monday, Trivedi said he would not seek bail because "I have not done anything wrong".

On Monday, crowds of supporters gathered outside a courthouse in Mumbai, whipping up such a storm online that political parties from across the spectrum felt compelled to criticise the arrest.

The backlash has made it likely that the Maharashtra government will reconsider the sedition charges, although the rest will remain.

"Making a cartoon contemptuous of the state is not a crime," said Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer who founded the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network. "The government thought there wouldn't be a big hue and cry over the arrest, but they misjudged it."

Manish Tewari, a spokesman for the Congress party, called the sedition charges "overstretched", adding: "We are not in favour of the arrest."

The Bharatiya Janata Party accused the authorities of imposing "an undeclared emergency in the country". The media also weighed in, with the Indian Express newspaper describing the moves against Trivedi as like using "an H-bomb to slay a rabbit".

Trivedi said he would persist with his work until the "Draconian" sedition law "belonging to the British Raj" was repealed.

"I will continue my agitation against it and against censorship from the jail itself," he added.

His cartoons caught the attention of Mumbai police in December, when he displayed them during an anti-corruption rally.

In January, a case was filed by Amit Katarnaware, a Central Railways employee and a law student, who alleged that Trivedi had "insulted the constitution and the national emblem". Trivedi's website, Cartoons against Corruption, was blocked on police orders in January. But the images have proliferated online.

In one cartoon, the three lions of India's national emblem have been replaced by slavering wolves. The emblem's base reads "Bhrashtameva Jayate" (corruption always triumphs), instead of the Indian motto "Satyameva Jayate" (truth alone triumphs).

Another cartoon depicts the parliament building as a sewage tank, connected to several toilet cisterns labelled "Polling Booth".

A third shows a politician feeding citizens into a giant juicer, squeezing them dry to produce what Trivedi calls India's new national drink: "Common Man's Blood".

The furore over the cartoons drew the attention of several international bodies. On Monday, Bob Dietz, the Asia programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called Trivedi's arrest "a perverse exercise of power [that] runs completely counter to India's democratic principles".

Earlier this year, Trivedi won the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award, instituted by the US-based Cartoonists Rights Network International. He shared the accolade with Ali Ferzat, the Syrian caricaturist who was assaulted by gunmen in Damascus last August.

Trivedi's arrest is "part of a growing intolerance against dissent in India", said Shivam Vij, who writes for the blog Kafila.org and is an acquaintance of Trivedi.

"The problem is that a law like sedition is so draconian that it is readily available to be misused, to silence other people," he said.

Mr Vij said sedition was also being invoked against protesters denouncing a nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, and that other vaguely worded and easily misused acts, such as the Information Technology Act, have been deployed by the state to silence citizens in the last year.

The Indian government has blocked Twitter accounts and websites on the grounds they might spread damaging rumours. It also demanded a pre-censorship of Facebook, to excise pages or images demeaning politicians.

For a decade, Mr Gonsalves said, journalists in India have been attacked even for writing truthful articles that criticised the state.

"But what was subterranean then has come above ground now," he said, referring to the clamps on free speech and protests.

"The standards of a normal functioning democracy that we were taking for granted, those standards no longer exist," he said. "Mostly, we have just the facade and camouflage of a democratic state."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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