Monday, September 10, 2012

INDIA: Ban corruption, not banish the cartoonist by Avinash Pandey


September 10, 2012

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission

                  INDIA: Ban corruption, not banish the cartoonist

Avinash Pandey

The arrest of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist and a member of India
against Corruption, is not only ridiculous but also a telling comment
on the paranoia that has set in the government circles and deserves
all the outrage it has caused. In fact, the only thing more ludicrous
than the arrest itself is the reason cited by the Mumbai Police for
the arrest. Mr Trivedi has been booked for nothing less than sedition
and showing disrespect to national emblem on a private complaint filed
by an advocate who, incidentally, also happens to be a member of a
political party in the line of fire for many of its leaders being
charged with corruption charges.

On being asked about the reason behind the arrest, Mumbai Police
attributed it to 'procedural formality' on a complaint filed under
section 124 A charging Mr. Trivedi with 'showing disrespect to the
National Emblem' and putting up 'ugly and objectionable content' on
his website. The facts of the case, however, tell a very different
story. The cartoons in question include one where he replaced four
lions of India's national emblem with wolves and a caption 'Bhrshtmev
Jayate'(Corruption wins) instead of official 'Satyamev Jayate'(truth
wins). The message oozing out of the cartoon was loud and clear, that
corruption is devouring the nation. Does Mumbai Police think it is

Similar was another cartoon of his where he depicted the Parliament
building as a toilet. Hard hitting it was, but with more than one
third of India's parliamentarians charged with grave offenses
including murder and rape, this is what an average Indian thinks of
it. It is such parliamentarians and the system that refuses to cleanse
itself of them, and not Aseem, that insults the parliament. He was
just telling a truth, however bitter, but still a truth. All other
cartoons of his tell the tales of miseries inflicted on the body
politic of Indian nation by the very same people who are
constitutionally obligated to protect it. If someone needed to be
charged with sedition, it should had been those in such authority for
making a mockery of India, its people and citizenry included.

The concerns regarding his arrest, though, do not stop at the
preposterousness of it. It is the same police, after all, which take
no action against the likes of Raj Shrikant Thackeray, the leader of
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, who spits venom against the North Indians
working in the metropolis almost on a daily basis. Not only that,
neither the police nor the government seem to be bothered with his
calls to violence against the migrant labour in the city that get duly
carried out by his party. Forget that, Mumbai Police did never show
any intent to bring him to books for inciting his legislators for
committing a physical assault on Abu Azmi, a legislator, inside the
assembly house for the 'crime' of taking oath in Hindi, an official
language of Indian state. Insulting the assembly by engaging in acts
of violence, perhaps, is not as serious a threat to the nation as
Aseem's cartoons.

Similar, almost legendary in fact, has been Mumbai Police's inaction
on the words and deeds of Bal Thackeray, leader of Shiv Sena who have
gone to the extent of calling upon Hindus to form 'suicide armies' to
wipe out 'Muslims'. Mumbai Police did not find even such an open call
for violence against Indian citizens seditious enough to act upon.
Evidently, it has its own idea of crime, one that is markedly
different from that outlined in the Indian Penal Code and the Code of
Criminal Procedure. It picks and chooses the 'crimes' irrespective of
fact of any criminality being attached to them or not.

Neither is the case of Aseem a standalone case of such miscarriage of
both the procedure and justice. People with vested interests across
India have taken recourse to such rancorous filing of charges for
stifling the voices of dissent. They do it, on top of that, in courts
spread all over the country and make the respondent's life hell. The
case of famous actress Khushboo readily comes to mind against whom 22
criminal cases had been registered for advising women to take adequate
protection if they indulged in pre marital sex. The very fact that
these many cases can be filed in different courts for such an
innocuous, and necessary, opinion exposes the threat to freedom of
expression and speech in India. Similar had been the plight of many
others subjected to deal with such frivolous cases for having the
courage to say what they believe in.

Interestingly, these self-appointed custodians of morality,
patriotism, culture, or whatever else do never get offended about the
comments that really are hateful. For example, I do not remember
anyone rushing to file cases against Acharya Giriraj Kishore of the
Vishwa Hindu Parishad for saying that lives of cows are far more
important than that of Dalits, a comment that is not only offensive
but also criminal for being discriminatory against a section of Indian
society. Likewise, no one felt offended enough with Ashok Singhal of
the same organization for calling upon Hindus to 'repeat Gujarat
experiment all over India' and thus giving an open call for violence
against Muslims.

Unmistakably, what offends these 'custodians' is any opinion that is
capable of challenging the status quo that they derive their power and
position from. They get affronted with any opinion that challenges the
hierarchies that place them where they are. They get slighted with any
belief that aims at breaking the backbone of graded inequalities that
define the nation called India and act upon them. Yet, they too have a
right to their opinion if it is not an outright call to violence or
involves any other element of criminality including hate speech. That
is the catch of a democracy, that we just cannot silence any opinion
just like that.

How does the same democracy, then, silence the dissenters? The answer
to this question exposes the enormity of the problem and the grave
consequences it would have for the democracy if it is left unattended
to. It were, earlier, a bunch of right wing thugs, that used to try
stifling voices that were different from what they wanted to listen
to. Now, the state is taking up their job. It listens to
fundamentalist Muslims and bans Lajja, a novel by Taslima Nasreen and
stops Salman Rushdie from attending famous annual event named The
Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). It listens to the Hindu
fundamentalists and bans Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India for
promoting 'social enmity'. It listens to the Hindu right again and
takes The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan off the syllabus of Delhi
university. The list of such banned books in the 'largest democracy of
the world' is endless.

The point is that the government has learnt the art of using the
excuse of 'hurt sentiments' to goad its critics into silence. Stung by
the extent of the popular anger directed against its acts of omissions
and commissions, it has gotten paranoid about any dissent that comes
its way and has started cracking down on them. These are definitely
not good signs for the future democracy in the country is a fact that
one need not even. Right to freedom of expression is a right
guaranteed by the constitution and is a non-negotiable one. The point
is how to safeguard it in the face of increasing vigilantism of the
state and the consequent assault on the freedom.

The only way ahead is by challenging the legality of such arrests and
bringing the perpetrators, police officers in this case, to books.
These arrests are illegal on the very face of it and are, therefore,
indefensible as Justice (retired) Markandey Katju asserted while
speaking in defence of Mr. Trivedi. The police officers, he added,
should not get away on the defence that they were carrying orders of
their superiors, as carrying out illegal orders cannot be used as a
defense and therefore gives no legal protection to the perpetrators,
is a well established fact in jurisprudence.

Punishing such officers is required for another very important
reason, for both making the system accountable and holding officers
responsible for their act. This would also desist them from following
such illegal orders for selfish interests.

Mr. Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food
Programme, AHRC.

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional
non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia,
documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional
reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The
Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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