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Indian cartoonist's arrest on sedition charges sparks outcry

September 10, 2012 |  7:57 am

India finds itself in the middle of a new free-speech controversy after authorities arrested cartoonist and anti-corruption activist Aseem Trivedi on sedition charges
NEW DELHI -- India finds itself in the middle of a new free-speech controversy after authorities arrested cartoonist and anti-corruption activist Aseem Trivedi on sedition charges.

The move over the weekend came after Trivedi displayed caricatures of India's constitution, parliament and the national emblem on placards and posted them on a social networking site.

As outcry spread Monday among media and civic groups, the police in Maharashtra state appeared to back down, telling Trivedi they would let him go if he applied for bail. He refused, however, saying he would remain in custody as a matter of principle. His next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.

"If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one," Trivedi told reporters outside the court late Sunday on his way to a hearing. "Even Mahatma Gandhi was called traitor, and if I am booked under sedition for doing service to the nation, then I will continue to do so."

Most of his allegedly seditious cartoons were displayed last year on a website that Trivedi launched, called CartoonsAgainstCorruption.com. The government blocked the site in December during a demonstration by anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare.

Attempts to access the site Monday were greeted with the message "Sorry, the website you were looking for is unavailable." [Several of his cartoons, signed Aseem, were available, however, on http://www.cartoonsagainstcorruption.blogspot.in/] Some of Trivedi's cartoons also appeared on posters in December, during a two-day protest led by Hazare.

Trivedi's arrest stems from a complaint filed at the time of the protest by a Mumbai-based lawyer. But given India's overloaded, creaky legal system, the case wasn't heard until last month, leading to his surrender before the court this past weekend.

In recent months, the government has been on the defensive over a string of corruption scandals involving the natural resource, telecommunications, sports, real estate and defense industries, allegedly amounting to tens of billions of dollars. The most recent session of Parliament was blocked for weeks over "coal-gate," under which the government allegedly allocated coal blocks under sweetheart deals. Officials have denied any wrongdoing.

As word of Trivedi's detention spread, lawyers, anti-corruption activists, members of his family and social media voiced concern over the government's use of India's British Empire-era sedition law. Supporters also staged a demonstration in Trivedi's hometown, Kanpur.

"My opinion is that the cartoonist did nothing illegal," said Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India and a former Supreme Court justice, in a representative comment. "In a democracy many things are said, some truthful and others false."

In addition to the sedition charges, 25-year-old Trivedi has been accused of displaying "ugly and obscene" content on his website. One cartoon that has drawn particular ire from some critics featured the lions in India's national emblem depicted as wolves with blood dripping from their mouths, suggesting that corruption is injuring the nation. Another depicts a building resembling the Parliament as a huge toilet bowl.

The government said Monday it had no problem with people expressing their opinions, but that disrespect for important national imagery would not be taken lightly.

"We are not against democratic rights, we are all for free speech," Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni told reporters. "But there is a thin line you draw between free speech and what can be termed as offensive, especially against national symbols." 

Some social media users argued that the government was giving Trivedi more publicity with this crackdown than if it had just ignored him. "What #AseemTrivedi could not do with his cartoons, our govt did by arresting him," said Twitter user @sidd_tr.

Others criticized New Delhi for going after the messenger and cracking down on social media rather that allegedly corrupt officials. "Instead of arresting Aseem Trivedi, the Government should arrest some of the cartoons administering the country!" wrote Twitter user @Spicy_Treat.

In recent weeks, the government has blocked users of Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone short messaging, accusing them of spreading rumors following sectarian riots in the country’s northeast. In June, it threatened to ban political cartoons from school textbooks. And in West Bengal state, its coalition partner arrested a professor for forwarding on email a cartoon showing the chief minister.

On the international front, the foreign minister earlier this year threatened to lodge a formal protest with U.S. authorities after comedian Jay Leno joked that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a new summer home, showing a picture of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, considered the Sikhs' most sacred site.

And the government called for an apology and condemned as tasteless the BBC program "Top Gear," after its hosts drove around India making jokes about Indian food, clothes, trains and sanitation. In particular, the show featured a ride in an aging Jaguar with a toilet fitted into its trunk, a play on India's reputation for "Delhi belly." After the segment aired, the Indian Embassy in London termed the program insensitive and "replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humor."

Some of Trivedi’s supporters said his real offense in the government's eye may be highlighting graft.

"Our son has done nothing wrong," his mother, Pratibha Trivedi, told the NDTV news network. "I am proud of my son. Corrupt leaders must be behind bars, not my son. His act cannot be called unpatriotic." 

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-- Mark Magnier 

Photo: Indian police officers men escort political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi to a court in Mumbai on Monday after he was jailed on sedition charges over drawings mocking Indian government corruption. Credit: Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press

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