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How free?

Murali Krishnan, New Delhi
September 10, 2012

The arrest of a cartoonist charged with sedition has triggered a debate over India's free speech and press freedom laws as the Indian government struggles with corruption allegations.

Indian political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi gestures after he is arrested by the police on charges of mocking the Indian constitution in his drawings
Image: AP

After being picked up by police in Mumbai, Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year-old anti-graft activist, was remanded for a week in police custody for allegedly using his cartoons to "insult national symbols."

One of the cartoons in question depicts the national emblem as comprising wolves in place of lions and a slogan "Bhrashtameva Jayate" - which means "corruption rules" - in place of the original slogan "Satyameva Jayate" - "truth alone prevails." Another sketch depicted parliament as a toilet.

Cartoon row - anger over arrest

But within hours of the court decree, a storm of protests broke out across the country. Intellectuals, civil society activists and artists throughout the country have pledged full support to Trivedi and slammed the government for his custodial duration.

"It is an artist's duty to be a mirror to the nation. Aseem has done no wrong by showing the tragic state of India. By this cowardly act [of his arrest], the protests will only swell in the coming days and will force the government to recant," famous music director Pritam Chakraborty told DW.

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh's government has come under fire for graftImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Why should the government arrest our son, a cartoonist, when there are so many corrupt leaders roaming around freely? His cartoon was only helping draw attention to corruption," said Aseem's father, Rewashankar, who was a part of India's freedom struggle.

Thousands took to Twitter and other social media in support of the cartoonist.

"Instead of arresting Aseem Trivedi, the government should make some self-arrests of some of the cartoons running this country," tweeted Suhel Seth, an advertisement honcho and actor.

Anti-corruption movement

As a member of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement started by anti-graft campaigner and social activist Anna Hazare last year, Trivedi has lampooned the government through his cartoons.

The IAC has been campaigning to force the Indian parliament to approve the Jan Lokpal (Citizen's Ombudsman) bill, which proposes to establish the position of an independent ombudsman, who will have the powers to prosecute politicians and civil servants.

Freedom of speech under attack?

Undoubtedly, Trivedi's arrest has once again triggered debate on freedom of speech in India, which is enshrined in the country's constitution.

Chairman of the Press Council of India Justice Markandey Katju also came out in Trivedi's defense, saying he had done nothing illegal.

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare
Campaigner Hazare plans to launch a political partyImage: Reuters

"My opinion is that the cartoonist did nothing illegal. In a democracy many things are said, some truthful and others false. It is a wrongful arrest and wrongful confinement," Katju said in a statement.

In recent months, writers, academics and artists have come under attack from the political class and self-appointed vigilantes for criticizing the established order. Intellectuals feel intolerance is growing in India.

Two years ago, cases of sedition were brought against celebrated writer Arundhati Roy, and revolutionary poet Varavara Rao on charges of giving "anti-India" speeches at a convention on Kashmir.

Following his arrest, Trivedi has remained defiant and refused to engage a lawyer as a mark of protest against his arrest.

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