Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons are not calculated to amuse. His series of cartoons and caricatures on corruption, in particular, are searing in the extreme, reflecting rage rather than lightness of manner. For sure, some of them make you wince with the sheer bluntness of their message: depictions of the Indian parliament as a toilet bowl or the “gang rape of Mother India” by a beast named corruption (with help from politicians and bureaucrats) make you extremely queasy.
Others, such as the one that depicts Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist from the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, as a dog that is peeing on the Constitution, perhaps take liberties with the extent to which the Kasab trial upholds the principle of the rule of law guaranteed under the Constitution.
Yet, for all their rough-edged nature, and their capacity to disturb the tranquility of your ‘mera bharat mahaan‘ reverie, the cartoons themselves don’t do India (or the ‘symbols’ of state power) any more damage than the reality of corruption that they depict.
The supreme irony of Trivedi’s arrest on charges of sedition is that it has effectively broadcast to a wider audience the same cartoons that few had seen earlier. Social media platforms have replicated and dispersed the cartoons far wider. And going by the widespread resonance that the core message of the cartoons appears to enjoy – some of the caricatures have become display pictures on Twitter and Facebook – the charge of sedition now applies to a much larger group.
The government may argue that in this case the original complaint was filed by a private citizen, and to that extent it is not culpable. The complainant, Amit Arvind Kararnaware, a 27-year-old Dalit activist, claims his intention wasn’t political, but motivated by his angst over the “insult to the Constitution” and the symbols of state that the cartoons represented.
Yet, to the extent that the instruments of state power are invoked in defence of a private citizen’s grouse – in the name of the state – they are just as culpable. As Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju noted in a statement on Sunday, to the extent that the police had arrested a cartoonist who had, in his estimation, not committed a crime, they were themselves in violation of the Indian Penal Code on grounds of “wrongful arrest and wrongful confinement.”
“Policemen, who make such illegal arrests, cannot take the plea that they were obeying orders of political superiors,” he said. To embellish that point, Katju cited the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi war criminals claimed that they were merely obeying orders from their political superior Adolf Hitler. “But this plea was rejected by the International Tribunal which held that illegal orders should be disobeyed.”
There are those who have argued that sedition laws, and in particular, Section 124A, which has been invoked here, ought to be repealed. However, the Supreme Court had, in the landmark Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar case of 1962, upheld the constitutional validity of the Section. Yet, it ruled that a citizen had the right to say or write whatever he liked about the government or its measures by way of criticism or comment “so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government… or with the intention of creating public disorder.”
Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons can be faulted on many counts – a lack of sophistication, perhaps, or a rush to judgement on key issues in the public domain without an adequate appreciation of the nuances of the argument, for instance – but the arrest of the cartoonist on charges of sedition makes a mockery of the law in more ways than his cartoons ever can.
The far more telling commentary on the government’s attitude towards corruption is the readiness with which it has initiated criminal action or investigations against those who have spoken out against corruption, and has been dragging its feet when it comes to launching investigations where, as in the coal block allocation scandal, a prima facie case of monumental corruption exists.
If that doesn’t amount to peeing on the Constitution, I don’t know what does…