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Aseem Trivedi, and the case for repeal of sedition law

From all accounts, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who has declined to post bail following his arrest on charges of sedition for having allegedly denigrated symbols of state power in his anti-corruption cartoons, intends to test the limits of the sedition law, which has its roots in colonial history.

In that enterprise, he has the robust support of Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, who says that he intends to make this a test case by initiating criminal prosecution against both the police officers who arrested Trivedi, and the prickly politicians who are too quick to brand any criticism of their venality as "anti-national".

"I will personally see to it that these politicians and police officers are booked," Katju told CNN-IBN on Monday. "In a democracy, politicians must learn how to accept criticism and behave." But politicians, he added, had "become intolerant and must be put in their place."

This is a test case to push for the repeal of the sedition law.

In fact, Katju went so far as to say that Paschim Banga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had had a Jadavpur University professor jailed for forwarding a cartoon that was mildly critical of her, "should be locked up for behaving like a dictator and a tyrant."

Katju's feisty criticism lends weight to the growing perception that the pendulum of power has swung too far in favour of politicians and their puppets, who abuse archaic provisions in the law to crack down on even the mildest form of dissent - and brand their critics as "anti-national".

The Aseem Trivedi case also shows up - more starkly than earlier cases of alleged sedition - the absurd lengths to which these regressive laws have been abused. And although on this occasion, Trivedi's arrest was evidently triggered by a private complaint by a Dalit activist, the defence of the police action by Central and State-level leaders on the grounds that symbols of state power ought not be trifled with shows up the reluctance of the political class to repeal what is widely perceived as a regressive law.

The campaign for a repeal of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code has been on for a while (more on that here). And although the arrest of Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition has triggered angry outbursts beyond just the traditional Left-liberal constituencies, some of them are, as my colleague Lakshmi Chaudhry noted here, neo-converts to the principle free speech advocacy. In the past, they were themselves in solidarity with invocation of the sedition law against, say, an Arundhati Roy or a Binayak Sen.

Which is why the Aseem Trivedi case is a perfect one to push back against invasions on the personal liberty of citizens by an excessively paranoid and insecure political class in the guise of defending national security. That a cartoonist has been arrested on grounds of  sedition is the surest sign that the instruments of state power - from the politician down to the police official - have become completely unhinged.

Trivedi's cartoons may grate, but the symbols of state power that he caricatured have been debased rather more by venal politicians. There is something perverse about our Parliament if 162 of its members have criminal records against them, as our community blogger Shiningpath established in a series of posts (here, here and here).

For far too long have our netas invoked parliamentary privilege to get back at those who would criticise them on this and other counts. It's now time to bring down the high walls behind which they hide to carry on with their venal politicking and abuse of power.

The Aseem Trivedi case, and the public-spirited solidarity of men like Katju, provide us with the tools to  bring down those walls, make our leaders accountable - and push for the repeal of the sedition law. Rarely have all sections of our polarised society - from the Left-liberal to the far-right constituencies - been on the same side on this issue. This opportunity is too good for us to squander away.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2012 16:03 PM

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