September 11, 2012
Ban corruption, not banish the cartoonist.
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 not?
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 takes 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 comitting 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 defense of Mr. Trivedi. The police officers, he added, should not get away on the defense 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.