Rarely have I been so stung by a piece of political idiocy than I have by the arrest and remand to custody of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi this weekend. The Government of India has always specialised in the easygoing, relaxed approach towards people I regard as serious criminals (those responsible for instigating murderous riots, or those who incite hatred towards religious or linguistic communities, or on a much smaller scale those rich kids whose drunk driving takes several lives). But it comes down heavily on those who, however misguided, challenge the prevailing orthodoxy because they are sincere about wanting social change. This includes Indian Maoists for example. However I don't like to rush into print defending Maoists because I have a fundamental problem with their ideology of violence against the state. Perhaps there are some Maoists who don't believe in or practice violence, but with a given person I can't necessarily be sure (Binayak Sen was an exception whose personal non-violence was fairly evident to me).
The case of Aseem Trivedi is a lot simpler. His cartoons are generic sarcastic attacks on politicians, for which reason I find them a shade simplistic. Then again he doesn't work for me, so who am I to approve or not! He works for himself and for various publications and for organisations such as Cartoonists Against Corruption. Under the Indian Constitution he has every right to say what he has been saying and draw what he's been drawing. There is nothing remotely seditious (or even offensive) about what he's drawn, unless it could be argued that making Indian politicians generically look bad is harmful to the country. I would dearly love to read the text of such an argument if it was ever made, and if I could stop laughing while reading it.
One example of Aseem's cartoons, which can still be found on his Facebook page, is about the award of an Oscar to the Indian Parliament, in the form of a "Lifetime Achievement Award for a hundred years of सजीव अभिनय " (which I believe translates as "play-acting"). The cartoons that seem to have led to his arrest (as of now, they are easily found on the web) are a little more blunt. One shows the national emblem of India with the three lions replaced by wolves, their fangs dripping blood, and the motto सत्यमेव जयते (the truth alone triumphs) by भ्रष्टमेव जयते (corruption alone triumphs). Another depicts the "gang rape of Mother India" with a politician and a bureaucrat holding her and saying "come on... hurry up..." while a devil figure labelled "Corruption" prepares for the assault. Mother India is fully clothed so there is no case of obscenity in the very literal Indian (i.e. Victorian) sense of nudity. She is also looking extremely angry. All in all there is no insult to the country, even someone with the most distorted literalist mindset can see that.
I'm not quite sure how things are supposed to go now. It's certain that any Indian court above a certain level will let him off and pass strictures against the government, the police and the magistrate who put him behind bars. By that time he will have spent some days in jail and the purpose of this abusive action by the authorities will have been served: to frighten off anyone else who dares to lampoon politicians. My concern is that this sets the bar for what is permissible (to the police/government) very very very low. The three "very" 's are intentional. Some day we supporters of freedom of expression may have to address a case where a very hard-hitting, explicit or even repulsive drawing needs to be defended under the Constitution of India. If Aseem's mild, harmless work is the benchmark then there is no hope.
A final thought: could I also be subjected to a one-week free stay at government expense, just for blogging about this case and linking to relevant material including Aseem's Facebook page? Could you go behind bars for following my links? It's worth thinking about.