|Are the Aseem Trivedi's cartoons problematic?|
Aseem Trivedi's cartoons are problematic, but he has the right to exercise his freedom of expression.
To anyone who believes in freedom of expression as a fundamental tenet of a democracy, the arrest of a young cartoonist on charges of sedition is an outrage and must be protested. Sedition, as handed down to us by our colonial masters, is an extremely grave allegation to make against anyone and when applied to someone who merely drew a few cartoons, even if they ridiculed a few state institutions, smacks of overkill. That this was done on the basis of a complaint filed by a private citizen is even more worrisome - any mischief- maker could now feel encouraged to do the same and get a writer, artist or filmmaker thrown in jail for mocking the state. There is no question therefore that all right thinking persons must raise their voice against this arrest.
At the same time, the cartoons themselves are problematic. Not because they are simplistic, crudely drawn or that they somehow conspire to undermine the state. It is the spirit behind them that needs to be examined. They are in the same vein as the statements, speeches and slogans of the so-called Team Anna and the India Against Corruption campaign. In tone and tenor these speeches, etc. were downright ill-mannered and offensive: "send politician such and such to the mental hospital" being one such gem.
The worthies who controlled the agitation did not hold themselves back while making wild allegations against politicians or indeed ridiculing Parliament. Kiran Bedi, an exalted officer of the state at one time, who ought to have known better, got so carried away by the rush and adrenaline that she tried to do a nautanki act. Arvind Kejriwal has rarely deployed an understatement. There was a mean-spiritedness in the air which did not take much time to permeate down to the enthused supporters of the campaign.
It is in this context the cartoons must be seen. These are the works of an activist, not a social commentator. There is a kind of biliousness in the drawings and captions that eliminates all sense of fun or humour. Showing Parliament as a commode may tickle those who feel that the political class has let the citizenry down very badly, but it also implies that the institution itself is of little use. Such a comment feeds right into the narrative built up by the crusaders - and shared by its supporters - that India is not ready for democracy. Total revolution, presidential form of government and most of all, the Jan Lokpal, an omnibus authority that would override the legislature, executive and judiciary are all part of that thought process.
For the cartoonist, who undoubtedly felt he was reflecting the worldview of the leaders of the IAC, the system was rotten and needed to be changed. It would be interesting to know if any responsible elder from the IAC or Team Anna advised him to take down the cartoons or even tone down their shrillness.
Of course, the IAC group does not have a monopoly over nastiness. Political point-scoring is no longer about policy or ideology but about personality. Television discussions are constructed around the simple premise - the more raucous, the better. In Parliament, even experienced politicians have shown a tendency to use loose language. There is no holding back, no restraint in debate.
But the protest by "civil society" was supposed to provide an alternative to the falling standards of our political class. Team Anna was not merely about fighting corruption but also about demonstrating that citizens wanted change in the system. The methods employed - fasts, sit-ins, etc - were touted as Gandhian, and therefore pure, in contrast to the venality of politicians. How ironic then that the crusaders ended up mimicking and even surpassing the coarseness they were so much against. It would have been wonderful if the young, inspired cartoonist had used subtle means to poke fun at our representatives. It would have shown that the people were angry and upset, but still retained faith in not only India but its democracy and its institutions, which, for all their faults, have served its people well.
This is something that Arvind Kejriwal et al have not understood - there are not many other places where they can stand before a bank of television mikes and declaim that democracy has vanished from this country. Irony is not part of the activist's armoury.
Despite these reservations about the style and the substance of the cartoons and the campaign itself, there is no question that the absurd charge of sedition against the cartoonist must be withdrawn. It is not enough for the home minister of Maharashtra to say he had nothing to do with it; it is his police, which arrested Trivedi and he must intervene to see that this ridiculous decision is overturned. For all those who value liberty and freedom of speech as non-negotiable tenets enshrined in our Constitution, it is a matter of principle to demand that Trivedi be released as soon as possible, even if he and his fellow travellers made fun of that very Constitution.
As for the IACwallahs, if they want to get their derailed campaign moving again, they must make it clear that it is corruption they are against, rather than people, personalities, parties or Parliament. The cartoonist is being supported by those who do not agree with the IAC's agenda; the IAC must show similar courtesy to those they are opposed to.
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