Aseem Trivedi drew a cartoon replacing the customary lions in the countryâ€™s national emblem with wolves, their teeth dripping with blood, and the caption read, Long live corruption.
Far from true, the last description.
Salman Rushdieâ€™s Booker Prize winning Midnightâ€™s Children, adapted to the screen by Deepa Mehta, may not be seen in India. Shot in Sri Lanka, though the novel is based in India, the movie premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
No cinema distributor in India is willing to touch Mehtaâ€™s work. The reasons are apparent. The book is critical of Indira Gandhi, whose daughter-in-law, Sonia, is now at the helm of affairs in the country.
Also, Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses was banned in India even before Islamic Iran could do so, is not exactly welcome in the country. He cancelled his January trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival because of a death threat. He could not even go ahead with a televised conference, because protesters warned of grave consequences.
Intolerance plays at many levels in India.
We now have the case of a cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested on charges of sedition. Later, he was freed on bail.
Trivedi, who has been part of the anti-corruption movement in India led by the self-styled Gandhian, Anna Hazare, drew a cartoon where he replaced the customary lions in the countryâ€™s national emblem with wolves, their teeth dripping with blood. The caption read, Long live corruption.
Another of Trivediâ€™s cartoons shows the Indian parliament (non-functioning in recent months) as a giant toilet bowl.
Browbeaten into submission
Indiaâ€™s best regarded political cartoonist, EP Unny, wrote in The Indian Express, a paper where he draws:
â€śWe got both our cartoon art and the sedition law from Britain. The two carried on all these decades, including those 21 months of national emergency and censorship in the mid- (nineteen) seventies, without coming to televised blows. Now Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year old cartoonist has been sent to Mumbai jail for the seditious act of insulting the national symbol.â€ť
â€śThe Indian state seems to be more loyal and lawful than the queen. If you Google Steve Bell, The Guardianâ€™s editorial cartoonist, you would think he is cooling his heels in Her Majestyâ€™s prison.Â Through some 30 years of merciless cartooning, he gleefully tore into most things British, symbolic and otherwise. Often reduced to bottom wear in Steveâ€™s work, the Union Jack still flies high over Westminster Palace.
â€śDo four Asiatic lions standing back to back and tall need protection from a doodler, however activist or agitated?Â There is bound to be inherent tension between any national symbol and the cartoon. One is meant to be revered and the other is nothing if not irreverent. The two should naturally clash as they do in mature democracies. Between spats they manage to live together â€“ the symbol on its pedestal and the cartoonist at the drawing board.
â€śBack in 1976 in a Playboy interview when Jimmy Carter confessed to having looked on a lot of women with lust, a cartoonist put a denuded Statue of Liberty into the Presidential thought balloon.Â Carter didnâ€™t wage a war on the cartoonist; he worked his way to the Nobel Peace Prizeâ€ť.
A democracy asks its citizens to speak their mind. Provided it does not cause riots or public harm.
But when citizens do that in India, they are warned and browbeaten into submission â€“ even sent to jail.Â Indiaâ€™s sedition law was written in 1860 to empower the British masters ruling India to punish â€śnativesâ€ť.
Yes, when a writer or cartoonist says what pleases the ears of the powers that be, he is encouraged to write or draw more. However, when he comments in words or pictures something critical, heavens fall.
This time, they have crashed on Trivedi.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.