'Don't gag cartoonists, let democracy breathe'

When I saw the TV images of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi being dragged away by Mumbai Police, I realised that it could’ve been me. I was almost there! Every time I draw a cartoon criticising a government, a politician or any establishment, I put myself in that situation. Anybody can file a case against my cartoons and drag me to a court in Mumbai or Delhi or Kanpur, or anywhere in the country.

Aseem Trivedi
No laughing matter: Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was remanded to police custody till September 16 after being produced before a holiday court yesterday

They may not succeed in stopping me from drawing another anti-establishment cartoon, but they’ll surely succeed in wasting my precious time; in mentally harassing me. This seems to be the new trick played by the chamchas of the government or politicians to sow the seeds of fear in the minds of cartoonists. In the process, they shamelessly misuse an IT Act, which was enacted to stop misuse of the web.

Aseem Trivedi
Where to draw the line? Trivedi in police custody

The trick of using fear isn’t unique to cops. If you’re active on social media, posting your cartoons, you notice that in a way, everyone who dislikes a certain cartoon is trying to gag you. I get threats and hate mail from Congress loyalists, RSS workers, BJP fans, Pakistan lovers, etc, who aren’t happy with a certain cartoon.

I don’t see much difference between a call from cops threatening a legal case and a mail/post from the fanatic loyalists. It’s just that cops try to scare me by using a law and these fanatics try to scare me by threatening to harm me. But they’re all trying the spread fear by restricting my freedom of expression. They’re all scared of the freedom that cartoonists use to show the truth.

I have been following Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons on his blog, even before he was sued. But I believe that only when he started identifying himself with Anna’s India Against Corruption movement did he attract attention from the cops. His cartoons started reaching more people on the web. He also attracted legal cases.

I firmly believe that this arrest is politically motivated, because of the cartoonist’s association with IAC. Media needs to investigate the political association and aspirations of the complainant. Is the complainant really concerned about the parliament, the national emblem or is he just trying to please his bosses? My experience with a similar incident exposed the political aspirations of the complainant.

Exactly a year ago I received a call from a police officer in the Mumbai Crime Branch. He asked me to come to the Crime Branch office. When I said I’m not based in Mumbai anymore, he said he was aware of that, but wanted me in the Crime Branch office with regard to a certain cartoon on Sharad Pawar.

First I was amused, but soon I realised he was dead serious. I was told that the Crime Branch had received a complaint. The cartoon was about Sharad Pawar declaring an asset worth Rs 12 crore. I had shown him as a pole-dancer revealing just his calf, with Rs 12 crore written on it. This cartoon didn’t invite any objection when it was published in MiD DAY as well as in its sister publications. But after it appeared on my blog, they invoked IT laws to harass me.

The cop asked me to remove the cartoon from my blog. He said the cartoon was obscene, since I had showed such a big leader in an obscene dress. I knew that the cartoon wasn’t wrong, so I decided to use the power of social media to reach more people and spread the cartoon. I shared my experience on Facebook and Twitter and later on my blog. I was really surprised to find so much support from netizens, who retweeted and shared the cartoon and urged others to do the same. Media picked up the story and many journalists took the cop’s number to talk to him.

I was shocked when the cop denied that he had ever called me, since the calls from his personal number was registered on my phone. But I succeeded in defeating their motive. The complainant wanted to stop me, because he feared that the cartoon could reach more people through a blog. I used the same power, the power of the web, to take the cartoon to more people. A cartoon which could’ve possibly been seen by thousands of people, reached lakhs, because of the power of the web. Later I came to know that the complainant was an NCP party member.

When a cop receives a complaint regarding a cartoon and initiates action, he forgets a few things. He forgets that a cartoonist is also a journalist who expresses his opinion through a cartoon; that he works within a self-disciplined boundary; that there are journalists including the editor who go through the same cartoon before publishing it. Do you think a cop can undermine the professional expertise and professional rights of all these people to decide the fate of a cartoon? How can a police officer decide which cartoon is offensive, unless he is specially trained to monitor creative work?

While we’re enacting new laws and amending existing ones to gag the creative freedom, the government isn’t bothered to draft any law to protect artists. The power of the web can dangerous, agreed. But please don’t use that alibi to restrict our freedom of expression. Please don’t misuse IT laws to settle political scores.

Trivedi’s cartoons are strong and sometimes blunt. As an editorial cartoonist I may not draw the cartoons that he’s made about the Parliament and tricolour, but that’s my self-imposed boundary. But you cannot arrest a cartoonist and harass him just because a complainant thought a cartoon was offensive and a cop agreed. Any democracy is as strong as the freedom its creative people enjoy. Let democracy breathe, don’t gag cartoons. 

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