It is embarrassing. The arrest of the cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, on charges of sedition is the latest exposure of an embarrassing tendency of Indian institutions to clamp down on criticism. It is even worse that those in authority who pounce on criticism at the drop of a hat either do not realize or do not care that this love of repression is the exact contrary of the democratic principle of freedom of speech. Such reactions are both sinister and silly. The word ‘seditious’ is merely made frivolous by misplaced application and overuse, apart from the fact that ‘patriotism’ does not mean uncritical adoration of the politicians who run the country.
This incident is of a kind that should awaken certain basic questions. How brittle is official, or political, India’s sense of security that the machinery of the law gets going the moment a cartoonist raises questions about integrity through humour or satire? A cartoonist is an artist with a pointed message. What has made politicians and officials so jumpy about satire directed against corruption in the circles of power that the artist should be labelled seditious? And since when is posting “ugly and obscene content” on a website seditious? It is not as though India has any dearth of terror from outside or militancy inside. Do the police and law courts have nothing better to occupy their time with? The charge of sedition may relate to the artist’s use of national symbols in his cartoons. There is a political culture of demonstrative respect towards national symbols in India that has very little to do with dedicated service for the country. This institutionalized hypocrisy needs to make an example of anything that it can construe, deliberately, as ‘disrespect’ to national symbols. It is important to obscure the real message by condemning the artist while sending out a threatening signal to other aspiring critics. Art, criticism, humour, concern for the country, belief in free speech can all be distorted by the use of repression.