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The cartoon controversies in India:

Democracy comes with its tests, some of which every democratic nation inevitably flunks. In fact, there hasn’t been any nation in the history of democracy that has passed all the tests all the time. And needless to say, a regime always finds ways to justify its anti-democratic actions, no matter how ridiculous its arguments. But what’s been happening in India (at least technically the largest democracy on the planet) with regard to free speech is way beyond poor test performance; it’s a travesty, pure and simple—and one of the stupidest kinds. I’m particularly interested in the crackdown on certain political cartoonists.

Cartoonists, of all people! COME ON!! We grew up during the ‘60s and the ‘70s in a rich culture of incisive political cartoons by Kutty, R.K. Laxman et al, an era when India was a fledgling democracy by any standard; yet I can’t remember any serious reprisals against cartoonists. Every issue of the major magazines and newspapers in the country had a regular cartoon page. These days, on the other hand, some cartoonists are being hauled to jail, intimidated, even charged with sedition (Sedition, mind you!) for addressing corruption in government and related institutions. What is more, the primary weapon of such assault is a bizarre hybrid of an anti-subversion law made by the British colonial administration in 1860 and the very recent Information Technology Act, the primary purpose of which is to ensure cyber security. Of course, the cases are going nowhere on the legal front because it’s not easy to prove a bunch of cartoons seditious. But the intimidation and hassle are enough to make a regular citizen either break down, or, as it seems in the case of Aseem Trivedi of Mumbai, become more resolved. I don’t find Aseem Trivedi’s work adequately mature in terms of skill, punch line or aesthetic. But that’s beside the point. Whenever a regime takes its battle to cultural workers, like artists and journalists, it’s a disturbing symptom of a wider disease, where quality is less important than the question of rights.

Democracy in India has never shown much tolerance for open debates, and we all know that a list of the wrongs and ill-doings of the Indian system would be pretty long; but this!! Even other police states must be rolling on the floor laughing, because ironically, these antics of the Indian authorities provide fodders for great cartoons!

More later on the question of freedom of speech and creative expression in India.

Sunanda K Sanyal

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