There are essentially few nuggets of wisdom that the arrest and subsequent release of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has brought into limelight. They need to be discussed as it is difficult to take positions in such cases as each theme is ridden with contradictions.
Before we go into the ideological debate on freedom of speech lets know the nature of latest controversy. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in one of his work shows Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of 26/11 Mumbai attack, as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution.
In another cartoon, Trivedi depicts India’s national emblem, the four Sarnath Lions of King Asoka, as blood thirsty wolves inscribed with the motto “Bhrashtamev Jayate” (long live corruption). He modified the original word “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone triumphs) to give a punch.
Trivedi’s cartoons on campaign against corruption was on display during Anna Hazare‘s anti-corruption fast at Mumbai’s MMRDA Grounds in December in 2011. The Mumbai Police had to ban his cartoons following complaints. It was on the basis of such complaints that police had arrested Trivedi and slapped sedition charges. The cartoonist was later released following the public uproar.
Now how do we take positions on Aseem Trivedi’s case? One way would be to follow the conservative position that anyone who dishonors the constitution and the national emblem is guilty of misconduct. There is nothing bigger for the country then its national symbols and any attack on the foundation of the nation cannot be tolerated.
This is the same argument that currently Muslims are advancing against the trailer of the film “Innocence of Muslims.” Their world wide protest comes out from the same ideological position. We have seen similar unrest sometime ago against the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet of Islam that enraged the Muslim sentiments. Muslims argued there are certain symbols that are sacrosanct and its sanctity should respected and any caricature of them falls in bad taste and should be avoided.
A similar case was laid out against M.F Hussain for drawing controversial images of Hindu gods and goddesses. The Picasso of India had to face the wrath of the hurt feelings of the Hindu’s and was compelled to live in exile till his death.
The case of Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen too falls under the same bracket. Her anti-Islamic writings invited the wrath of Bangladeshi Muslims and she had to live in exile in Sweden that granted her citizenship. She came to live in Kolkata due to cultural proximity but she defied her guest status and indulged in anti Islamic writings that forced the government to take stern view on her.
The latest controversy surrounding cartoonist Aseem Trivedi falls under similar category. In his case it’s not the religion that is targeted but the symbols of the nation. The reaction from the conservatives is on similar lines as it were in the cases mentioned.
The other dominating theme around Trivedi’s case is the liberal position on the freedom of speech. This argument take cue from rationalist who wants the societies and nations to take liberal stand even on sensitive issues like nationalism and religion. They argue that when the ‘world has become flat’ and globalization has become order of the day, modern day livers cannot be regulated under the fetters of religion or nationalism. Their other argument is freedom of speech is fundamental right and such freedom should not be regulated. They appeal to the conservatives not to become hyper on such issues and accept such creative work with a grin or broad smile.
Notwithstanding the facts, these two positions are the dominant themes that run in cases related to freedom of speech. It’s very difficult to take positions on this without hurting the sentiments who are opposed to it. In the end, it’s individual judgment that settles such issues.
The third nugget about Trivedi’s case was his controversial arrest under the sedition charges. This sparked separate debate whether sedition charges is valid in independent India. Some argued that sedition law was British legacy and should be scrapped. Further, sedition charges can only be slapped in political cases and in Trivedi’s case, there was no such intention. As such his arrest under non-bailable clauses was flawed.
This is something that has to be settled amongst the practitioners of the law, but the fundamental question remains whether Trivedi’s arrest was right? Again, the same old ideological debate for and against freedom of speech comes into play, with same logic for and against applies to his arrest. As far police is concerned, it acted on specific complaints and after investigation found Trivedi to be erring and deserved to be arrested. It’s court to decide his innocence.
This rises to another question why Trivedi was released so swiftly. This was perhaps because it was public and media pressure that paved the path of his release. As long as he remained inside the jail, he would be attracting media attention and his detention would unnecessarily give him mileage that he certainly does not deserve.
There is another nugget that is salient in all such controversies. The protagonists deliberately create such controversy and take refuge under the cloak of freedom of expression and drive mileage out of it. We have seen how Salman Rushdee’s controversial novel ‘Satanic Verses’ with high flavor of anti- Islamic tone was masquerader as flight of imagination of a novelist. Similarly, the life of MF Hussein has too been a series of publicity stunts. The list is long who have take mileage from the freedom of expression controversy.
In case of Aseem Trivedi, well who knew him before his arrest? He was unknown character till his arrest on the sedition charges. He became a national celebrity because his arrest centered on freedom of expression issue. This is an old age method adopted by crisis ridden personalities seeking publicity by courting controversies. Trivedi too hogged the momentary limelight in the similar way. His arrest and subsequent release created a storm in the teacup and he became a celebrity for the time being.
Last but not the least, the debate between conservatives and the liberals over the freedom of expression issue is quite hackneyed. The liberals want the conservatives to leave their position and accept their point of view, the conservatives on the other wants the liberals to refrain from being iconoclast and refrain from disturbing the social harmony. The history of this debate is pretty old. And who s winning and who is losing this debate remains inconclusive.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org