Cartoon rage

Instead of drawing sedition charges, cartoons should be protected as free speech

The government has deployed an H-bomb to slay a rabbit. Turning the sedition law on cartoonists is as ridiculous as issuing fatwas against them. The work of Aseem Trivedi, the Kanpur-based cartoonist who was arrested on Saturday, is not exactly brilliant, but even indifferent cartoonists should have the freedom to draw and publish what they want without fear of being accused of being an enemy of the state. The law of sedition laid down in Section 124A of the IPC has been frequently misused to target writers, speakers, opinion-makers and whistleblowers. But now, the government has descended to new depths, attacking cartoons that were not even widely circulated until the sedition charges were brought, and which pose absolutely no threat to its sovereignty.

The trouble with Article 124A is that it can be invoked in such situations, where the government may be only embarrassed, not harmed. In jurisdictions where sedition law remains on the statute books, it is defined as incitement to rebellion against the state. The cartoons in question advocated nothing of the sort. However, this does not matter because the Indian law skirts this definition altogether. Rather, it criminalises attempts to arouse disaffection or contempt for the state. But that is what cartoons are supposed to do, as the visual element of the public discourse critiquing government. Rather than attracting sedition charges, cartoons should be protected as free speech by the government.

In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru himself had expressed the wish to throw out Article 124A. Indeed, its wording is so vague and open to expedient interpretation that it can be used to smother perfectly legitimate criticism. It could have been used to contain landmark events in India's history the non-cooperation movement, for instance, which had showed abundant contempt for the government of the day. If this colonial law is to persist on the statute books, it needs to be brought up to date and directed against the real enemies of the state. This would actually do the government a favour. Because from Bal Gangadhar Tilak to Binayak Sen, sedition trials have generally brought more ridicule and disrepute upon the state than on the seditionists.

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