Making a cartoon of the law
It’s interesting how the debate over Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons has twisted and turned. It began with knee-jerk responses from most people who said that freedom of speech was being trampled on. Then, when people learnt about the nature of the cartoons, a strong patriotic element came into play. The mood changed and Aseem was berated for denigrating India’s democratic institutions. Even those organisations that had once spoken out whole-heartedly in his favour suddenly adopted a more nuanced approach. Others berated Trivedi for the crudeness of his images and on various TV channels he was told that he must learn to use humour with subtlety.
For the record, my views on Aseem Trivedi remain what they’ve always been. He has a perfect right to draw his cartoons without the fear of imprisonment. This is an absolute right (subject to the usual qualifications about national security, defamation, etc.) and it does not matter whether the cartoons are crude or unfunny. Moreover, I think we have an unhealthy obsession with so-called assaults on the visual imagery of the symbols of our republic.
One instance of the last phenomenon is our attitude to the Indian flag. Until Naveen Jindal waged his now-famous battle for the right to fly the flag, citizens were told that the flag was effectively the property of the government. Even now, the police can arrest anyone for wearing a visual representation of the flag (say, a hat or a T-shirt) that they consider offensive.
Contrast this with the experience of Western democracies such as the UK and the US where the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes are routinely used for a variety of illustrative purposes. In the US, cartoonists and lampoonists even denigrate the flag as a means of attacking US jingoism.
It is not my position that we should blindly ape the US or British experience. All I say is that this reverence for national symbols is generally associated with totalitarian or fascist societies. Most democracies take a far more liberal attitude than India does.
Another factor that has been insufficiently debated is the role of the police. Most of us take the line that it is absurd to prosecute some hapless cartoonist for sedition when political leaders roam the streets of Bombay preaching hatred and encouraging violence. Why should the resources of the state be used to target harmless individuals when greater threats to our society roam free?
The police response is usually framed in terms of legalese. It is difficult, they argue, to make out a case of incitement or hate speech. On the other hand, when it comes to representations of such national symbols as the flag or government buildings, the law is categorical. Why blame them, they ask, for implementing the law when, in strict legal terms, they have an open-and-shut case?
Anybody who has been following the progress of the Bombay Police over the last couple of years will be familiar with this argument. It is what I call the Dhoble Defence. When an over-zealous cop called Dhoble ran amok in the streets of Bombay closing down restaurants for technical violations of the law, accusing women of having loose morals, and terrorising patrons of the city’s night life, the authorities responded that Dhoble was only implementing the law.
And in a strict, narrowly-legal sense, they were absolutely right. The truth is that the laws governing restaurants, the service of liquor at night-spots and even the playing of music in public places are antiquated and bizarre. Because all of us know that the laws make no sense we rely on the discretion of the authorities not to implement them. But when a slightly deranged cop decides that he has the legal right to close Bombay down, there is very little we can say because he is, after all, only exercising his duties according to the law of the land.
In the Dhoble case, the issue has died a natural death because of the shifting of the police commissioner (over an unrelated issue) and so the debate had ended. But the laws remain on the statute books, waiting for another police officer to create a similar stir. In the interim, the police will use them whenever they want to extort money from restaurant owners.
My guess is that the Aseem Trivedi case is heading towards a similar resolution. The Bombay Police and the Maharashtra government are anxious to wash their hands off the matter in the face of public criticism. Trivedi is now free and the prosecution against him will either wind down or will proceed at such a snail’s pace that the issue will be forgotten.
But, as in the Dhoble case, the laws will remain on the statute books. And within a year or so, somebody else will be hauled up, if not for sedition then for some imagined attack on our national symbols.
While I am not necessarily a fan of Trivedi’s cartoons, I appreciate his courage in sticking up for a larger principle. The real issue, he says, is not his arrest. It is that colonial-era legislation on sedition still remains valid in the 21st century. Any policeman can prosecute a patriotic Indian on the basis of laws enacted by the British to keep the natives in their place.
In this age of mass media outrage, attention spans are short. Issues appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. It would be a shame if the Trivedi case were to end up as no more than a storm in a TV debate. Let’s use this controversy and the Dhoble drama to go back and look at the laws that allowed the police to terrorise and prosecute ordinary citizens.
A society is built on laws and not on headlines. The laws remain when the headlines fade. And they persist as fault-lines in our society, ready to facilitate any tremors that the police may set off. Until you change the laws, you don’t end the injustice.