An Indian cartoonist detained on sedition charges for his satirical drawings highlighting widespread corruption among India’s political elite has been jailed for two weeks, rekindling a fierce debate on freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.
Aseem Trivedi, 25, turned himself in to police in the Indian commercial capital of Mumbai on the weekend. His arrest followed the publication of a series of cartoons, including one drawing that depicts the parliament building as a lavatory buzzing with flies.
Mr. Trivedi is being held in judicial custody after refusing bail. If found guilty, the satirist could face a lengthy prison sentence.
News of the case immediately sparked widespread protests among free speech and anti-graft activists who complain that India’s government, hit by a series of corruption scandals, is increasingly intolerant of criticism.
“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, the head of the Press Council of India, told local TV channel CNN-IBN.
Last month, the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh temporarily blocked a number of Twitter accounts. Ministers have also responded angrily to articles by foreign media criticizing Mr. Singh’s record and have clashed with major social-media providers, including Facebook, over material deemed insulting to major political figures.
Ambika Soni, the Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister, told reporters that government cartoonists “should stay within constitutional parameters,” saying “they cannot make national symbols the object of their cartoon.”
Although Mr. Trivedi’s arrest was prompted by a complaint from a private individual with no known political ties, campaigners point to a raft of recent cases in which political figures have used the law to muzzle criticism in the country. In April, police arrested an academic in the eastern city of Kolkata for allegedly sharing by e-mail cartoons that ridiculed Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state.
A statement from campaign group India Against Corruption, for which Mr. Trivedi was an activist, said “there have been many instances of harassment of cartoonists and other artists.”
“The appropriateness of the cartoons should be judged by the public, and not by the police,” the group said.
There are broader fears of censorship and intimidation. A new cinematic adaptation of Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which charts the life of a boy with magical powers in post-independence India and includes unflattering portrayals of major Indian historic political figures, has struggled to find a distributor in the controversial author’s native land. //end optional trim//
Indian television showed images of a bearded Mr. Trivedi shouting slogans as he was bundled by police into a patrol car outside the court. The cartoonist refused the services of a lawyer and welcomed his own arrest. “If telling the truth makes one a traitor, then I am happy,” he said.
The case against him was filed in a Mumbai court by a local advocate, who said the pictures mocked national symbols. Also charged with posting seditious and obscene content on his website, which is now blocked, Mr. Trivedi declined to apply for bail in a sign of protest.
The sedition laws in India date back to the country’s colonial days. Nationalist heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi were frequently charged with sedition during their struggle for independence.
The cartoonist’s father, Ashok Trivedi, told CNN-IBN his son was being targeted because he was actively involved in a campaign to mobilize Indians for mass protests against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.