Feb 02 2012

Treason and offending

How not to understand free speech.

The case of a cartoonist charged with treason and offending India’s national sentiments reflects a growing debate over what constitutes freedom of expression in India. His accusers argue that while it is permissible to make fun of politicians, you cannot make fun of the state.

That’s how, right there. No no no, that’s entirely wrong. Yes you can make fun of the state. The state and the church or mosque are right at the top of the list of things you must be able to make fun of in order to have free speech at all. If free speech applies just to things that don’t matter, then it’s not free.

Aseem Trivedi, a 25-year-old political cartoonist, was charged with treason and insulting the Indian national emblems, according to local news reports and CPJ interviews…

Trivedi, a freelancer from the central state of Uttar Pradesh, was inspired by the well-known social activist Anna Hazare‘s fight against corruption and graft. Trivedi drew cartoons criticizing the Indian government, some of which were exhibited while Hazare was fasting in Mumbai in December.

Back in Mumbai, Trivedi faces another legal attack. There, lawyer R.P. Pandey has filed his own complaint, alleging that the cartoons are “defamatory and derogatory” and requesting “strict legal action,” according to news reports. While Mumbai police have yet to file charges, the complaint has had repercussions: Big Rock, a domain name registrar, suspended Trivedi’s website, www.cartoonistsagainstcorruption.com, citing the criminal complaint, The Times of India reported.

Speaking to CPJ from Mumbai, Pandey said that while parodying politicians was a legitimate pursuit, mocking national institutions like the Indian Parliament and national symbols was “completely unacceptable.”

No no no. You can mock institutions. Mocking institutions is a very important component of free speech.

Certainly, the blocking of Trivedi’s website has caused a sense of disquiet. Sudhir Tailang, a well-known political cartoonist based in Delhi, says, “The very essence of cartoons are their anti-establishment note. Take away that and you take away dissent.”

Exactly. Do better, India.




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  1. 1

    Isn’t that completely backwards, as in mocking institutions is much better than mocking individual people?

  2. 2
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Well, yeah! I mean, what good is the freedom to only do things that powerful people/institutions approve of? That’s sort of the opposite of what most people mean by freedom?

  3. 3
    'Tis Himself

    Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection. –Neal Boortz

  4. 4

    “Either everyone has rights or some have privileges. It’s really that simple.” – Walt kelly

  5. 5

    Is there any chance we can get to see these terrible, terrible cartoons?

    Streisand Effect, please.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Sili, there’s a link on his name.


    Mind you, they’re in Hindi! (I’m guessing it’s Hindi.) But they’re there.

  7. 7
    Saikat Biswas

    I must say that Aseem’s cartoons are quite prosaic compared to what I have seen in many regional newspapers in India. If this is what, as some feel, threatens Indian democracy… well .. some democracy it is.

  8. 8

    while parodying politicians was a legitimate pursuit, mocking national institutions like the Indian Parliament and national symbols was “completely unacceptable.”

    But you can’t separate them like that. Once you’ve decided that you can’t mock the parliament, it’s only a short step to saying you can’t mock an individual parliament member, since he represents the parliament as an institution.
    Then, it’s easy to say you can’t mock the decisions of parliament, because that the equivalent of mocking the parliament itself. Then finally, you say that disagreement is the equivalent of mockery, and you’ve reached the goal: complete annihilation of democracy and the erection of a fascist state.

    I realize that this is a bit of a slippery slope argument, but let’s face it; it wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened. Muddying the distinction between dissent and treason has always been a favored method of tyrants.

  9. 9
    Graham Shevlin

    “Muddying the distinction between dissent and treason?”
    All authoritarian tyrants deliberately treat all dissent as treason. It gets darned inconvenient to plot and execute on World Domination when you have all of those pesky know-nothings asking damn-fool questions like “are you sure this is the right idea?”

  10. 10

    Ophelia: The cartoons are in Hindi.

  11. 11

    If free speech applies just to things that don’t matter, then it’s not free.

    That’s gold, Ophelia. Short and sweet.

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