Indian political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi gestures after he is arrested on charges of mocking the Indian constitution in his drawings on Sunday. Photo: AP

Indian cartoonist jailed after government criticism

A political cartoonist whose drawings mock Indian government corruption has been jailed on a sedition charge in an arrest that was widely condemned on Monday as evidence of political leaders’ increasing insensitivity to criticism.

On Sunday, a magistrate in Mumbai ordered Aseem Trivedi held for a week for questioning after police issued an arrest warrant based on a political activist’s complaint his cartoons were “insulting” to the country.

Students, opposition politicians and free speech advocates protested that Trivedi’s arrest – on the very serious charged of sedition no less – showed politicians’ growing intolerance for criticism. Taken aback by the vehement protests, state Home Minister RR Patel said the government would review his case.

“Politicians must learn to be tolerant. This is not a dictatorship,” said Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice who now heads the Press Council of India.

Trivedi, a freelance cartoonist, was one of two winners of this year’s “Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award” by the US-based Cartoonists Rights Network International. His cartoons lampooning widespread corruption among Indian politicians were displayed at a Mumbai protest in December by the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare.

The activist’s complaint to police cited one of those drawings that showed the four lions that form India’s national symbol replaced by four wolves and the national slogan “truth shall prevail” replaced by “corruption shall prevail.”

The cartoonist’s father, Ashok Trivedi, told reporters that his son was being hounded because he was actively involved in Hazare’s campaign to mobilise middle-class India to rise up against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Katju said throwing Trivedi in jail was itself a criminal offence because he had not committed a crime.

“If you try to shut peoples’ mouth, public anger will erupt violently,” he warned.

The arrest came five months after a university professor was arrested in the state of West Bengal for forwarding an email cartoon that caricatured the chief minister there. Last month, a farmer in West Bengal was arrested and branded a Maoist insurgent after questioning the chief minister on her farm policy at a public meeting.

Earlier this year, top education officials resigned amid a parliamentary uproar over a textbook that included a six-decade-old cartoon criticising delays in crafting the constitution.

Indian law defines sedition as an act that brings hatred or attempts to excite disaffection toward the government. The maximum punishment for sedition is life imprisonment.