In 2011, when protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, India faced its own revolution.
“India Against Corruption,” a grassroots anti-corruption movement led by a veteran supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, Anna Hazare, mobilized people throughout the country. Indian political cartoonist and free speech activist Aseem Trivedi launched a cartoon-based campaign called Cartoons Against Corruption to support the movement, which he described as “a very big and important moment” for the country.
“Everywhere in the country people were organizing to speak against corruption,” Trivedi told Muftah in an interview. “It was the first time that people in India used social media for a cause,” Trivedi said. According to the cartoonist, his images received a wonderful response across social media platforms.
Less than twenty-four-hours after publishing Cartoons Against Corruption, however, Trivedi’s website was banned by the Indian government. A local leader of the ruling political party had filed a complaint against Trivedi, claiming his cartoons insulted the parliament and other national symbols. Trivedi was charged with sedition, breaching the country’s Information Technology Act, and “insulting” national symbols. Trivedi was shocked after hearing he had been accused of attempting to overthrow the state, simply because he had published a few cartoons.
Trivedi was arrested on September 8, 2012. In protest against the absurd charges, Trivedi decided not to hire a lawyer or apply for bail until the court removed the sedition allegations. Only four days after his arrest, Trivedi was released, due to pressure from the local government, activists, artists, and the Press Council of India. Trivedi was overwhelmed by the support, particularly from the Press Council, which had never taken a stance against the government.
“Everybody understood that government was suppressing people,” Trivedi said about the anti-corruption movement. “My cartoons, which became even more popular after my arrest, reminded people of injustice and strengthened their concerns. At that moment, even more people joined the movement,” Trivedi observed.
Trivedi’s experience was one example of the systematic crackdown on free speech and dissent taking place under India’s IT Minister Kapil Sibal. In an attempt to control the Internet, Sibal used Section 66A of the Information Technology Act to arrest individuals for posting “offensive” and “menacing” content online. Sibal even suggested that social media platforms check (and therefore censor) content before making it public.
Following his release, Trivedi joined with Internet freedom and cyber activists to launch a campaign against censorship called “Save Your Voice.” Over three years, activists organized public meetings and protests in different states, including Delhi, UP, MP, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Uttarakhand, and Haryana. In March 2015, “Save Your Voice” achieved a major win when India’s Supreme Court declared 66A unconstitutional. For Trivedi, it was a moment when he felt the impact of his activism.
Later in 2015, Trivedi started an online cartoon magazine dedicated to human rights, called Black and White.
The publication’s cartoons tackle violations of free speech across the world. After Saudi blogger and activist, Raif Badawi ,was publicly flogged, Trivedi drew “50 cartoons against 50 lashes” to show solidarity with the political prisoner. He has also drawn cartoons about Egyptian photojournalist, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, popularly known as “Shawkan”, who has been jailed in Egypt since 2013, and Bahraini human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab.
“I always believed that cartoons have something more to say than they say in newspapers. In India, and I think in most of the world, the life of cartoons is too short. You draw a cartoon and tomorrow there will be a new one and the old cartoon will die. As such, cartoons are reactionary, they are just like jokes. I always wanted to use them for a better purpose. I wanted to give them more life than a day. I wanted to make them more useful than bringing a smile on a reader’s face,” Trivedi said.
Despite several major legal wins, the fight for freedom of expression in India is far from over. The government continues to crackdown on dissent, which Trivedi sees as rooted in intolerance: “Censorship is nothing but the product of intolerance. If society is intolerant, there will be censorship. Tolerance is free speech, you let people say what you don’t like.”
Trivedi has just started a six-week multi-city tour across Europe and the UK organized by a Dublin-based human rights organization, Front Line Defenders.* Over the next several weeks, Trivedi will speak about political cartooning in Northern Ireland and Rome. Check out Trivedi’s tour schedule here.
*The author currently works for Front Line Defenders