Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Aseem Trivedi controversy: how intolerance of dissent gave us a new 'leader'

No one mucks up timing like our government. There’s nobody else for deflecting the real issue of a debate by mistimed action. Look at the Aseem Trivedi incident.

A cartoonist, ‘incensed’ by the graft rampant all over the place, uses his art form as a tool to express his angst. A lot of it is frankly uninspiring and rather ordinary. There is only so much creativity that goes into imagining Parliament as a toilet bowl and politicians as turds. Trivedi’s wolf-representation of our national emblem, however, rings truer as a work of lampoonery. But move further, and there is a problem.

You see it when you come across the ‘Gang Rape of Mother India’ cartoon. A politician and a bureaucrat hold a hand each of ‘Mother India’, inviting ‘the devil’ of corruption to rape her.

In all honesty, why has no one blasted this one for the barely-veiled misogyny? Angst is one thing, and its spawning due to the mess our country is in is more than understandable. Resorting to slander cheapens the dignity of a political stand, which is why our public figures, no matter what their manner of speech in private is, must avoid expletives in front of their followers.

Why must cartoons be any different? If you ask me, Aseem Trivedi, a doubtlessly well-meaning fellow citizen of my own generation, uses his angst to cloak the ordinariness and poor taste in his cartoons. Definitely in the half-dozen that I have seen.

But he is, today, a symbol to those who resent censorship and draconian sedition laws, thanks to his arrest for ‘dishonouring’ our national symbols. What his cartoons deserve is a debate on their content by those who come across them, the recipients free to like or dislike what they see, free to praise or criticize what they represent. Empowered with the freedom of expression, the exposition of his dissent is a right, and he is free to defend himself against any who may feel offended by his work.

I don’t believe that any of the cartoons would drain the ‘patriotism’ of Trivedi’s admirers and cause them to do something ‘anti-national’. It is not his cartoons that have undermined the sanctity of our Parliament. That gets done when our lawmakers disrupt House sessions, engage in scuffles, tear each other’s speeches, throw microphones and chairs.

Whatever the merit of Aseem Trivedi’s ‘Cartoons Against Corruption’, when he puts them up on the internet, they deserve to be there. To be seen, accepted or rejected. But to ban them altogether goes against the grain of the freedom to express oneself, essential to any democracy.

It might be of use to remember Voltaire here: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”