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A Serious Charge Dismissed Against Indian Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, But a More Serious Threat of Violence Persists

11/06/2012

A cartoonist under attack is often the one best able to assess his or her situation.  When first interviewed by CRNI, Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi said the biggest threat to him was not from the judicial system, despite the fact that Aseem was accused of sedition.   The more serious threat, according to Aseem, was from the thugs who seek to physically harm him regardless of what any court of law may decide what to do with him.   In our January 11, 2012 interview, Aseem said, “The court can say ‘Give him two years punishment’ and I can accept that.  I will accept that.  But that is not the only cost in India. . . .  I will have to face the public court.  And that is where the problem starts.  The public might throw stones at me.  . . . Or they will beat me.  . . . I am sorry to say this about my country.  But we lack a little civilization.  And yet we were the first civilization.”  The last couple of weeks may have proven Aseem’s point.   

On October 12, 2012, the Maharashtra government told the Bombay High Court that the sedition charge against Aseem Trivedi would be dropped.  Attorney General Darius Khambata agreed with Sanskar Marathe, the attorney that filed the public interest litigation on Aseem’s behalf, that a charge of sedition, which has a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, should only be invoked in a case of incitement to overthrow the government.  The Attorney General even admitted that the sedition charge against Aseem was a ‘knee-jerk reaction” to the complaints received by the police against Aseem’s cartoons.  The Attorney General then informed the High Court that the government of Maharashtra would craft a circular for police officers with guidelines as to when an individual should and should not be arrested for sedition.  

To learn more about the dropping of the sedition charge, read The Hindu article of October 12th titled Sedition charge against cartoonist to be revoked, and The Times of India article of October 12th titled No sedition charge against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi

The Attorney General, however, also said, “There are three cartoons that violate the National Honour Act and Information Technology Act.  Proceedings in this regard will continue against him.”   

On November 2nd, the Colors TV Channel apparently capitulated to the demand from the Republican Party of India (RPI) to throw Aseem Trivedi off of its popular reality television show “Big Boss.”  Ramdas Athavale, the President of the Republican Party of India claimed he and his fellow protesters from the Dalit community were “hurt” by the cartoons which had in his opinion “grossly insulted” the national emblem, the Constitution and other symbols and institutions of the state.  Critics of Ramdas Athavale say the RPI President is just using the controversy over Aseem’s anti-corruption cartoons to bolster his political clout.  Whether a cynical ploy or a sincere sentiment, Athavale’s protest against Colors TV carried a blatant threat of violence.  Athavale announced to reporters, “We have told the show management that Trivedi should be removed from the show by October 28th or else RPI party workers will storm the Big Boss house and evict him.”    

“Big Boss” is part of the international Big Brother television franchise.   As in the other versions of the show around the world, “Big Boss” is a so-called reality show in which contestants are filmed living together in a house that is isolated from the outside world.  Each week the contestants nominate candidates to evict from the house, after which the show’s fans pick which nominated candidate goes home. 

Aseem had accepted the invitation to join the show’s sixth season to bring attention to his anti-corruption campaign.   By all accounts, Aseem was popular with most of his housemates. 

When the Colors TV Channel initially announced the inclusion of Aseem on the popular reality show, Athavale gave the network an ultimatum.  Evict the cartoonist within one week, or else.  When the network did not bow to Athavale’s demand within that first week, the PRI led a protest.  According to media reports, approximately 5,000 protesters gathered outside the Big Boss house on October 25th.  After the October 25th protest, Athavale warned representatives of the reality show of a more serious agitation planned for October 29th.  At that point, the producers of the show agreed to meet with representatives of RPI.  According to those representatives, the producers gave them assurances at that meeting that Aseem would be evicted on November 2nd and the planned “agitation” for the 30th was cancelled.  Representatives of the show have refused to either confirm or deny this RPI statement. 

In return for apparently promising to do what the RPI representatives demanded, two party members of the youth wing of RPI rode up on a motorcycle to the offices of Colors TV on Thursday, the day before eviction day, and hurled stones at the glass façade of the offices.  The glass was damaged but fortunately no one was injured.  At least that’s the version from Deputy Police Commissioner Namdev Chavan.  RPI spokesman Mayur Borkar said, “Around 20 activists from our youth wing pelted stones at the office of Colors TV located in suburban Andheri (in northwest Mumbai).  This is just a reminder to them about our demand to evict Aseem. … We wanted to show them a preview of what could happen if Aseem was not evicted from the Bigg Boss house tomorrow (November 2nd).”  The next day Aseem was evicted from the show. 

More information about the threats and vandalism by RPI party members can be found in The Hindu article of November 2nd titled Aseem Trivedi removed from Bigg Boss, says RPI, and, in the Daily News & Analysis article of the same day titled RPI attacks Colors TV office over Aseem Trivedi's eviction from Bigg Boss.  

As the news reports over the last several weeks have revealed, the real threat to the stability of the Indian democracy is not Aseem’s artwork but the RPI’s contempt for the rule of law.  Earlier last month when the sedition charge was dropped by a court of law, RPI spokesman Mayur Borkar said, “While the Maharashtra government may have let him off, he is still answerable to us ….”  By the end of October, RPI President Athavale was threatening to lead thousands of angry protesters in a storming of the offices of a television channel for exercising their right to choose cartoonist Aseem Trivedi to appear on their television program.  While Aseem was in the Bigg Boss house, RPI party members made threatening phone calls to Colors TV and even to Aseem’s cell phone.

The makers of these harassing calls should have done their homework about this show.  While in the Bigg Boss house Aseem could not answer the threatening calls meant for him.  The rules of the show forbid cell phones in the house.    

It’s unclear what the RPI has accomplished.  Yes, the threats of violence likely intimidated the producers of the Bigg Boss to manufacture a quick eviction of the anti-corruption cartoonist and CRNI 2012 Courage Award co-recipient.  But that has only generated more interest in Aseem’s goal of cleaning up politics.  The threats have also clearly revealed that politicians like Ramdas Athavale are a much graver threat to India’s democracy than a peaceful, albeit opinionated, cartoonist.   

To read an interview of Aseem following his Bigg Boss experience, click on The Times of India article Jail or torture: I am ready for it: Aseem Trivedi.  To read more about Aseem, click on our September 13th news alert titled Indian Cartoonst Aseem Trivedi Released on Bail, Vows to Continue Fight for Free Speech