MUMBAI: Bizarre. Affectionate. Eccentric. These are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe India, but never has the word 'intolerant' become a prefix to our nation. However, with the government trying to gag everything that criticises its policies or actions, the day is not far when India too will be seen as 'illiberal'.
The latest gag on free speech comes in the form of Mumbai police arresting political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for allegedly sketching 'questionable' caricatures of Parliament, the national emblem and the Constitution during an India Against Corruption (IAC) protest and posting these cartoons on his website.
A Mumbai court today has sent cartoonist Aseem Trivedi to judicial custody till September 24.
Trivedi was picked up Saturday evening by Mumbai police from Bandra-Kurla following a non-bailable arrest warrant issued against him.
He was presented before a magistrate Sunday and remanded to police custody for questioning, an IAC spokesperson said.
"If telling the truth makes me a traitor then I am one," Trivedi said outside the court where he was remanded in police custody late Sunday after a private complaint from a Mumbai-based lawyer, reported Hindustan Times.
"If I am booked under sedition for doing service to the nation then I will continue to do so."
Trivedi faces sedition charges under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, among other offences under the Information Technology Act.
An IAC spokesperson claimed that police did not allow them to meet Trivedi when they went to meet him in the lock-up in the morning to discuss his defence procedures.
According to police, Aseem had put up the caricatures in the form of posters during an Anna-Hazare led, IAC protest in December 2011 at the MMRDA grounds in Mumbai.
"The cartoons by Trivedi depicted Parliament as a commode and showed the national emblem with wolves instead of lions. The cartoons were obviously aimed at creating unrest in the society," said C Bhosale, senior inspector of police.
Around 20 days ago, the BKC police dispatched teams to Lucknow and Kanpur to nab Trivedi. However, he was not found there. The police, around a fortnight ago, learnt that he was in Uttar Pradesh's Unnao district.
After ascertaining that he was living somewhere under the jurisdiction of the Ganga Ghat police station in Uttar Pradesh, the BKC police sought the help of its Uttar Pradesh counterparts, following which Trivedi was arrested and produced before a court there.
After a lawyer, Amit Arvind Katarnavre, approached the police in January, they filed a complaint against Trivedi on January 30 under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, the National Emblem Act and the Information Technology Act.
His arrest has triggered a nationwide debate over freedom of expression in India and has been seen as the government's lack of respect for free speech.
Lawyers have hit out at the arrest of the Kanpur-based cartoonist, saying Aseem's arrest is a curb on a citizen's freedom of expression and charging him with sedition is outrageous.
"Trivedi is not dishonouring anything; he is expressing his ideologies and viewpoints through his cartoons. Only people of low intellect don't understand that. His arrest is a complete curb on freedom of expression," Mahesh Jethmalani, criminal lawyer, said.
A cartoonist's work involves humour, satire and exaggeration and it has to be taken sportingly, said Majjid Memon, another well-known criminal lawyer. "If a cartoonist's work is found to be inflammatory, he should be warned instead of being charged with sedition, which curtails a person's freedom of expression," he said. "If his work is creating damage, his arrest might be justified. But in this case, it is not."
Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Assem's father said, "My son has done no wrong. He was only expressing his opinion and certain people have misunderstood his work. He was only showing how corruption has plagued the system, (he was depicting) only the truth."
Meanwhile, Justice Markandey Katju, chairman of Press Council of India, has strongly defended cartoonist Aseem Trivedi saying that the cartoonist has done nothing wrong as these are occupational hazards and politicians must learn to put up with them.
In a statement, he maintained that arresting a cartoonist or any other person who has not committed a crime is itself a crime under the Indian Penal Code as it is a wrongful arrest and wrongful confinement.
Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil too had criticized the arrest of the cartoonist. (With inputs from Agencies)