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Aseem Trivedi and the guardians of good taste

September 14, 2012

There’s a time for everything. When a cartoonist is being arrested for his cartoons, for cartoons that caused no harm, incited no violence, killed no people, then do you discuss his art or his incarceration?

No, it’s not good enough to say, ‘The sedition case is bad but the cartoons, you know…’. That won’t cut it. Your support for freedom of speech and expression cannot be half-hearted, it can’t be dependent upon good taste.

First they came for the cartoonists with bad taste and I didn’t speak out because I had good taste….

I am a great fan of Hemant Morparia’s cartoons but really Morparia ji, why do you grudge Aseem Trivedi the publicity? He didn’t ask for this publicity.

First they came for the cartoonist who wanted to be famous and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t publicity-hungry….

Oh yes, Aseem Trivedi’s eagerness to see Ajmal Kasab hanged bothers me, not least because I oppose capital punishment. Yes, seeing Ajmal Kasab hang to death right now so that we can clap and jeer does sound barbaric to me. And no, I won’t draw a cartoon that shows Kasab as a dog peeing on the Indian Constitution.

But if views like this landed you in jail then can I please give you names of a thousand and one Hindutva nuts who say this and much worse on Twitter every day?

What did you say? You oppose the sedition charges and the arrest but want to condemn his cartoon as right-wing? You want to call him fascist?

Sure, your right to free speech. But you may be saying one day — first they came for the fascists and I didn’t speak out because I was a liberal.

I stand up for the right to freedom of speech and expression of those I do not agree with even more strongly than I do for those I agree with. I do so to ensure that when my right to freedom of speech and expression is under threat from the other side, I can remind them I had stood up for them. So that I can say: censorship, legal harassment and incarceration are not the answer to political differences.

On one news channel after another, it is a bit nauseating to see everyone dissect Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons after pretending they’re so bad they can’t be displayed. This is the level of courage the Indian media has, this is how committed India’s free press is to the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Sedition is bad, Arnab Goswami said on your channel, but aren’t your cartoons in bad taste? Aseem Trivedi gave it back to Goswami in the same coin: many say your news anchoring is in bad taste, that you shout and scream a bit too much, does it mean you shouldn’t be allowed to do it?

But Aseeeeem! The point here is……

Why are we discussing Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons if they’re so bad, so crude, so unsubtle, so politically incorrect? We’re doing so because they are in the news. Why are they in the news? Because he’s been arrested. Did they merit incarceration? Clearly not. So who is to blame? The Maharashtra government.

The Maharashtra government committed two wrongs in one go. One: they violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech by seeking to jail a dissenting cartoonist. Two: they brought attention to the oh-so-crude cartoons and threatened national good taste. By forcing 1.2 billion Indians to look up the unfunny cartoons the Maharashtra government tried to kill the great sense of humour Indians are world-famous for!

So what should you be outraging about? The Maharashtra government’s crude decision or Aseem Trivedi’s crude cartoons?

If Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons are in bad taste, seeking jail for him is far higher on the scale of bad taste. If his Kasab cartoon is an insult to the Constitution, wanting to put him in jail for it under sedition or any other law is a far greater insult to the Constitution. And yet, we want to give out token condemnation of the bad taste in filing cases against a cartoonist for political disagreement and then sit in judgement on the quality and the politics of the cartoons. What’s wrong with us?

I don’t share the elitism of this good taste business. Good taste is subjective. And I don’t mind if Aseem Trivedi sees himself as a revolutionary. His work may be propagandist but he admits as much when he says he is trying to change the world through his cartoons. Why should we say things like, ‘He is a propagandist and not a cartoonist’? If propaganda can be carried out through prose and poetry, cinema and journalism, why not cartooning?

What is it about India’s senior, well-known cartoonists that make them feel so threatened by a 25-year-old, independent, unemployed cartoonist whose website has been shut down by the government, who is being hounded by several cases in Mumbai and in a district court in Maharashtra, and who has been running from Delhi to Chennai to campaign against draconian internet censorship laws?

Perhaps we should all persuade Kapil Sibal ji to enact a new law: The Bad Taste (Prevention) Act. We could have a jury of news anchors and cartoonists vet the cartoons we make before we can post them on our websites.

That is not as unreasonable as you think: after all that is how we deal with cinema. A censor board vets our films and it’s so much a part of our film culture it doesn’t anger us.

This is the problem with the debate on freedom of speech and expression in India. We don’t debate what is “reasonable restriction” and what is censorship. We examine every cartoon, painting, film and book through our ideological prism. The left, right and centre in India are all guilty of this. Unlike the United States, which gives its citizens the right to even burn their flag, we don’t debate free speech with the aim of furthering freedom. We debate it such that we tilt more on the side of censorship, wittingly or unwittingly.

The Muslims are outraged by Satanic Verses and the Hindus by MF Husain’s paintings and the Dalits by an Ambedkar cartoon and in each case we end up with censorship rather than freedom. We choose whose freedom we want to support. We are selective in our support and in our outrage. Those who defend Taslima Nasreen’s right to free speech don’t discuss how third-rate her writing is. Because it’s immaterial.

If you agree that Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons don’t merit three years in jail, the conversation is over. If you’re going to add ifs and buts, you’re adding to the case against him. Seeking jail for a cartoonist who shows Parliament as a toilet to protest against corruption should be unacceptable in a democracy. But if you are going to divert attention from such clamping down of dissent by discussing good taste, then be ready to say goodbye to democracy.

(First published in Rediff.)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Tejaswi permalink
    September 14, 2012 8:45 PM

    Bravo, Voltaire. Couldn’t have said it better, and couldn’t have thought it better. Exactly my viewpoints on all the characters mentioned (Hussain, Rushdie, Nasreen etc although the talent is varied and debatable).

  2. Navn permalink
    September 14, 2012 9:53 PM

    Lol…honestly, do you think his carton’s critique is limited to good vs bad taste or is that the convenient framework/binary to adopt for the Indian liberal (?!) to avoid questions about plainly evident castist-patriarchal underpinnings of his cartoons?!

    I mean where is question of him being cornered! I for one have never witnessed such a fast sedition trial. Charges were heard by the ‘Chief Justice’ the ‘same day’ petition was filed in the high court…his ‘Letters from the Jail’ were circulated within a matter of few days far and wide and a couple of days after the release our ‘Hero’ got prime time space in the national (ist?!) media. Justice and Hero worshiping is relative in this great nation. Could you guess relative to whom?

  3. Vinay Bhat permalink
    September 15, 2012 5:18 AM

    I hope the author understands, that critique or the “ifs and buts”, are a criticism of the society and machinery around the case and not Aseem himself. By saying no ifs and buts will be tolerated, is the author trying to go down the Bush route of “you’re either with us or against us”. Don’t human right defenders add ifs and buts when critiquing something as complex as Maoist violence. Why should someone simplify a critique simply to suit the principles of the liberal? Not sure if anyone would have really cared about Aseem’s sub-standard cartoons. But, what is equally important now while defending his freedom of speech is to at least show society the mirror and say “this man is no hero. there is bigotry in his cartoons.” why is this a hard pill to swallow. sure we can even permit the ilk of narendra modi his freedom of speech, but should we stop criticizing him because there is a greater principle of freedom of speech involved. this is some absurd argument i must say. Dalits like Sudhir Dhawale or Adivasis like Kartam Joga do not even have the luxury of a court hearing. And here there is bail without an application! Should we not criticize society for this? The point is not “first they came for the fascist, but I was silent because I was a liberal” The point is “first they came for the fascist, i spoke, i championed him, i turned him into a hero, and condemned my brethren for life”.

  4. Pari permalink
    September 15, 2012 10:16 AM

    I agree with many of the comments mentioned above regarding the authors very narrow call of dividing the issue into a yes or not question. Qualifying your opinion is your right and often in such cases becomes essential. Like several people pointed out the sexist and right wing aspect of the cartoons cannot be neglected. When we negate all the surrounding facts and turn someone into a ‘hero’ or ‘champion’ it becomes problematic when that champion is not representative of a large section of the nations voice.
    Moreover, isn’t the author’s stand of saying that you cannot qualify your opinions also an infringement of our free speech, which we are supposedly safeguarding by not speaking?

  5. nlknwp permalink
    September 15, 2012 4:48 PM

    the author’s words are set in the context of the video, and for that they are apt. it’s silly to take it out of the context and say that the author is against qualifying opinions

  6. Knon permalink
    September 16, 2012 10:09 AM

    The point is, even if there is ugliness and/or bigotry in his cartoons, his rights should not be violated.

    Having said that, the problem with India is that there are millions and millions whose rights are being violated under the eyes of the media and the public…So, what to do with those ? That is a totally different problem, even though it is an enormously *more* important problem. I’m appalled at the state India is in. Look in the mirror, it isn’t pretty, it is wretched !

  7. September 17, 2012 4:14 PM

    There lies , in this context of the cartoonist and his crime, an inherent paradox.

    Like the the two other glorified cartoonists on this show, and the news mind numbing news anchor , Aseem’s work in question , belongs to a category that Indians thrive on, MEDIOCRE. And I am being generous here.

    That he was to go to jail for them , should have been for how intolerably banal and lacking in anything remotely thought provoking ,those poorly described caricatures were. Definitely not for Sedition.

    There are several voices on the front lines , who remain provocative while stirring up our collective imaginations. They are pushing the envelope of social critique by taking a stand that matters , a position that requires a little more than just bravado and overt histrionics. 
    Theirs, are not voices laced merely with rage. Theirs , are powerful ideas which have found a voice.They must , stick it to the man .

    In this case however , there are no ideas . At all.
    Aseem , is callous to the point of being mundane. Like much of our popular culture,  his cartoons are old hat. Reactionary. not Revolutuinary.

     Of course .We all feel his angst .His rage. His desperation. But it takes a more than that to transcend the chaos on the streets. To break the impasse , that is India.

    It will takes true grit and ingenuity to form an  idea that holds this government to ransom.
    To begin to dismantle the despair of mediocrity and cynicism that has clouded our horizon.
    Aseem like so many others who have tried, is not our man. At least not yet.
    Like so many others in this country who think they are making a difference , he is just misinformed. 

    His crime if any, is not that he tried. Its that he did not try hard enough.

  8. September 18, 2012 12:43 AM

    1. There is a difference between bigotry and erm, ‘tastelessness’. To put it mildly there is an aching gap or a gaping ache between a dislike for quality (or lack thereof) or taste of aseem’s cartoons and the fundamentals on which his cartoons are premised. And the latter, to me contains generous amount of hyper nationalism, sexism and other allied phenomenon my taste buds haven’t learnt to appreciate (yet).

    2. I wholeheartedly support a campaign to get rid of draconian laws like sedition, I unconditionally acknowledge that no matter what aseem drew (notwithstanding the ‘quality’ of his work or the ‘quantity’ of nauseating patriotism and sexism that evoked) there is no business for the sedition law to be invoked. The law should go and the state should learn to let go.

    3. But if you are asking me to hero worship trivedi indian idol because he fell victim to a draconian law and gloss over the bigotry in his work (because, ah alas, everything has a time and place people), then I will have to politely disagree. Example– If tomorrow there is a call to ban RSS, I will oppose the move, no matter how bigoted I find the organization. But that will not stop me from saying that while I strongly disagree with the politics of RSS but they have no right to be banned (and perhaps also add a caution that let RSS not be made a hero because they fell prey to intolerance). It is not a matter of taste but a more nuanced issue of right wing politics that renders it unpalatable to someone who does not identify with RSS politics.

    4. Similarly, what stops me (or perhaps you) from saying that I disagree with Trivedi’s politics but he has no business to be charged with sedition? Alternately, ‘Trivedi must not be charged with sedition. I do not agree with the politics of his art but I stand with him.’ The statements can peacefully coexist together. I am curious to know why is it so utterly difficult to say them together? A matter of strategizing campaigns?

    5. There is a danger in glossing over trivedi’s politics by belittling the concerns of those who critique his work calling off the criticism as merely a matter of disoriented ‘taste’ and trying to make a hero out of him.

    6. How do you propose to stand up for dissent on the macro level when you are intolerant to dissent at the micro level?

    • September 18, 2012 1:55 AM

      If you can cite from my article to prove that I have advocated ‘hero worshipping’ Aseem Trivedi I’ll answer the rest of your points. If you can’t, I label you a bigot :)

  9. September 18, 2012 3:59 AM

    The tone. :) This particular part may be noteworthy

    “What is it about India’s senior, well-known cartoonists that make them feel so threatened by a 25-year-old, independent, unemployed cartoonist whose website has been shut down by the government, who is being hounded by several cases in Mumbai and in a district court in Maharashtra, and who has been running from Delhi to Chennai to campaign against draconian internet censorship laws?

    Perhaps we should all persuade Kapil Sibal ji to enact a new law: The Bad Taste (Prevention) Act. We could have a jury of news anchors and cartoonists vet the cartoons we make before we can post them on our websites.”

    ……

    yada yada…

    Who runs miles to campaign against a draconian internet censorship law? Aseem Trivedi of course! So please let us forget the tastelessness of his cartoons for a while and pretend that the emperor is wearing clothes. :)The entire piece dribbles with hero worship. Easiest way to figure that out? Not a word against your hero.

    Thanks for the Bushism though. Glad to be your bigot. :)

    Ciao!

    • September 18, 2012 10:50 PM

      The tone? Oh I see, the tone!

      If intellectual dishonesty amounted to sedition you would definitely be in jail :)

      • September 20, 2012 5:25 PM

        In your land, anyone would be in jail or worse, be awarded capital punishment for daring to voice an opinion different from yours. :) So much for dissent! Anyway the muck must stop here I guess. But do discuss the rest of my points if you ever feel like. I always love to listen and engage.

  10. September 18, 2012 10:55 AM

    Reblogged this on burntbutteredtoast and commented:
    “But if you are going to divert attention from such clamping down of dissent by discussing good taste, then be ready to say goodbye to democracy.” Says it all. Very well said.

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