Aseem Trivedi faced a lifelong prison sentence for his drawings slamming corruption in his country. We spoke to him about the power cartoonists can yield, and why governments are trying harder and harder to silence them.
In September of 2012, political cartoonist Trivedi was charged with sedition by the Indian government. A year earlier he had participated in a country-wide anti-corruption movement, drawing a series of rudimentary cartoons that mocked India's national symbols. He derided the "corrupt elites" that ruled under the government of then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh. If convicted he faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
His case generated a heated public debate over freedom of expression in India, but his ordeal was far from unusual. Sedition laws were initially introduced by the British colonial government back in the 1870s to deal with Indian freedom fighters. After independence, the law was retained and successive administrations have since used it to clamp down on activists, journalists, students and other critical voices. Aseem narrowly escaped. The charges against him were dropped, but four years later he remains in the crosshairs of the state, accused of "insulting a national emblem" under an act of parliament first passed in 1971.
I meet Aseem ahead of a talk organised by Front Line Defenders – an international NGO that works on security and protection for human rights defenders – to discuss his work, the role of political cartoonists and the state of free expression in India.
VICE: Hi Aseem. A lot of your work as a cartoonist has focused on political corruption. How big a problem is this in India?
Aseem Trivedi: Every type of corruption exists in our government, with politicians selling contracts and making money through commission. Back in 2011 we used to hear about new scandals and scams every couple of months. People were really angry and trying to find a platform to express themselves.
That anger eventually morphed into the India Against Corruption movement. How influenced were you by that?
It was the beginning for me. Before I used to work for newspapers, doing editorial cartoons. I always used to think there could be a more meaningful reason to draw cartoons, and this movement gave me a chance to do that, to use them for something more important than just making readers laugh. I decided to make a completely new website called Cartoons Against Corruption, where I started to post my drawings.
How did those cartoons land you in trouble with the Indian government?
The website became pretty popular thanks to social media. We then had a rally in Mumbai in the summer of 2011, where I was displaying my cartoons, and after that they banned my website. So I started another campaign around internet censorship. At the time people were not really aware of that, so we tried to educate them and tell them why it is important [around that time, the government blocked a number of Twitter accounts]. Then, in September 2012, nine months after they banned my website, I found out they had issued a warrant against me and it was non-bailable, so I had to surrender in Mumbai, where they arrested me.
Your case sparked a major debate over freedom of expression in India, right?
It was only when the government started arresting people that the public began taking it seriously. The support I got showed that there was a mood for change in the country. People saw that I was depicting their own ideas and so they were very supportive and it contributed to a big debate.
What does that say about the power of political cartoons and satire today?Cartoonists are playing important roles in different parts of the world. You have Ali Farzat, who is now living in Kuwait after both his hands were broken during the Syrian uprising. There's Zunar, who is facing sedition charges in Malaysia; and more recently a cartoonist named Musa Kart, who was arrested during the post-coup crackdown in Turkey. Cartoonists are being targeted all the time, and that means they have become more important. It means governments are trying harder to silence them.
Do you think political cartoons are actually growing in popularity?
I think social media has helped. It makes it quite easy to get a cartoon circulated. When I started cartooning, people used to think it was just jokes, but I think people take cartoons very seriously.
What does the landscape for free expression look like now in India under the new government – Narendra Modi and the BJP?
Things are quite different now because the government is trying to use nationalism like it used to use religion. It is trying to silence dissidents and divide people. Anyone who criticises Modi is labelled as anti-national or somebody who supports Pakistan. They are trying to divide people.
Today you draw cartoons in support of other human rights advocates facing state repression. Why?
I stopped drawing cartoons for a few years. But after Charlie Hebdo, somebody contacted me and said I should do something. After that I learnt about different human rights advocates – a brother in Saudi Arabia, for example, who had been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for writing a blog. I decided to draw 50 cartoons against the 50 lashes that he had to endure. A lot of other people contacted me after that. The anti-corruption movement had given me a purpose for cartooning. I decided to make an online magazine called Black and White, where I now draw cartoons for people being tortured, sentenced and sometimes even killed.