Indian authorities in Mumbai should immediately drop politically motivated charges against political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. The government should repeal the colonial-era sedition law, which local authorities use to silence peaceful dissent.
Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai on September 8, 2012, after a complaint that his cartoons mocked the Indian constitution and national emblem. He was charged with sedition under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, despite a five-decade-old Supreme Court ruling that sedition requires evidence of incitement to violence.
“Arresting cartoonists for their stinging satire is a hallmark of a dictatorship, not a democracy,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Aseem Trivedi should be immediately released, and the law that put him behind bars promptly repealed.”
Trivedi’s cartoons have recently focused on political corruption, such as the one portraying the national emblem with blood-thirsty wolves instead of lions, and with the words “Corruption Triumphs” instead of “Truth Alone Triumphs.” In addition to sedition, he was also charged under section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, dealing with insult to the national flag and the constitution, and section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which deals with “information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character.” In December the authorities suspended his website, Cartoons Against Corruption, after a complaint alleging it showcased inappropriate content.
The national minister for information and broadcasting, Ambika Soni, said that while her government did not promote censorship, it encourages self-regulation and that every citizen should respect national symbols.
Following public protests in Mumbai, the Maharashtra home minister, R. R. Patil, said the police had no grounds to arrest Trivedi. On September 10 the Mumbai police announced they no longer require Trivedi’s custody and would not oppose bail, but Trivedi has refused to apply for bail and has resolved to remain in judicial custody until the sedition charges against him are dropped.
“Indian authorities have unlawfully charged individuals with sedition on repeated occasions for peaceful political purposes contrary to explicit directives of the Supreme Court,” said Ganguly. “The obvious abuse of the sedition law to silence Trivedi should be the case that prompts the abolition of this law.”
In recent years, local authorities have used sedition laws to intimidate peaceful protesters and silence criticism, Human Rights Watch said. In May 2012, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, local authorities filed sedition complaints against thousands of people who were protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant. In November 2010 a New Delhi magistrate directed the police to investigate allegations of sedition against the writer and columnist Arundhati Roy and five others stemming from speeches they made in New Delhi in support of Kashmiri secession. The central government had earlier decided against filing charges, saying that pursuing sedition charges was inappropriate because there was no evidence of inciting violence.
State governments, which are responsible for local law and order, have repeatedly used sedition laws against critics. In Orissa and Chhattisgarh states, sedition cases have been filed against activists and lawyers suspected of supporting armed Maoist groups. On December 24, 2010, a court in Chhattisgarh sentenced Dr. Binayak Sen, a vocal critic of the state government’s counterinsurgency policies against the Maoists, to life in prison for sedition. The judge found no evidence that Sen was a member of any outlawed Maoist group or that he was involved in violence against the state. Sen has appealed the verdict.
India’s sedition law, section 124A of the Penal Code, prohibits any words either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection,” toward the government. In a landmark 1962 ruling, Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar,the Supreme Court ruled that unless the accused incited violence by their speech or action, it would no longer constitute sedition, as it would otherwise violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution.
The court stated: “[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy.
“India should repeal the sedition law not only to respect the free expression rights of the speaker, but that of all Indians to get differing viewpoints,” Ganguly said. “The irony of using a law first used by former colonial rulers against those who campaigned for India’s independence seems lost on the authorities.”