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Indian Cartoonist’s Arrest Sparks Protests, Free Speech Debate

Indian policemen escort political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, center in black as they leave a court in Mumbai, India, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012.
Indian policemen escort political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, center in black as they leave a court in Mumbai, India, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012.
NEW DELHI, India — Outrage has been sparked in India by the arrest of a cartoonist who produced satirical drawings protesting political corruption. Aseem Trivedi's arrest on charges of sedition is being seen as an attack on freedom of expression.

Anti-corruption activists, opposition politicians and citizens held protests in Mumbai demanding the release of 25-year-old Trivedi.

Trivedi was arrested Saturday on the complaint of a lawyer for a series of cartoons that satirized political corruption and allegedly mocked the Indian constitution.

In one of his cartoons, he depicts parliament as a toilet bowl. In another he replaces lions in India’s national emblem with wolves, and the words “truth shall prevail” with “corruption shall prevail.”

Trivedi has been involved in an anti-corruption movement that has turned the spotlight on alleged widespread graft.

Protestors slammed his arrest, calling it an attack on freedom of expression. Among them is Mayank Gandhi, a leading anti corruption activist.

“This sedition charge that they have put, should be put against anti-nationals," said Trivedi. "Here is a nationalist man who is trying to put his views across in a cartoon. Mature democracy like India, we are not a banana republic, that just somebody drawing a cartoon, which shows his anger against the way this country is being misused by the politicians or by the government ...”

Trivedi has refused to apply for bail until the sedition charge is dropped. Following his arrest he said, “if telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one.” He told reporters that he did not intend to insult national symbols, but to show how politicians are insulting the nation.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni says drawing cartoons is not an offense, but self regulation is important.

“At the same time there are certain ground rules which we all have to follow," said Soni. "When the constitution ensures freedom of expression to each one of us, it also lays down that we as Indian citizens will respect all national symbols.”

The arrest has revived debate on what some regard as rising intolerance among politicians and the government to criticism.

Last month, the government blocked access to several Twitter spoof accounts imitating the prime minister. Last year, the government wanted Internet companies such as Google to screen and remove material which was derogatory of politicians.

The government has also responded angrily to several articles in the foreign media which have been critical of the prime minister and his handling of corruption.

Earlier this year, police in West Bengal state arrested a professor for posting, on the Internet, cartoons that ridiculed the state’s chief minister. He was released following an outcry.