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Indian Cartoonist Charged With Sedition


A cartoonist in India is at the center of a storm over freedom of expression. He's been charged with sedition after satirizing corruption in India's parliament. At a hearing in Mumbai today, a court criticized the severity of the charges.

But NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi, the case is not yet over.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: I met up with cartoonist Aseem Trivedi as he arrived at the Delhi Airport last night from Mumbai, where he was released from jail this week pending more proceedings. Slight framed and bespectacled, the 25-year-old looks more the poet than the radical looking to overthrow the Indian state. He cradles a mobile phone, befitting his new status as a sought-after free speech campaigner in the world's biggest democracy. He slips into the car and tells me the purpose of a cartoonist is not to entertain.

ASEEM TRIVEDI: His purpose is to raise his voice against the problems, against the issues, against, you know, the suppression of the truth.

MCCARTHY: Trevidi is charged with sedition, a British colonial era law that was used to imprison Mahatma Gandhi. The young illustrator is also accused of violating the 1971 Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act and using the Internet to promote his message. He's published his cartoons on anti-corruption blogs, including his own site.

TRIVEDI: That was banned by the government last December and I immediately transferred all the cartoons on another blog, it was Cartoons Against Corruption, so all the cartoons are still available online.

MCCARTHY: Aligned with the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare, Trivedi's cartoons were hung at a rally last December in Mumbai. They drew the attention of a young law student who said he was insulted by them and filed the complaint that forms the basis of the case. One cartoon depicts every sewer in the country running into parliament. In another, Trivedi replaces the phrase on the national emblem - the truth alone triumphs, with corruption alone wins.

TRIVEDI: Portraying the truth is not a sin, it's not a crime. Truth should always come out. And truth should always be respected and so the freedom of speech.

MCCARTHY: India is awash in allegations of corruption. The latest alleged scandal known as Coalgate involves the government allocation of coal mining rights that is said to have cost the treasury $32 billion in lost revenues. Retired Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju is the chairman of the Press Council of India. The judge says the charge of sedition in this case is so absurd that those responsible for bringing it belong in the dock.

CHIEF JUSTICE MARKANDAY KATJU: Where is the criminal intent here? He's only saying that politicians are corrupt and that politicians are not working for the interests of the people. Large numbers of people are saying this in India. So how can this be a crime?

MCCARTHY: Judge Katju says a landmark Supreme Court ruling from the 1960s states that sedition requires incitement to immediate violence. He says standing in the road encouraging people to bomb parliament would qualify, but comparing parliament to a commode would not. Manish Tewari, the spokesman for Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party, says like videos in the Middle East, cartoons - even ones about corruption - can enflame intolerance. Still, he says, in this case, the authorities went too far.

MANISH TEWARI: He stretched his literary license or his creative license a bit over the line. But that does not mean that you slap somebody with sedition charges.

MCCARTHY: Aseem Trivedi is due back in court next month. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.