India’s government faced a mounting domestic and international backlash yesterday over the arrest of a cartoonist on sedition charges as critics accused it of using colonial-era laws to crush dissent.
The arrest at the weekend of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist and anti-corruption campaigner, sparked outrage from activists who say that Indian authorities have become increasingly intolerant of criticism.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate and unconditional release of Trivedi, who has refused to apply for bail saying that he wants all charges dropped.
“The prosecution and detention of the cartoonist are a gross violation of freedom of expression and information,” the Paris-based organization said.
Trivedi’s arrest came shortly after India ordered more than 300 Webs sites, social networking pages, Twitter accounts and other online content to be blocked in an attempt to halt the spread of rumors about ethnic violence.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) echoed calls for Trivedi to be freed in a case that has sparked widespread debate about freedom of expression in India.
“Criminalizing Aseem Trivedi’s efforts to highlight the serious problem of corruption is a perverse exercise of power and runs completely counter to India’s democratic principles,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
Cartoons on Trivedi’s Web site show the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks urinating on the Indian constitution, and the parliament building shaped as a huge toilet bowl.
Another cartoon titled “Gang Rape of Mother India” shows a woman draped in the Indian flag being held down by a politician and a bureaucrat as a horned animal depicting corruption appears ready to attack her.
Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai under laws governing sedition, information technology and protecting India’s national flag and constitution after a private complaint from a young lawyer based in the city.
A court on Monday ordered the cartoonist to be held in custody until Sept. 24.
The Times of India in its lead editorial yesterday called for the British colonial-era sedition law to be scrapped.
“In independent India, instead of being revoked, the sedition law has been used against a variety of dissent,” it said.
“Independent India’s politicians are clearly using the archaic colonial law as a tool of contemporary intimidation,” it said.