Aseem Trivedi

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A brief biography

As in 2021 July

Kunal Purohit, July 16, 2021: The Times of India

[In 2012], when a 24-year-old decided to draw cartoons to lampoon the Indian political system, he didn’t have to think much. Activism was his passion and so was cartooning. In the biggest moment of his life, it just felt natural to combine the two. Aseem Trivedi, 34, shot to the headlines when he was arrested in September 2012 and charged under three different sections for his cartoons. Among the sections was 124A of the Indian Penal Code, under which he was booked for sedition. A decade later, Trivedi continues to pay the price for sketching a bunch of cartoons. Presently, he is fighting a high-stakes legal battle to stave off a possible three-year jail sentence that he faces in the case. A slow-moving judiciary isn’t helping — in 10 years, the Bandra Metropolitan Magistrate’s court has not even begun hearing the case.

An ambitious start

Trivedi stumbled upon cartoons accidentally. Growing up in Kanpur, Trivedi veered towards becoming an engineer and even started preparing to apply for the IIT entrance examination. But midway through the preparations, Trivedi started having second thoughts. “I realised that I could never live such a life, immersed in academics,” he tells TOI+ over a video call. So, Trivedi and a few friends got together and wanted to start a newspaper. While the plan never took off, Trivedi, while preparing for it stumbled upon a book that changed his life — a book called How to Draw Cartoons by cartoonist BV Satyamurthy. Looking back, Trivedi, only half-jokingly, calls the discovery the “biggest mistake” of his life. “I devoured the book and within 15 days, I had already sketched my first-ever cartoon,” he says. The cartoon, published in a small-time local newspaper, poked fun at the rift in the Sangh Parivar and came when the VHP chief Ashok Singhal called the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government “napunsak” for not building the Ram Mandir.

From cartoonist to activist and sedition accused: the endless fight of Aseem Trivedi For Trivedi, cartooning was just what he needed. “I couldn’t bear to continue preparing for IIT and desperately needed an exit plan. I realised, cartooning was it.” His plan in place, Trivedi made strides in the world of cartooning. From Kanpur, Trivedi started drawing editorial cartoons for local and, even national newspapers. “I once even drew a cartoon for Saamna,” Trivedi says, referring to the Shiv Sena daily mouthpiece. But his sharp cartoons regularly landed him in awkward situations. Editors would call him, asking him to tone down his cartoons. Sometimes, they would reject his work outright. “There were even times when newspapers had to print apologies after readers complained about some of my cartoons,” he says, pointing to some cartoons he had drawn around religious issues.

He started feeling constricted; the experiences exposed him to the limitations of the media world. By then, he had started his own website, “Cartoons Against Corruption”, where he would upload cartoons that he felt were closer to what he wanted to do. “I started understanding that there were limits to what each newspaper could carry. I also realised that I didn’t enjoy reacting to daily issues, like editorial cartoonists have to do,” he says. Activism, he soon realised, fit the bill. “That’s when I thought, art can be used as a platform for activism. I just did not know how.” Just around then, the news cycles came to be dominated by a grandfatherly septuagenarian, a diminutive man, lording over Parliament, exhorting countrymen to rise up and fight corruption by calling for a tougher law against it. Anna Hazare made a demand that many considered was radical — that civil society must be roped in to draft the bill. The subtext was clear — politicians couldn’t be trusted to do this job themselves.

Stomach criticism, end sedition law Trivedi agreed. Growing up, he had heard about the exploits of his grandfather, Revashankar Trivedi, a journalist-freedom fighter who was jailed repeatedly by the British for his political activism. For Trivedi, it was the latter part of his life, in independent India, that has always stood out. Trivedi said he went to jail 17 times, “but most of it was after independence”. So, Trivedi went to Mumbai, and decided to take part in Hazare’s fast, in December 2011. In the crowd of righteous protesters, heaping scorn on corrupt politicians and a broken system, Trivedi’s cartoons were a hit. His cartoons, blown up into banners now, were displayed on the ground prominently enough for crowds to flock, for fans to take photos with him and for journalists to make a beeline to interview him.

His headline-grabbing cartoons earned him fans and critics alike — one depicted the lions in India’s national emblem replaced by three wolves with blood dripping from their mouths and the motto replaced with the words ‘Corruption shall prevail’. Another likened Indian Parliament to a toilet seat, and the third one, titled “Gang Rape of Mother India” depicted the nation personified in a woman wearing the tricolour, pinned to a wall by bureaucrats and politicians. Within less than a month, Trivedi’s troubles began. His website, Cartoons Against Corruption, was suspended by the Mumbai Police and a notice was sent to him on his email, asking him to contact the Maharashtra Police. Days after the suspension, the Mumbai Police filed an FIR against Trivedi, booking him under sedition, as well as Section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 and the now-abolished Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Another FIR was filed against him in Maharashtra’s Beed district, on similar charges. Eight months later, he was arrested.

Prison days When Trivedi was charged with sedition, he became one of the many who was targeted by the State for political reasons. A member of the Republican Party of India had filed the complaint that led to his arrest. When he was arrested, Congress-led alliances were in power, both in Maharashtra and at the Centre. UPA ministers defended the arrest. Information & Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni said that while the government was against censorship, citizens were expected to respect national symbols. “There are certain ground rules which we all have to follow. When the Constitution ensures freedom of expression to each one of us, it also lays down that we as Indian citizens respect all national symbols which represent the Indian nation," she added. The law minister, Salman Khurshid, had refused to criticise the arrest, saying that the law would take its own course. Trivedi, himself, had no doubt about what had caused his arrest. “At that point, almost all of my cartoons were targeted against the UPA government,” says Trivedi. Like the time when, soon after his website was banned, Trivedi and fellow activists targeted then IT minister Kapil Sibal for trying to bring in guidelines that would hold social media platforms liable for the content users upload on them. Many had feared that this was the government’s way of throttling the online space that youngsters like Trivedi were using to criticise it. “So, when April 1 came, we celebrated Fool’s day by calling it Sibal’s day,” he laughs. Trivedi had an inkling of what to expect. “When my website got banned, I realised that something else could follow,” he said. The news came to him on a phone call — his parents called, in August 2012, with the news that police personnel from Mumbai were at their Kanpur home and demanded to see Trivedi. “But I was in Delhi so I assured the police that I will present myself to the Mumbai Police,” something he did, on September 8.

The cartoonist was adamant that he would not hire a lawyer, that he would defend himself. “I neither had the money nor the contacts [to hire a lawyer],” he says. “Also, I had not done anything wrong, so I thought, why should I hire a lawyer?” He braced for the worst. After being made to wait for nearly eight hours, Trivedi was arrested that evening. The first two nights, he was kept in the police station’s lockup, a long room, where he shared space with 18 other inmates. “There were no mattresses, not even a cloth to lay on the ground. We were all meant to sleep on the floor,” he says. The next day, on a Sunday, he was presented before a magistrate, who remanded him to police custody for a week. The day turned out to be dramatic. Just as he came out of the court, police constables surrounded Trivedi from all sides and refused to let his family meet him. Volunteers from the India Against Corruption (IAC) complained to the media that they could not meet Trivedi and brief him about his legal options. Old videos from then show how Trivedi is waving one moment and then, suddenly, is forcefully yanked by the arm by a policeman and pulled towards the waiting van. But Trivedi was not going to give up, without a fight. In a black kurta with his long hair falling over his spectacles, Trivedi raised his finger and said, “If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one. Even Mahatma Gandhi was called a traitor and if I am booked under sedition for doing service to the nation then I will continue to do so” he said, before raising slogans of “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Bharat mata ki jai”.

Looking back, the cartoonist feels the sloganeering was unlike him. “I was angry at the way the police were treating me and the sloganeering gave vent to my anger,” he says. In the van, the realisation just dawned on him — he was slated to spend at least a week more in prison, and he had no legal plan to fight it. But while he was brought back to the lock-up, outside, there was widespread criticism of the move to arrest him. The next day, the Mumbai Police told the court that it no longer wanted Trivedi’s custody, but he refused bail, insisting that the

court drop the charges. “I am not a criminal that I should deposit money and seek bail, but till the time the charges of sedition are not dropped against me, I will continue to be in jail,” read a letter written by Trivedi, distributed outside the court. The court, then, sent Trivedi to judicial custody, but this time for nearly two weeks. From the lock-up, Trivedi was then sent to the Mumbai Central Prison, popularly known as the Arthur Road Jail. Inside, for two nights, he was kept in the high-security Anda Cell, called so for its oval shape. There, he shared space with criminals and renowned scamsters he had only heard about in the media. But outside the prison, his arrest made front-page news, editorials decried it, one even feared that the arrest raised fears of India becoming “intolerant” and “illiberal”. Television channels were breathless in their coverage about it, slamming the government. A Hindi channel, now rarely found questioning the government, ran tickers in Hindi asking, is it a crime to draw cartoons? The international media chimed in too. Politically, the arrest set off a firestorm that kept growing with each day. Then IAC activist Arvind Kejriwal, who had days ago announced the creation of the Aam Aadmi Party, threatened a fresh agitation if Trivedi was not released. The BJP, which was then in opposition, said Trivedi’s arrest was a sign that the country faced “an undeclared Emergency”. According to Lubhyathi Rangarajan, a lawyer and the head of Article-14’s Sedition Database, this public outpouring of support that the sedition-accused Trivedi received, is rare. Rangarajan contrasted the support that Trivedi received to what others, accused of the same charge, have received.

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