As a country, we seem to have gone off our collective rockers.

Indians, it seems, have an overdeveloped sense of righteousness and indignation; and an impossible level of intolerance. We have become incapable of accepting any point of view which does not fit neatly within the four corners of our own views. Let alone considering a divergent point of view, we can’t even accept the thought that any other person can have a different thought process.

There was a time when we were able to shrug things off. We could take a joke, we could engage in a healthy debate, agree to disagree. But not anymore. In today’s times every person the more money or power (deserved or otherwise) one has, or the higher that one’s ego is inflated, the more intolerant the person becomes.

While there are quite a few times when one is just plainly unable to defend Justice Katju’s (formerly of the Indian Supreme Court) utterances, I can’t but help agree with his coming to the defence of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.

For those who are blissfully unaware, this artist drew a series of cartoons – quite witty in my opinion – lamenting the current state of affairs in India. In one series on corruption in public life, he has proposed alternative national symbols, a national bird, national toilet etc. You can find the series here –

For this “heinous crime” – of parodying the “hallowed” Indian symbols, the government of Maharashtra has had him arrested and is presumably going to prosecute him.


In order to find the source of the freedom of speech, one should not have to look far. Indeed, the right to express oneself has to be traced to that set of principles we call human rights. But still, for anyone looking for a more tangible source, the constitution of India should be a sufficiently source.

The constituent assembly chose to express this right, and to circumscribe it in the following terms:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;
(2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence

The right to freedom of speech and expression (which these cartoons naturally are), is subject only to restrictive laws seeking to secure the interests of

  1. Sovereignty of India
  2. Integrity of India
  3. Security of the State
  4. Friendly relations with foreign states
  5. Public order
  6. Decency
  7. Morality
  8. Contempt of Court
  9. Defamation
  10. Incitement to an offence

Now out of these ten grounds which are deemed sufficient to gag a person – by operation of law, and not just on the whims of a hypersensitive politico, mandarin or policeman, one has to discount at least the following in this case: sovereignity, integrity, security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence.

The only ones which this poor cartoonist might possibly be subject to are decency and morality.

We also have the judgment of the Delhi High Court in MF Hussain’s case where the court held that publishing an art auction catalog on the internet (with MF Hussain’s painting of a nude mother India) was not offensive to decency or morality regimes of the Indian Penal Code or the Information Technology Act, inasmuch as no person who was not interested in art could reasonably be expected to visit the website of the auction house.

Similarly, no person who had no interest in this cartoonist would have be likely to stumble upon accidentally onto this website and find his morals or decency violated. I am sure that this particular website would have registered an exponential increase in visits after the arrest and because of the publicity surrounding the arrest, rather than anything else.

In any case, the first question would have to be – whose morality and whose decency. You can’t possibly claim that the Ashokha Stambh or the Parliament building have emotions which have been transgressed. It has to be the hyperactive hypersensitive busybodies alone who would feel outraged. But that is not sufficient to trigger the exceptional clause restricting the fundamental right.

It is worth remembering also, that the fundamental rights trump all other laws. A law which places curbs on a person’s right of speech and expression (even if it is the ridiculous Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971) is a nullity and unenforceable.

The more important question that this episode triggers is what happened to our calm, reflective spirits. What happened to our tradition of tolerance and enlightened debate?

Take the Sikh religion – it used to be a people fond of questioning and debating in the tradition of the most scientific of persons that we have seen in recent history – Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak built an entire faith around the spirit of Goshti, debate and questioning established precepts. And today the Sikh clergy is the most uptight, sensitive and intolerant bunch of people imaginable.

Take the judiciary – they claim to be part of a blessed pantheon, intolerant of the slightest bit of criticism. To tell a judge that he may be wrong – whether within or outside a courtroom – is to invite the draconian contempt persecution.

Take the police – actually don’t take the police. They will take you instead if you cross even the lowest ranking policeman.

What is happening to us?

Is it part of a cycle – that we have to descent to the bottom of the sine curve before again rising?

Is it symptomatic of the rot that has set into our hearts and minds?

Why do we value symbols and icons more than we value our people? Why does an athlete fear draping herself in her country’s flag after a monumental victory? Why can’t an Indian tourist abroad flaunt his origins on a T-Shirt or a cap?

Why can’t people accept that they don’t enjoy the sole right to be right?

Why can’t we just learn to ignore what we don’t like?