Arbitrary detentions cross a vital line in responsible governance, but media persons shouldn’t cross the line of decency either.

Cartoonist Balas arrest Why such a low tolerance for freedom of expression in TN
Voices Opinion Monday, November 06, 2017 - 12:22

The arrest of TN cartoonist Bala has predictably sent shockwaves across the state and attracted national attention.

Unfortunately, when a 19-year-old boy met with a similar fate a few days ago, over some abusive comments on PM Modi in a private FB chat, it didn’t seem to have evoked similar outrage. He has actually been sent to a juvenile home.

Apparently, an argument over Vijay-starrer Mersal heated up, and Thirumurugan, an unemployed youth, had let go of himself. The guy at the other end, a BJP functionary, promptly went to the police, and the latter, equally promptly, took the boy into custody.

That the BJP man should have acted so unethically as to lodge a complaint on a private spat and that the police reacted so vengefully are both appalling. How traumatized Thirumurugan should be now, having had to spend his time with those suspected or convicted of criminal offences? It is now nearly a week, and the episode has almost been forgotten.

This reprehensible tendency to take umbrage over anything and everything has been blighting the polity everywhere in the world today. Remember the case of Vikram Budhi who was arrested in that land of unparalleled freedom of expression, for his fulminations against President Bush over Iraq in a Yahoo discussion forum. A promising medical research student, his life was wrecked, and he had to return home after spending seven years in prison there.

In India under Modi, freedom of expression is under threat as never before, with authorities cracking down with alacrity over any real or perceived insult to the PM. Not that the UPA was a reincarnation of Buddha – a small-scale industrialist of Puducherry, for instance, was arrested in 2012 for his tweets attacking the then high-flying minister Chidambaram’s son Karti. But such incidents were sporadic then.

And one thought after the Supreme Court struck down Section 66-A of the IT Act in March this year, citizens could breathe a little more freely. But it is not to be. Arbitrary detentions continue, and the voice of dissent is sought to be silenced. Worse, the Centre is said to be toying with the idea of re-introducing the abhorrent Section, making it even more stringent.  

Tolerance has not been at much of a premium in Tamil Nadu itself. Back in 1987 the editor of Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil weekly, was arrested for a caricature on the cover, poking fun at legislators, comparing them with thieves.

“The Speaker called for an apology. The Editor responded with a lengthy explanation to the effect that the cartoon was a mere joke and not meant to offend any particular individual or party. On April 4, 1987, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution sentencing Mr. Balasubramanian to three months rigorous imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House. As soon as the resolution was carried, the Speaker issued an arrest warrant against the Editor, who was taken into custody and imprisoned. L'affaire Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly became a national issue. Two days later the Editor was released through the intervention of Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran,” narrates a later report in The Hindu.

Actually, it was Karunanidhi who had set the trend in his earliest terms, hitting out at Cho Ramasamy and getting DMK cadres to vandalise theatres which screened Mohammed Bin Thuglaq, a ripping satire on the venal and arrogant government.

Cho continued to be a bugbear for long. He was hauled up before the Privileges Committee during MGR’s times for the cover caricatures carried by his fortnightly, also named Thuglaq. Nothing much happened though.

Karunanidhi seemed to have sobered down in his later tenures, but it was and is still dicey to tread on the toes of the regional DMK satraps. Even a newspaper brought out by Karunanidhi’s nephews could not escape the wrath of his son Azhagiri – back in 2007 the newspaper’s office in Madurai was set on fire, and three persons were charred to death. Prosecution was lackadaisical; indeed the case is still limping after a verdict in a sessions court.

Jayalalithaa’s hostility to any criticism is too well-known to recount in detail. She perhaps thought media too would grovel, like her minions – when it didn’t happen, she flew into a temper, not that reporters or proprietors chose to test her much.

The minions who continue to be in power, thanks to some fortuitous circumstances, follow in her footsteps faithfully. Besides, they have to demonstrate their loyalty to Modi to ensure their political survival as long as possible.

Prosecute if you must, but arrest only when urgently required, is a dictum no one cares to remember.

On the other hand, Bala’s cartoon in question is certainly not in good taste.  Former judge of the Madras High Court Justice Chandru Krishnasamy has reproduced on his Facebook page a cartoon of Abu Abraham’s, showing Fakhruddin Ahmed signing Emergency proclamations while still in his bath tub.

I don’t think that Abu’s riff and Bala’s fall in the same category, the latter is almost revolting. Not just this one, but many of his other cartoons too.

If with arbitrary detentions you are crossing a very vital line in responsible governance, media persons too would be well advised not to cross the line of decency in the interests of our increasingly fragile democracy.

The views expressed are the author's own.

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