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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sedition, Freedom of Expression and the proxy war of Sri Lanka

The word is in news now – ‘sedition’.  In law, sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order. Typically, sedition is considered a subversive act, and the overt acts that may be prosecutable under sedition laws vary from one legal code to another. Sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power.

The man in news - Aseem Trivedi born  is a renowned  political cartoonist and activist, best known for his anti corruption campaign Cartoons Against Corruption. He was awarded the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award for 2012 by CRNI.

Sedition is a serious charge – the immediate Q that arises is ‘how long can the freedom of expression extend’ – and there were so many activists who spoke for Maqbool Fida Hussain who with gay abandon treated Goddesses of Hinduism depicting them unclothed;  and had the temerity to portray Bharatmata as a nude woman in an exhibition organized by  Nafisa Ali of Action India (NGO) and Apparao Art Gallery.  Public memory is shortlived !

Only recently, there was hue and cry over the anti-revelry dirve of Vasanth Dhoble and Police claimed that he only went by the book of rules.  In the arrest of  Trivedi, the Mumbai Police tottered on the same lines claiming that the arrest is a procedural formality and that it has acted on a complaint. “He has shown disrespect to the National emblem and therefore he has been arrested under section 124(A).” Blame the law, not the police.

There were sedition cases during British colonial rule.   Vallinayagam Olaganthan Chidambaram Pillai, (1872-1936) -  famously known as ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan’ [the Tamilian who ran Ships] , launched the first indigenous Indian shipping service between Tuticorin and Colombo with the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, competing against British ships. He was  charged with sedition by the British government and sentenced to life imprisonment; his barrister license was stripped.  A rigorous sentence of two life imprisonments (in effect 40 years) was imposed. He lost his health and vigour suffering in the prison.  The greatest poet of India, Mahakavi Subramania Bharathiyar sought exile in Pondicherry under the rule of French to escape the sedition law of British India.  Today, 11th Sept  is his Death anniversary.  Please do read this post on Barathiyar :

Elsewhere away from the Indian soil, the neighbouring country thrives in skirmishes though it gets so much of assistance from India.  First Post reports of a shockingly vulgar cartoon published by a Sri Lankan newspaper featuring Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and the prime minister Manmohan Singh in extremely bad taste is yet another instance of the proxy-speak of the island nation that should ideally provoke a tough reply from India.

First Post reports that on Sunday, Lakbima, a well-circulated Sinhala language daily in Sri Lanka, published a cartoon lampooning both Jayalalithaa and Manmohan Singh, ostensibly peeved at the recent tensions between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, where a school football team was sent back, and a number of Sri Lankan pilgrims in the state came under attack. The cartoon, gross and nasty, has created some ripples in Sri Lanka as well, but the government of India is yet to react. Presidential spokesman Bandula Jayasekera reacted on Twitter saying that the government did not condone the ‘vulgar’ cartoon, but there has been no official reprimand from the Sri Lankan government, and one of the employees of the newspaper has defended the cartoon, saying they were merely exercising their right to free speech.

Using proxies to target, smear and even attack opponents, while the government officially takes a conciliatory position, is a time-tested Sri Lankan practice of silencing dissent and running down people. That the newspaper is owned by Thilanga Sumathipala, a Colombo district MP of the National Freedom Party, (an ally of the ruling SLFP), is an easy giveaway of the State’s complicity.   Some time back, powerful minister Mervyn Silva led a video documented attack on the State run Rupavahini TV, but continued to be in the cabinet despite the government promising action.  The government then said that it stood for freedom of speech, but the minister under its patronage did exactly the opposite. The only punishment he got was a reprimand.  Similarly, in the recent past, the Sri Lankan high commissioner to India attributed motives to some politicians in Tamil Nadu for supporting the cause of the island nation’s Tamils. And it was only a couple of days ago when the same high commissioner said, in the wake of the recent developments, that “India is a relation while China is a friend”.

The point is proxy-speak, proxy-attacks and proxy-campaigns are a way of life for Sri Lanka’s ruling establishment and it spares nobody. And these are as vicious as physical attacks. Their language is rabid, nasty and sometimes outrightly vulgar as in the case of the Jaya-Manomohan cartoon. The cartoon against two top leaders of India, which strives to side with Sri Lanka against the sentiments of Tamil Nadu and the international community, should be a strong wake up call for India on the way it deals with its island-neighbour.  All these at a time when the Govt of India is one of the top aid donors for the reconstruction of the post-war Sri Lanka, and goes out of its way to indirectly protect the latter’s regime from international action including from the UNHRC.  It’s time they demanded that Sri Lanka came clean and stop its silly double-speak with us.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
11th Sept. 2012.

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