DBF Interviews: Aseem Trivedi

Indian cartoonist and anti-corruption activist Aseem Trivedi has been arrested and jailed for his work defending human rights. Aseem currently faces three years in jail on charges of “insulting the state” through his art. He has recently created a comic magazine dedicated to telling the stories of human rights defenders at risk around the world. Aseem will be joining Dublin Book Festival 2016 for The Day of the Imprisoned Writer, which recognises the courage of writers who have challenged injustice, exposed corruption and confronted those oppressive regimes who see every critical word as a threat to their power.


Q. How do you balance the truth and humour in your work?

My focus is always on the truth – I don’t even consider humour as a fundamental element of the cartooning. Sometimes people think that cartoons are merely visual jokes, and their only purpose is to make readers laugh, which is not always the case. In my cartoons, I just exaggerate a situation to make it more sensitive and appealing to an audience. Sometimes this exaggeration creates a kind of pain, and that’s the purpose of the depiction. For me, cartoons are not cheerleaders. So it’s not their job to make someone happy. Even if it’s better if they work otherwise. They are better when they disturb you. I consider this a basic characteristic for any kind of satire.


Q. How did your arrest back in 2012 impact your beliefs towards censorship, and the way you’ve been working ever since? 

Actually, it had already started when they had first banned my website one year before my arrest. I started a campaign against some sections of the IT Act when they banned it. But after my arrest, I was able to give it more momentum. The arrest and the campaign altogether strengthened my beliefs regarding free speech. Because I then had time to think and discuss a lot about many different aspects and issues surrounding it. At each step, I reached the same conclusion but with increased clarity. I can say that I, myself, did not have complete faith in freedom of expression when I started the campaign. But with the time passing by, I became a firm believer of free speech.

My work process is almost the same, I’m as fearless as I used to be. Through the ban and the arrest, I could understand the pain an artist or a writer faces. I could also understand the importance of the support you can get when you are trapped behind bars. I could have passed several months and years in the jail without the kind of support I received. This is why I started drawing to support artists, bloggers, writers, journalists and HRDs behind the bars. It gives me a kind of satisfaction and I feel that it’s the best purpose I can use my art for.


Q. There is a risk that one politically incorrect/provocative cartoon wields the power to trigger anger, and possibly even violence, such as the Prophet cartoons in Denmark, or the recent Charlie Hebdo murders. Where should cartoonists draw the line?

It’s never the cartoon which triggers violence. It’s the people, who are always looking for a reason to let it happen. This is why we call them “terrorist”. They’ll definitely find another reason for stirring violence if there is no cartoon. Everybody should be mature enough to show one’s discontent and disagreement. Sometimes the artist may look immature. But can you compare the means of expression used by an artist and by a terrorist? After the Charlie Hebdo incident, there were huge criticisms towards the terror attack in Indian media. In the world, a lot of cartoonists were drawing prophet as a protest. But in India, no cartoonist except me dared to draw the prophet. The reason was the fear, not the agreement with the idea of sparing Muhammad from the cartooning. So when fear becomes the deciding factor, whether it’s of the terrorist or of the government, the freedom is lost, the rational thinking is lost. As it used to be in Dark Ages, when there was no advocacy for human rights and democracy… Are we ready to go back there?

And even if we agree to draw a line; who’ll draw it. Because everyone has his own set of ideas, and the coordinates of the line will always depend on the person who draws it. And then, there will be different lines in different parts of the world. As they really are. And this is why we are often surprised to know that some gentleman is being flogged publicly for writing a blog, a cartoonist is facing sedition charges for criticizing his government, or someone is being detained for many years for simply writing a short story against the legal stoning of a girl in their country.

And let me tell you who actually draws that line and why: the artists, the writers, the bloggers draw these lines for their own safety. But these lines are the most dangerous lines of the world. More fatal than the boundaries of the nations, religions, and races.


Q. What other cartoonists or authors have influenced your own creative process and line of thinking?

I’m not privileged enough to read a great deal of literature. But a person who influenced me up to some extent is an Indian philosopher called Osho. I read him as a young teenager, and that’s why he had such a deep influence on me. I also see Gandhi as an inspiration, as he is the second person I could easily read enough of at the time. The philosophy of Gandhi was all around truth and non-violence, the two most important things that are sadly completely missing in this world. Nobody is honest, nobody is pure. And we see dishonesty, impurity criticizing another impurity and dishonesty across the world. The whole competition is a win-win situation for evil. Just like the presidential election of US this year… 🙂

And yes, the cartoonist that I love most is Mana Neyestani. He is an Iranian cartoonist, who could add more meaning and depth to the whole stream of art. Though I have only learned about him in the last couple of years only, I’m a big fan of his art.