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The Daily Fix: Tamil cartoonist’s arrest is yet another attempt to gag voices on social media

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The Big Story: No laughing matter

Tamil Nadu has a loan shark problem. Private moneylenders lending money at exorbitant rates and then threatening borrowers who are unable to pay back is a common social issue across the state. On October 24, a man set his wife and and children ablaze before immolating himself outside the Tirunelveli Collectorate in Tamil Nadu. He had been continually harassed by loan sharks and the Tamil Nadu police had allegedly done little to help him.

Rather than fix this problem, the Tamil Nadu government is expending its energies trying to gag criticism. On Sunday, the Tamil Nadu police’s Crime Branch wing arrested a freelance cartoonist for a cartoon he posted on social media. The cartoon attacked the district police commissioner, collector and state chief minister for their inability to prevent the family’s suicide.

This is just one in a long list of examples of free speech being gagged in India. However, of late, there is a special focus on social media and satire.

The country is going through a media churn, with many large media houses hesitant to critique governments. This has meant the demand for criticism of the government is met by disparate actors on social media, who often use satire to hold the government to account. This is not new. In 2012, for example, Mumbai police arrested a cartoonist for highlighting corruption amongst India’s politicians. That same year, the West Bengal government arrested a college professor for posting a cartoon on social media that mocked the chief minister.

Abdication by mainstream media and the explosion of social media since then has meant that even more political speech has now shifted to social media, with WhatsApp and Facebook acting as town squares. On October 31, for example, a man was arrested in Tamil Nadu for the act of criticising Prime Minister Modi in a private Facebook chat. In Uttar Pradesh, just as a new BJP government was sworn in eight months back, four people were arrested for ridiculing the new chief minister. In April, a man was picked up by the Uttar Pradesh police in Muzaffarnagar and allegedly tortured for simply cracking a joke about a high court ruling that granted legal person status to the Ganga as well as for ridiculing the BJP’s politics around the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

So pervasive is this crackdown that it has had a chilling effect on free speech across the board. In October, a comedian alleged that his stand-up routine poking fun at Narendra Modi was not aired.

In a democracy, the right to make fun of political leaders is no laughing matter. It is a crucial part of free speech that reminds us that our rulers are fallible. A clamp down on satire and the social media that disseminates it is a troubling trend for India.

The Big Scroll

  • A tsunami of debt is building up in Tamil Nadu – and no one knows where it is headed, reports M Rajshekhar.
  • At what point can free speech cross over to seditious territory – and who decides? Rishab Bailey and Lawrence Liang discuss the issue.
  • Internet anonymity in India encourages trolls – but it’s also necessary, writes Shoaib Daniyal.

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Punditry

  • Cars not auto rickshaws are the problem, argues this Hindustan Times editorial. There is no cap on the number of cars that are allowed to ply on the roads, but regulating the number of rickshaws that are cheap and efficient for short distance travel are the focus of India’s urban planning. This attitude must change.
  • The Communist Part of India (Marxist)’s atrophy in West Bengal has dealt a body blow to the Left’s influence in Indian politics, writes Roshan Kishore in Mint.
  • The stage is set for elections in Nepal but there is no excitement among voters, says Yubaraj Ghimre in the Indian Express.

Giggle

Don’t Miss

In Gujarat’s Adivasi belt, BJP has to contend with Bhilistan separatists, boycotts and “big people”, reports Aarefa Johari

Largely invisible in the popular representation of Gujarat, the state’s 9 million Adivasis make up at least 15% of its voters. The Adivasis have long been considered an assured Congress vote bank – particularly the Christian Adivasis. In the past decade, however, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has made inroads into this belt. The saffron party now holds 11 of the 27 Assembly constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat has a total of 182 Assembly seats.

With Assembly elections to be held on December 9 and 14, the BJP is believed to be aggressively wooing Adivasis to compensate for possible losses among the Patil community and other backward caste groups that have been loudly expressing discontent with the party. It is a tough proposition, though, given the strong anti-incumbency sentiment towards a party that has been in power since 1998. In South Gujarat, the Adivasis despair over their struggles with unemployment, water shortage, their land being acquired for projects and hurt community pride

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