The arrest of cartoonist G Bala on Sunday has sparked widespread condemnation across Tamil Nadu. His crime: lampooning the state’s inability to prevent the deaths on October 23 of a farmer, his wife and two children, who set themselves on fire outside the Tirunelveli District Collectorate on October 23. The family was being harassed by loansharks and had reportedly petitioned the collector six times to take action, but to no avail. The irony is that Tamil Nadu boasts of having a law to curb usury, a practice widely prevalent in the state.

Pictures of the family in flames sent shockwaves through Tamil Nadu. Bala put up a cartoon on his Facebook page caricaturing the chief minister, collector and superintendent of police, showing them standing almost naked around the burning body of the farmer doing nothing, and covering themselves with currency notes. The cartoon went viral on social media.

The government of E Palanisami, who is fighting a fratricidal war to keep control of his broken party, took time to wake up, reacting three weeks later to order Bala’s arrest.

A police team from Tirunelveli drove 600 km north to Chennai, swooped down on the cartoonist around midnight, and bundled him into their vehicle. Bala’s relatives were not informed of his arrest, nor was he allowed to contact anyone – in violation of the Supreme Court’s DK Basu guidelines making it clear that every person has the right to know why they are being arrested.

It later turned out the cartoonist was arrested on the basis of a complaint lodged by the Tirunelveli collector and charged with offences related to defamation under Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code and obscenity under Section 67 of the IT Act. It is not clear how these two provisions are applicable to the cartoon.

Tamil Nadu has recently witnessed a number of arrests for perceived offences such as distributing handbills, addressing meetings, conducting agitations and staging public theatre performances critical of the government’s policies. In some cases, the Madras High Court unhesitatingly quashed or stayed the arrests when the affected people sought bail or questioned their detention, and even criticised the government.

Still, the government, battling for survival, has created what amounts to a police state. Officials, particularly the police, given a relatively free hand to deal with crime, are showing little regard for rule of law and displaying their strength by suppressing even small protests.

No justification

Some people have tried to balance their criticism of Bala’s arrest by arguing that while the police’s action was wrong, his depiction of the chief minister and officials was in unacceptably bad taste. I do not know when such people decided to become self-appointed censors. They need to be reminded of Abu Abraham’s famous cartoon in The Indian Express at the peak of Emergency in 1975, depicting President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing ordinances in his bathtub. It portrayed him as a rubber stamp for the Indira Gandhi government. There was enough pressure to arrest Abraham but strong public opinion in his favour ensured that never happened. Bala’s arrest is an indication of the worrying state of affairs when it comes to dissent.

Abu Abraham’s cartoon depicting President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was published in The Indian Express during the Emergency.

This is not to suggest that there are absolute freedoms. Indeed, the Constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression is subject to reasonable restrictions. Cartoons have led to riots and bloodbaths in the past, for instance in 2015 after the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. However, the decision about whether a cartoon or a publication violates Constitutional limits must be made by the courts and not by police or bureaucrats. Bala’s arrest is an extreme show of intolerance and nobody who loves freedom can condone his incarceration for publishing a cartoon expressing anger over an entire family being pushed to suicide by an apathetic administration. His arrest betrays an infirm government using its police force to muzzle dissent.

K Chandru is a retired judge of the Madras High Court.