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Aseem Trivedi: Cartoonists Are Revolutionaries Now

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Aseem Trivedi is an Indian political cartoonist and activist. He is best known in India for his work campaigning against government corruption (for which he was arrested in 2012).

He is also a noted advocate for freedom of speech. He co-founded the group Save Your Voice to campaign against internet censorship.

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about his cartoon series "50 Cartoons for 50 Lashes" in support of imprisoned Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi.

He can be found on twitter and has a personal website.

Certain of Aseem's cartoons are reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Clarion Project: You first rose to prominence by campaigning for free speech and against corruption in India. What first drew your attention to the Raif Badawi case? What made you feel that you had to speak out?  

Aseem Trivedi: After my arrest, I was away from cartooning for two years. I drew a comic strip featuring Muhammad just after the attack on Charlie Hebdo as I thought it was my responsibility to register my protest against the attackers. 

After some time, I learned about Raif Badawi case from social media and it was really shocking to know that someone is being flogged for his blogging. I couldn’t see any justice, humanity or reasoning behind the decision of the Saudi Arabian court.

It was like a dark story from 100 years back in the history. So I immediately decided to draw a series of cartoons in his support.

I know that cartooning has its own limits but this is the only thing that a cartoonist can do.

When I was arrested in the charges of sedition and national insult for my anti-corruption cartoons, I received a large support from the world of arts and activism.

So, I think, I'm doing my duty and also repaying my debt to the world of activism. 

Clarion: Your project is called "A Cartoon Against Every Lash." Can you explain a little bit about it for readers who are unfamiliar?

Trivedi: Raif was arrested in 2012 on a charge of insulting Islam through electronic channels and brought to court on several charges including apostasy.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, then resentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison plus a fine in 2014. The lashes were to be carried out over 20 weeks.

The first 50 were administered on January 9, 2015. The second set has so far been postponed.

When I heard about the 50 lashes he received, I decided to make a cartoon against each of them. This is the only idea behind the campaign. 

I hope more artists from every stream should come forward and contribute in the campaign.

It's not about Raif, it's about free speech, which belongs to everyone, not only Raif. 

Clarion: What is the goal of your project? What message are you trying to convey with your art?

Trivedi: My goal is to bring attention to the Raif Badawi case and highlight the injustice and inhumanity of the Saudi Arabian government. When you draw a single cartoon on an issue, we don’t have a possibility to go in depth. But when you do a series, you can seriously explore all the sides of the issue.

Next month, I’m starting an online cartoon magazine, dedicated to the cartoons supporting humanitarian issues from all over the world and my first issue will be focused on Raif Badawi.

I want to dedicate my cartooning to the campaigns for justice, equality and freedom.

I find it much more meaningful than working for regular media houses.

Clarion: You were also involved in campaigning on behalf of Hussein Jawad, a dissident imprisoned in Bahrain. Clarion intervied his wife Asma Darwish and she told us about his arrest in February.

How did you find out about his case and get involved in supporting it?

Trivedi: I came in touch with Asma, wife of Hussain Jawad, through Twitter.

She told me about his illegal arrest followed by torture and forced confessions. I posted a single pager comic on Hussain Jawad explaining the injustice with Hussain.

I’m planning for some more cartoons on this issue and I’ll keep on posting cartoons until the goal is reached: his release.

Clarion: Another cartoon event, lampooning the founder of Islam, Mohammed, was just attacked in Texas. What do you think is so powerful about cartoons that they draw such ire?

Trivedi: I think cartoon is a direct satire in visual medium that spreads fast on social media platforms.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a very important incident in the journey of cartooning. The support that the cartoonists received from all over the world, empowered this medium to the new heights.

Today, cartoons are not known for humor, now we know them for activism, revolution and movements.

Today the job of a cartoonist is not limited to making fun. It’s to play a vital role in activism. 

Clarion: You are not a Muslim. What role do you think non-Muslims have in drawing attention to cases like Raif Badawi's in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia? 

Trivedi: I think being in a country as repressive as Saudi Arabia, he needs support of another level. Large international organizations should concentrate on it.

I heard about the campaign to pressure the Saudi regime into releasing him by Amenesty international. I hope it will be successful soon. 

The punishment he got is totally absurd and inhuman. It's not justice, its cruelty and more like revenge.

About Raif, I'll say that he is a very courageous man and deserves to get support from all of us. A person who can raise his voice in such a place should be the real face of the spirit of free speech and reformations. 

When it comes to humanity, we all should be vocal, no matter what our religion.

I don’t think it’s an internal affair for Muslim community. If someone is tortured and deprived of his human rights, everyone should interfere to correct the situation. 

I am an atheist and I find the idea of religion completely out-dated now. So for me, Raif belongs to my community and that is humanity. And when it comes to my community I have to be vocal.

This is my concept of communalism, I think.

Clarion: There are many brave Muslim human rights activists campaigning for freedom of speech across the Arab world. Who do you personally find most impressive as an inspiration to follow?

Trivedi: Yes, I see a great determination and courage in these fellows. Human rights activists in other parts of the world are in their comfort zone. The situations in Arab countries are really a lot worse. It takes guts to be an activist there.

Sometimes I think it’d be tough for me to draw such cartoons, if I were living there.

I see everyday people arrested, tortured and executed for raising their voices for free speech. And it’s really disturbing.

Among all of them, I see Raif as an inspiration. 

He is facing a lot of misfortune for his free speech. His courage and determination is really something to be followed and respected. I see him as a new symbol of free speech not only in the Arab world but for all people all over the globe.

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.