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Cartoonist G Bala gets bail after being arrested for cartoon on CM over usury deaths

S Murari | Updated on: 6 November 2017, 17:16 IST

G Balakrishnan, a political cartoonist whose indictment of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Tirunelveli district administration over their failure to save a coolie family from a loan shark, was arrested by the police on Sunday.

After being produced before a local magistrate in Tirunelveli on Monday, the cartoonist was granted bail in the defamation case.

Balakrishnan, who goes by the pen name G Bala, told reporters in court that he only did his duty in depicting the Chief Minister, the district collector and the district police chief caught with their pants down.

A tragic step

He said the cartoon reflected his outrage over the immolation of an entire family of coolie Isakkimuthu (27) in the district collectorate last month.

Isakkimuthu took the extreme step after repeated representation to the district collector about the torture by a loan shark evoked only a tepid response. He poured kerosene on his wife and two girls under five and set them afire before immolating himself. Though he had cleared his loan of Rs 2 lakh, the money lender had demanded an equal amount by way of interest.

The incident shocked the conscience of the people of Tamil Nadu. Palaniswami, in a belated action, directed the officials to strictly enforce the already existing state law prohibiting private money lenders from usurious rate of interest. The money lender, his wife and another were arrested only after the incident.

Unwarranted arrest?

Bala, a director at Live Media, had posted his cartoon on the Facebook. After his arrest, the cartoon went viral and many activists in the social media shared it with a vengeance, daring the government to take action .

The police arrested Bala on the basis of a compliant of criminal defamation filed by district collector Sandeep Nanduri to the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police (DGP). A case has been registered under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act and Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory). If convicted, it provides for upto two years simple imprisonment.

The local media extensively reported the event, but most politicians were busy with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one-day visit and the continuing rain in Chennai and elsewhere.

Only AIADMK rebel leader TTV Dinakaran condemned the arrest of Bala as a “black day for press freedom”. He charged the Palaniswami Government was stifling dissent from various quarters, he charged and said “vinas kale vibrathi buddhi”.

The Tamil Nadu chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said the arrest was meant to set a “chilling example” to critics. Its secretary Dr V Suresh said the Supreme Court had held in numerous case that arrest should be made only if a man was likely to flee from justice or intimidate or influence witnesses. None of these conditions applied to Bala’s case.

He said the district police could have simply summoned Bala for questioning in connection with the complaint.

Suresh said that instead of Bala, the police should have arrested the district collector ”who is solely responsible for mishandling the case of Isakkimuthu who approached him for help against usurious money lenders who were harassing him and his family which eventually led to his self-immolation along with his wife, daughter and an infant in the Tirunelveli Collectorate”.

He said the PUCL viewed with concern that the democratic space in Tamil Nadu ”is shrinking because of repressive measures taken by the Tamil Nadu Police and the government”.

He said there was a pattern in the repression unleashed against a variety of social activists protesting against corruption and anti-people state policies across the state.

Past precedents

This is not the first time that a cartoon has led to arrest of a journalist. In the late-1980s, when MGR was Chief Minister, the then Assembly Speaker PH Pandian got S Balasubramaniam, editor of reputed Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, arrested and imprisoned for a cover page cartoon which lampooned MLAs and Ministers as thugs,

He was arrested on a Friday evening, to prevent him from moving court for bail, and lodged in Madras Central jail. On Monday, Chief Minister MG Ramachandan using his executive power got Balasubramaniam released.

Balasubramaniam filed a defamation case against the Government in the Madras High Court and won the case. He demanded and got one rupee as damages . He framed the note in his house as a mark of token victory for freedom of expression.

During J Jayalalitha’s first stint as Chief Minister from 1991 to 96, over 180 defamation cases were filed against various publications. Simultaneously the Assembly Speaker using his power got Murosoli editor called to the bar of the House and reprimanded for breach of privilege. The Speaker also ordered the arrest of Illustrated Weekly’s local correspondent K P Sunil for alleged breach of privilege. Sunil got a stay from the Supreme Court. And the case was never pursued. Eventually, he ended up as a editor of Jaya TV.

In November 2003, when Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister for a second term, the Assembly sentenced the then Hindu Editor N Ram and four other senior journalists to 15 days imprisonment for an alleged breach of privilege. Police raided the offices of The Hindu to arrest Ram and the others, but they went underground.

Eventually Ram got relief from the Supreme Court. Since then, he has been advocating that criminal defamation is an affront to the freedom of the press.

First published: 6 November 2017, 17:16 IST