“Withdraw FIR against journalist/cartoonist Swathi Vadlamudi”: NWMI

The Network of Women in the Media, India (NWMI), a forum for women media professionals across the country, strongly condemns the filing of an FIR against journalist and cartoonist Swathi Vadlamudi. The FIR, filed on 14 April at Saidabad police station in Hyderabad, under Section 295 (a) of the IPC (“deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage reli­gious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or reli­gious beliefs”), was filed by Hindu Sanghatan, an off-shoot group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an ultra-Hindu right group. 
Swathi cartoon The cartoon in question, published on Swathi’s social media pages (Twitter and Facebook) on 10 and 11 April, depicts the mythical Hindu gods, Ram and Sita, on the issue of abduction and violence against women in India. The message in the cartoon does not in any way insult Sita or Ram; instead it poses a question to the public. 

Besides the legal case, since 10 April Swathi has been on the receiving end of online abuse by Hindutva groups, where some users have threatened that she will meet the same fate as Gauri Lankesh and the murdered cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. The Hindu Sanghatan has also slapped charges against Times Now Chennai Deputy Editor Shabbir Ahmed who merely shared her cartoon on his Twitter profile. Another cartoonist, Satish Acharya, is also being targeted with abuse and even death threats.

At a time when there is widespread outrage regarding violence against women in India, Swathi’s cartoons highlighted how unsafe India has become for women. The cartoon, which has so far been shared over 8000 times on Facebook, besides receiving several thousand ‘likes,’ has clearly touched a chord among the Indian public which in the recent past has seen abductions, brutal gang-rapes and murders of women and children in different parts of the country, from Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir to Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, Surat in Gujarat and elsewhere.

Cartoons are among the oldest forms of expression and have been an integral part of the news media all over the world. Cartoons hold a mirror to the current world in a particularly effective manner that goes beyond what is captured by words (spoken or written), photographs or videos. In a vibrant democracy such an art and the artists who create it should be encouraged to thrive instead of being stifled by hate groups. 

The NWMI demands that the Hyderabad police immediately drop all charges against Swathi Vadlamudi, Shabbir and anyone else against whom cases are filed in this context. They must also initiate prompt action against those abusing and threatening Swathi Vadlamudi, Shabbir Ahmed, Satish Acharya and any others in connection with this matter. 

Law enforcers must not yield to bullying tactics by majoritarian groups that endanger free speech in the country by taking their claims of "hurt religious sentiments" and "offence" at face value. They need to act to safeguard Constitutionally protected free expression and to adopt a zero tolerance approach to death threats. 

The Editors’ Guild of India and Press Council of India must take suo moto notice of such legal and other attacks on media professionals, including and especially women (who are often targeted in particular, gender-related ways), and come out strongly in their support and defence.

April 16, 2018

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