India’s Speech Impediments By SUKETU MEHTA Published: February 5, 2013
INDIA is in the throes of what Salman Rushdie rightly calls a “cultural emergency.” Writers and artists of all kinds are being harassed, sued and arrested for what they say or write or create. The government either stands by and does nothing to protect freedom of speech, or it actively abets its suppression.
This year, the world’s largest democracy ranked a miserable 140th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index — falling nine places from last year. Today, Afghanistan and Qatar have a freer press than India.
In recent years, the government has cast a watchful eye on the Internet, demanding that companies like Google and Facebook prescreen content and remove items that might be deemed “disparaging” or “inflammatory,” according to technology industry executives there.
In November, police in Mumbai arrested a 21-year-old woman for complaining on Facebook about the shutdown of the city after the death of the nativist politician Bal K. Thackeray; another Facebook user was arrested for “liking” the first woman’s comment. The grounds for the arrests? “Hurting religious sentiments.”
Mr. Rushdie, who after the 1988 publication of “The Satanic Verses” became, to his chagrin, a human weather vane for the right to free speech, was to travel to Kolkata last week to attend a literary festival. At the last minute, he says, he was informed that the police in West Bengal would block his arrival. Local politicians chimed in to support the ban. “Rushdie never should have been invited,” an official in the party that rules the state told me. “Thirty percent of Bengali voters are Muslims.”
The organizers of the literary festival had held up Kolkata as the “cultural capital of India.” The notion that any cultural capital would try to silence speech — or punish artists who do speak out — is, of course, preposterous. But then, Kolkata is hardly alone.
At the other end of the country, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, a similar spectacle was unfolding. With 120,000 visitors in 2012, Jaipur’s bookfest is among the world’s largest, living proof of Indians’ hunger for literary voices. Or some voices. This year, local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which advocates Hindu nationalism, demanded that Pakistani writers be banned from the festival. (To their credit, festival organizers stood their ground, and several Pakistani authors did speak.)
Then, just after the festival leaders navigated this controversy, another sprang up. On a panel titled “Republic of Ideas,” the sociologist Ashis Nandy, perhaps the country’s most prominent public intellectual, offered a nuanced argument about the prevalence of corruption among the lower castes. The remarks, arguably, were no more provocative than an American professor’s saying that some early Irish and Italian immigrants joined corrupt political machines like Tammany Hall to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
And in any free society, it would be fair to debate the point. But in Jaipur, Mr. Nandy was charged with a crime under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
In India today, it seems, free speech is itself an atrocity.
A film, for example, might pass the Censor Board, but then be summarily banned by a state government. That’s what happened with “Vishwaroopam,” a Tamil spy thriller released worldwide — but not in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where officials prevented its screening, fearing that it might anger Muslims.
Next door, in Bangalore, the police demanded that an art gallery remove partially nude pictures of Hindu deities lest they hurt Hindu sentiments and cause mob violence.
Under the modern Indian Constitution, freedom of speech is highly qualified, subject to what the government deems “reasonable” restrictions. The state can silence its citizens for any number of reasons, including “public order,” “decency or morality” and “friendly relations with foreign states.”
India’s courts, meanwhile, do little to rein in government authorities. The country’s Supreme Court, in the end, did stay Mr. Nandy’s arrest, but it also reinforced the state’s position that he had “no license” to make such statements: “An idea can always hurt people,” the chief justice opined. “An idea can certainly be punished under the law.”
But India cannot hope to be a true cultural capital of the world — let alone a truly free society — until it firmly protects the right to speech. Without an unqualified constitutional amendment that guarantees this freedom, as the American Constitution’s First Amendment does, the country cannot fairly claim to be the “world’s largest democracy.”
Indians must understand that free speech — the right to think and exchange ideas freely — is at the core of the democracy they cherish. If the former is weak, the latter cannot help but be as well.