“If liberty is to mean anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”— George Orwell
Some years ago, I characterised our country as a “50-50 democracy”. India is largely democratic in some respects, such as free and fair elections and the free movement of people, but only partly democratic in other respects, such as the near-collapse of the criminal justice system, and the inability to eliminate large-scale political corruption.
One area in which the democratic deficit is substantial relates to freedom of expression. There are limits to what writers and artists and film-makers can and cannot do in this country. These limits to free speech have been analysed and deplored by scholars and activists, albeit mostly through a legal lens (as in Gautam Bhatia’s recent study, Offend, Shock, or Disturb). This essay, while beginning with the law, goes on to explore the wider sociological dimensions of the problem. It is not just imperfect laws, but the complex interplay of social forces, ideological biases, and political choices that inhibits freedom of expression in India.
So far as I know, the first thinker to make a persuasive case for the moral and political importance of free speech was Baruch Spinoza, writing in his Theological-Political Treatise, published in the year 1670. Here Spinoza said: “No one can transfer to another person his natural right, or ability, to think freely and make his own judgments about any matter whatsoever, and cannot be compelled to do so. That is why a government which seeks to control minds is considered oppressive…’ And he further observed: “A government which denies each person freedom to speak and to communicate what they think will be a very violent government, whereas a state where everyone is conceded this freedom will be moderate”.
This is persuasive, and still extremely relevant. But we must ask: Are there justifiable or reasonable limits to free speech? Or should people be allowed to say whatever they want? What about hate speech? What about admirers of Hitler in Germany? What about admirers of Nathuram Godse in India?
As it happens, Spinoza had considered these questions too. In his book of 1670 from which I have already quoted, he said that while a state must grant its citizens freedom of expression, “it is very dangerous for a State to concede free speech without any restriction. For this reason we must ask how this far this freedom can and ought to be granted to each person so as to be consistent with the stability of the State.” Spinoza thus recognised limits to the free expression of one’s views. For example, if a speech, book, painting or film might provoke or lead to large scale violence, bloodshed and anarchy, thereby threatening the survival or integrity of the State, perhaps it should not be allowed to circulate freely.
To Spinoza’s views about the limits to freedom of expression, let me juxtapose Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the subject. In 1910, while still in South Africa, Gandhi published his book Hind Swaraj. The original, Gujarati, edition of the book was published by the Phoenix Settlement in Natal. However, when someone sought to import the book into India, the Government of British India had the copies seized, After having Gandhi’s book translated into a language they could read (English), the Raj’s mandarins decided that it was “clearly seditious”, and therefore banned it.
When he heard of the ban, Gandhi wrote the Government a long letter, explaining that the tract was, among other things, a defence of non-violence. (The letter is not in Gandhi’s Collected Works; it lies in a file in the National Archives of India, to which I was directed by the historian SR Mehrotra). “In my humble opinion”, wrote Gandhi here, “every man has a right to hold any opinion he chooses, and to give effect to it also, so long as, in doing so, he does not use physical violence against anybody.”
I think that these remarks, amended slightly, can serve as a useful definition of what limits a democratic State can or should place on freedom of expression. One should go beyond Gandhi’s gendered language, clarify that by “use” he perhaps also meant “advocate”, and therefore say: “Every man or woman has the right to hold any opinion she or he chooses and to give effect to it also, so long as, in doing so, she or he does not use or advocate physical violence against anybody.”
This caveat in place, let me now analyse what I regard as the eight major threats to freedom of expression in contemporary India.
The first threat is the retention of archaic colonial laws.
There are several sections in the Indian Penal Code that are widely used (and abused) to ban works of art, films, and books. These include Section 153 (“Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot”); Section 153A (“Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”); Section 295 (“Injuring or defiling [a] place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class”); Section 295A (“Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”); Section 298 (“Uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person”); Sections 499 and 500, which make defamation or harming another person’s “reputation” a criminal offence; Section 505 (“Statements conducing to public mischief”); and most, dangerously, Section 124A, the so-called sedition clause (“Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”).
These sections give the courts and the State itself, an extraordinarily wide latitude in placing limits to the freedom of expression. Ironically, the Penal Code of which these sections are a part was originally drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay was also the man who promoted English language education in India.
Left-wing patriots dislike Macaulay because he was an Imperialist, while right-wing patriots detest him because, while promoting English, he brimmed with contempt for indigenous intellectual and literary traditions. Hindutva ideologues have even coined a phrase, “Macaulay putra” to describe those intellectuals, cosmopolitan from one vantage point if deracinated from another, who write largely in English and are open to Western ideas and influences.
The Indian Left and the Indian Right both profess to dislike Thomas Babington Macaulay. And yet the Penal Code drafted by Macaulay has been enthusiastically used by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party to suppress freedom of expression when these parties are in power in the States, and, in the case of the BJP, when in power in the Centre as well.
These IPC sections have, of course, been extensively resorted to by Governments run by the Congress Party too. The Congress claims to revere Mahatma Gandhi; and Gandhi was a life-long Congressman himself. One should remind the Congress of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi that the asli or greater Gandhi was himself often a victim of the sedition clause in the IPC. I’ve spoken of how his book Hind Swaraj was banned in 1910. Twelve years later, after he had returned to India, Gandhi was arrested after the non-co-operation movement he had initiated generated massive popular support. This unnerved the British, who decided to prosecute and imprison Gandhi, basing their case on articles he had published in his journal Young India, these deemed “seditious” under Section 124A of the IPC.
Gandhi was not the first (nor would he be the last) nationalist prosecuted and jailed by the British Raj for writing articles critical of state policy. Gandhi hoped that these laws, which had no space in a democratic and free government, would be removed after Independence. In 1929, he wrote a stirring editorial in his magazine Young India calling for a countrywide agitation demanding the repeal of Section 124A.
The Section, said Gandhi, constituted “a rape of the word ‘law’”; it “hung over our heads” whether “we are feasting or fasting”. Section 124A was “established by the naked sword, kept ready to descend upon us at the will of the arbitrary rulers in whose appointment the people have no say.” The “repeal of that Section and the like”, remarked Gandhi, “means repeal of the existing system of government which means attainment of swaraj. Therefore the force required really to repeal that Section is the force required for the attainment of swaraj.”
Tragically, after India became independent in August 1947, instead of doing away with Section 124A and the like, we have retained and even strengthened them. This may have happened in any case, as many States like laws that give them residual powers to suppress dissent. But two events soon after Independence added to the insecurities of the Indian State. The first was the murder of Gandhi on 30th January by a fanatic acting ostensibly on his own, but in fact part of a wider political movement to make India a Hindu Pakistan. Six weeks later, at a secret conclave in Calcutta, the Communist Party of India called for an armed war against the Indian State. Thus, the newly born Government of free India was threatened by right-wing extremism as well as by left-wing extremism. Adding to the worries was scarcity of food, the challenge of settling millions of Partition refugees, and the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir.
How would the Centre hold? This was the question faced by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; the Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel; and the Law Minister, Dr BR Ambedkar. Seeking to buttress a fragile Centre against the violent extremists of Left and Right, the Government now banned Organiser, the weekly mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, as well as a Communist journal called Crossroads. The editors of these journals appealed to the Courts, who struck down the ban saying free expression must be maintained. Nehru, Patel, and Ambedkar then introduced what became the First Amendment to the Constitution of India.
Article 19(2) of the Constitution, as originally drafted and passed, had stated that the State could make laws restricting freedom of expression where the exercise of such freedom “offends against decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.” The first Amendment expanded the areas where the State could intervene to restrict freedom of expression. The revised Article 19(2) thus stated that the State could make laws restricting freedom of expression “in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, [and] decency or morality…”.
The new clauses introduced by the first Amendement were “friendly relations with foreign States” and “public order”. The second clause especially was capable of very flexible interpretation, since, if any book or film or work of art now offended a few people and they protested on the streets, it could constitute a threat to “public order”. The original Article of the Constitution would have most likely rendered infructuous Sections 153, 153A, 295, 295A, 499, 500, and 505, since “public mischief”, “outraging religious feelings”, “wantonly giving provocation”, “defaming reputations”, etc., do not constitute a threat to the State itself. But they can, in the eyes of a conservative judge or judiciary, be construed as constituting a threat to “public order”.
Nehru, Patel, and Ambedkar were acting under great duress, taking extraordinary measures at a time when the very survival of an independent India was at stake. Yet that First Amendment was not, in retrospect, conducive to the freedom of expression in India. For it reintroduced the power of the colonial laws which the Constitution had tried to remove or supersede. The amendment allowed the Government of independent India much leeway in suppressing dissent and criticism, but the Courts little leeway in protecting it.
Colonial laws have been used (and abused) to stifle freedom of expression in our post-colonial, professedly democratic, era. Meanwhile independent India has added some restictive laws of its own. Apart from the First Amendement, consider “The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971”, by which anyone who embroiders the national flag on a cushion, or allows it to “touch the ground or the floor or trail in water”, can be imprisoned for as long as three years. Those who prevent the singing of the National Anthem attract similar penalties. A more recent example of such inhibiting legislation is Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2008, under which those merely expressing their (non-violent) political opinions were liable to imprisonment. (This Section was quashed by the Supreme Court in May 2015, but not before it had been used to haul several artists and writers off to jail.) The first threat to freedom of expression in India, therefore, is constituted by laws often archaic in origin and profoundly anti-democratic in intent.
The second threat is constituted by imperfections in our judicial system.
Our lower courts in particular are too quick and too eager to entertain petitions seeking bans on individual films, books, or works of art. These petitions tend to be frivolous, or without substance, or politically motivated, and in perhaps 99.9% of the cases should be thrown out. But they often are not. Why? One reason may be that, like writers, actors, politicians and sportsmen, judges too like their names appearing in the newspapers. But there may be other, and darker, considerations, these relating to material interest and/or ideological intolerance.
High Courts and Supreme Courts are sometimes more sympathetic to the rights of writers and artists. However, when a ban or stay is put in place by a lower court, it may, because of the sluggishness of the judicial process, take years or even decades to be overturned. Few artists or publishers have the means or the stamina to carry on their battle for so long. Often they simply cave in. Malevolent petitioners, working in tandem with ignorant or publicity seeking judges, are therefore a serious threat to the freedom of expression in India.
A third threat is the rise and rise and further rise of identity politics.
The life of a book or a work of art or a film has become increasingly captive to the ease with which a community, any community at all, can complain that its sentiments, any sentiments, are hurt or offended by it. Back in the early 1990s, at the time of the Mandal and Ayodhya agitations, the first representing the politics of caste identity and the second the politics of religious identity, the historian Dharma Kumar remarked to me that “we have become a nation of grievance collectors.” In fact, we Indians don’t merely collect grievances, we also articulate them and impose them on others, thus throttling free expression.
Since the days of the Mandal and Ayodhya agitations, the influence of identity politics has massively increased. This has impacted Indian society in complex ways, some beneficial, as in the bringing back to centre-stage important figures from our past who were previously neglected by scholars. However, the impact of identity politics on freedom of expression has been uniformly negative. The icons of each region, caste or community have, in the eyes of their celebrants or worshippers, become flawless, beyond all criticism.
A defining moment in this regard was the banning of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in 1988. Complaints by clerics sparked street protests by those who had never seen and would never read the book, leading to a panic reaction by the Government of India. The Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was professedly a modern-minded man, but he was weak and badly advised. A General Election was around the corner, and (like many Congress leaders before or since) he over-estimated the influence of clerics on how ordinary Muslims vote in India. In a shattering blow to its democratic credentials, the Government of India banned the book, even before Iran did so.
Far from cooling tempers, the ban on The Satanic Verses only emboldened leaders and fanatics of other sects and religions. They would henceforth rise to protest any criticism, however subtle or scholarly, of their own icons. A Delhi writer who made some critical remarks about Rabindranath Tagore was censured by the West Bengal Assembly. Another writer from Delhi was roughed up after he wrote a critical book on Ambedkar. An American scholar who retold, without endorsing them, some old stories about Shivaji’s parentage found his book banned and burnt, and himself effectively barred from returning to India.
In India today, we imagine our heroes to be absolutely perfect. I wonder if this was always so. Yudhishtra and Rama were capable of deceit and deviant behavior – and our ancestors were not surprised or angered to know this. But now Bengalis shall be enraged at even the mildest criticisms of Subhash Chandra Bose, Tamils at the mildest criticisms of Periyar, Maharashtrians at the mildest criticisms of Shivaji, Dalits at the mildest criticisms of Ambedkar, Hindutva-wadis at the mildest criticism of Savarkar, and so on.
Bose, Savarkar, Periyar, Ambedkar, and Shivaji were all remarkable figures, to understand whose significance one needs many books, films, and plays about them. But where are the writers and scholars and playwrights who can write fearlessly about these leaders, juxtaposing their achievements with their failures, contrasting their qualities of courage and character with their angularities and their prejudices?
Strangely, Gandhi is today the only great Indian, great or controversial Indian of the last thousand years (or more), about whom anyone can write as critically as they want without threat to their life or work. For, unlike Bose, Ambedkar, Shivaji or Periyar, Gandhi belongs to everyone and to no one. There is no angry, aggressive, insecure, thin-skinned sect that protects or is protective about Gandhi.
Even those who seek, instrumentally, to “protect” Gandhi from criticism generally fail. In 2011, the American writer Joseph Lelyveld wrote a book that speculated Gandhi had been in a homosexual relationship in South Africa. Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, and seeking a national platform, banned the book in his state, hoping to present himself as a defender of the Mahatma. The Congress Government at the Centre, purely out of a sense of one-upmanship, now contemplated a countrywide ban.
However, the Mahatma’s own grandsons, the biographer Rajmohan Gandhi and the diplomat and civil servant Gopalkrishna Gandhi, intervened to allow the book to circulate in all of India, except in Gujarat. They argued that a ban would be contrary to the spirit of Gandhi, who always welcomed argument and debate; it would also call into question India’s democratic credentials. Sadly, this principled commitment to free expression is not shared by those who are the biological or ideological descendants of other major figures in Indian history.
In a multi-religious society with a history of sectarian violence, perhaps artists and writers ought to show some sensitivity in depicting or describing religious icons such as Krishna, Mohammed, Christ or Guru Nanak. But when one cannot honestly discuss the lives and legacies of real historical figures, it does not bode well for the health of our democracy.
Let me return to the definition of freedom of expression introduced at the beginning of the essay. I had, adapting what Gandhi said when his book Hind Swaraj was banned under the Raj, suggested that in any self-respecting democracy, “Every man or woman has the right to hold any opinion he or she chooses and to give effect to it so long as in doing so she or he does not use or advocate physical violence against anybody.” By these standards, Indian democracy fails the test.
Indian courts, and Indian governments, are too ready to – on their own, or at the instance of agitators – have books, films, or paintings banned or withdrawn from circulation even when these do not, in any way, advocate or endorse the use of physical violence. These works might have displeased some people, but that is all. In any mature democracy, the answer to a book whose arguments one does not like should surely be another book. A film whose theme or tenor one may not approve of can easily be boycotted. But, in a mark of how far we are from being a mature democracy in this regard, groups taking offence at artistic or literary works resort to thuggish methods to (often successfully) coerce the state or courts to have them banned or withdrawn. Thus our definition is turned on its head; in India, even when violence is not advocated or used by the author or artist, violence is used or threatened by those seeking to suppress his or her voice.
Indians are increasingly touchy, thin-skinned, intolerant, and, I must add, humourless. Historically, Hinduism had no notion of blasphemy. Unlike in Islam or Christianity one was not deemed a heretic (or worse) if one said sarcastic things about one’s idols. But that has now changed. Hindus have become more like Muslims and Christians in this regard. So have the Sikhs and the Jains.
In our humourless times I often think of a satirist I grew up reading, a Bombay Parsi named Behram Contractor, better known by his pen-name Busybee. He wrote a sparkling column, first in the Times of India, then in Midday, and finally in the Afternoon Dispatch and Courier. After he died, his widow Farzana published several books of his columns, to which I go back again and again. Busybee was a magnificent satirist, who liked poking fun at life, the world, and, not least, his fellow Parsis.
It may be that the only Indians still willing to laugh at themselves are the Parsis. I recently heard a lovely story from Farokh Dhondy, a Parsi writer raised in Puné, who in turn heard it from the Pakistani Parsi writer Bapsi Sidhwa. Someone asked Sidhwa, “Why are there so few Parsis, why aren’t you breeding more, having more children, you are dying as a race, what’s the problem?” She answered, “It’s all the fault of the Parsi men. Half our men are homosexual, and the other half are statues in Bombay.”
Could I, as a Tamil and a Hindu, tell a joke half as wicked about Tamils or Hindus and not be scolded for letting down the community? I somehow think not. The rise of humourlessness is the other side of the rise of identity politics. And without humour there cannot be great literature.
The fourth threat to freedom of expression in India is the behavior of the police force.
Even when courts take the side of writers and artists, the police generally side with the goondas who harass them. In the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji, even after the Bombay High Court struck down the Maharashtra Government’s ban, when the publisher approached the state police for protection they refused to give it. And in Ahmedabad, an artistic collaboration between the distinguished architect Balkrishna Doshi and the great painter Maqbool Fida Hussain, known as the Hussain Doshi Gufa, was vandalised by Bajranj Dal goons with the Gujarat police looking on.
The fifth threat to freedom of expression is the pusillanimity or more often the mendacity of politicians.
Indeed, no major or minor Indian politician, as well as no major or minor Indian political party, has ever supported writers, artists or film-makers against thugs and bigots. I have already mentioned how Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Government banned Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against it. In West Bengal, the (well-educated and professedly literature-loving) Communist Chief Ministers Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had Taslima Nasrin’s novels banned, and even had the author externed from the state.
The record of the BJP is no better. The vandalism of the Hussain Doshi Gufa happened when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat. While he was in that post, Hindutva activists effectively destroyed the country’s best art department, at the Maharaji Saiyajirao University in Baroda, where many of India’s greatest artists had either studied or taught. Moving on to the leaders of regional parties, neither Jayalalithaa nor M Karunanidhi did anything to protect the novelist Perumal Murugan when he was coerced by a group of caste vigilantes in Tamil Nadu to stop writing altogether.
In acting (or nor acting) as they do, these politicians are motivated largely by electoral considerations. They do not wish to offend, or be seen to be offending, a particular caste, sect, or religious group, lest they vote against them in the next election. In almost all cases, the politicians over-estimate the influence over their caste or community that the vandals attacking writers and artists profess to have. But since the politicians have little interest in artistic or literary freedom in any case, they’d rather not risk even a small number of potential voters being put off.
In 2006 MF Hussain was forced into exile by a slew of court cases filed against him by Hindutva extremists in different parts of India. In 2009, and again in 2010, it was suggested to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Hussain be awarded the Bharat Ratna, and Salman Rushdie (then barred from speaking in India for fear of offending the mullahs) be awarded the Padma Vibhushan. This would have been a just and proper recognition of their artistic achievements. At the same time, it would have been a rebuff to Hindu as well as Muslim bigots, and a blow in favour of freedom of expression. Who could have protested?
Dr Manmohan Singh understood the merit of the proposal, but lacked the courage to implement it. In 2011 Hussain died in Qatar. Thus ended one of the most shameful episodes in our history as a Republic, whereby our greatest living painter was exiled from his homeland merely because the government of the day chose not to protect him.
Indian politicians of all parties and ideologies bow down before bigots. They also sometimes use state power to bully editors and journalists. The power of politicians to throttle free expression is facilitated by an anomaly in Indian law, whereby industrialists who have business interests in other spheres are allowed to run media organisations. Thus, if a certain newspaper runs a series of adverse stories on a politician or party, and the proprietor of the paper also owns a chemical plant or a steel mill, the Industries Minister might ring him and remind him that his licence is up for renewal. These threats, not always subtle, act as a deterrent to the freedom of expression in India.
A sixth threat to freedom of expression is constituted by the dependence of the media on government advertisements.
This is especially acute in the regional and sub-regional press. For example, a Kannada paper published out of Dharwad would depend heavily on revenue from the Karnataka Government’s advertisements for tenders, jobs, and various development schemes. It is therefore unlikely that this newspaper will be fearless in its criticism of the state government’s failures.
The threats to independent reporting are particularly severe in remote parts of the country, far from the reach and of the so-called “national” media. Back in 1988, when I was doing research in Uttarakhand, a brave journalist named Umesh Dobhal was murdered by the liquor mafia, the closeness of whose connections to the political class forestalled an investigation into his killing. More recently, in the Bastar area of Chattisgarh, the State Government arrested some journalists and forced some others to leave, to forestall their reporting on the dark side of the civil war underway between Maoists and vigilante armies promoted by the state.
Uttarakhand and Bastar are regions I have a longstanding interest in. In fact, attacks like these happen in all parts of the country. India was recently ranked 133 out of 180 countries in a global “freedom of the press index”, higher than Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Russia (if that, though it should not, provides any consolation), but lower than Nepal.
The state and political parties can, and do, coerce, suppress, or put barriers in the way of independent reporters and reportage. So can the private sector, using material rather than punitive force.
Thus a seventh threat to freedom of expression is constituted by the dependence of media on commercial advertisements.
This is especially pertinent in the case of English-language newspapers and television channels that cater to the affluent middle-class. Companies that make products that have damaging side-effects are rarely criticised for fear that they will stop providing ads. Indeed, several major industrial houses (including even the Tatas) have pulled ads from magazines or channels when they have run stories critical of their companies.
In a field I know well, environmental journalism, this form of media self-censorship operates extensively. Chemical factories, paper mills, mining companies and automobile companies all contribute massively to environmental degradation; all are at the same time major advertisers in newspapers and television channels. When presented with evidence of environmental abuse by large advertisers, media proprietors – and sometimes editors too – tend to prefer suppression over exposure. Back in the 1980s, every major Indian newspaper had an environmental correspondent. Now, when consumerism is all the rage, they have either been laid off or assigned to other, tamer, beats.
To be sure, a free press cannot be sustained without commercial support from advertisers. Nowhere was the press more unfree than in Communist states such as the Soviet Union, where it was said of the two main newspapers (whose Russian names translate as ‘Truth’ and ‘News’ respectively) that there was no Pravda in Izvestia, and no Izvestia in Pravda. However, unlike in Western Europe or the United States, in India a few large industrial houses command a disproportionate share of the advertising market, and can thus exercise disproportionate pressure on proprietors and editors, who in turn are more likely to bend compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world.
A bizarre manifestation of commercial interest distorting media behaviour in India is that television channels sometimes actively encourage attacks on writers and artists. When informed of the impending vandalising of a journalist’s home or an art exhibition by thugs who claim to be “offended”, some TV channels, instead of alerting the police, instead seek “exclusive”, “live”, coverage of such lawless attacks.
I come now to my eight and final threat to freedom of expression. This is constituted by careerist or ideologically driven writers.
To be sure, most writers and artists have strong opinions on politics and society. That is why we write, that is why we paint, that is why we make films, that is why we write plays. But no creative person should be so foolish or mistaken as to mortgage his or her independence, his or her conscience, to a political party.
In India, tragically, too many writers, scholars, artists and editors identify with a single party or even with a single politician, this association leading to the suppressing of facts or the twisting of opinions. This betrayal – a harsh word that seems entirely justified here – occurs all across the spectrum. They are writers and artists who are propagandists for the Bharatiya Janata Party, writers and artists who are apologists for the Congress, writers and artists who are spokesmen for the CPI(M), writers and artists who are useful idiots for the Maoists.
Sometimes the suppression of truth takes place because of ideological bias, whereby the party’s interests are deemed by the writer to be more important than the truth. Sometimes the suppression of truth is caused by plain corruption, by writers or editors seeking plots of land, or Rajya Sabha seats, or preferential government accommodation, or ambassadorships.
Party affiliations also lead to selective outrage, whereby writers and artists focus on some threats to freedom of expression while ignoring others. The left-wing group SAHMAT campaigned vigorously on MF Hussain’s behalf, but stayed strangely silent on the treatment of Taslima Nasrin by the Left Front Governments in West Bengal. Indian Marxists so vocal about freedom of expression in their country say nothing about the far more savage persecution of writers in China and Cuba. On the other side, writers affiliated to the BJP take up the case of Salman Rushdie, since he is persecuted by Muslim fundamentalists, while euphemising or ignoring the attacks on writers and film-makers by Hindutva extremists.
The situation is made more difficult by the fact that, unlike in Western democracies, India lacks co-operative bodies that would effectively defend the rights and freedoms of their members. The Press Council of India and the Editors Guild of India are toothless. Nor is there an all-India association of film-makers that could, or would be willing to, fight censorship on a sustained basis. There is no Indian equivalent of the Academie Francaise or the British Academy to support and sustain intellectuals under threat. Too often, it is each to his (or her) own, the individual writer or artist or scholar or film-maker or journalist left to fend for himself or herself in the face of threats to his or her freedom of expression.
I have outlined eight threats to freedom of expression in India: outdated laws, imperfections in our judicial system, the rise of identity politics, the complicity of the police, the pusillanimity of the political class, the dependence of the media on government advertisements, the dependence of the media on commercial advertisements, and, finally, ideologically driven or careerist writers, editors, artists and film-makers. These eight threats eat away at the moral and institutional foundations of Indian democracy. To be sure, our writers, artists and film-makers enjoy greater freedom than their counterparts in semi-totalitarian countries like China or Russia. Yet, they are distinctly unfree when compared to their counterparts in thoroughbred democracies such as Sweden or Canada.
After the BJP Government came to power in 2014, there was some talk of rising intolerance, of attacks on writers and artists. However, neither Congress, nor the Left, and certainly not any of the regional parties, have actively promoted freedom of expression when they have held the reins of state. There has been no golden age of artistic or intellectual freedom in India. Nehru and Ambedkar, aided by Patel, passed an amendment restricting free speech, admittedly under the force of circumstances. But why wasn’t the amendment withdrawn after Indian unity had been guaranteed and a multi-party democracy established? Meanwhile, one Congress Prime Minister imposed the Emergency, a second banned The Satanic Verses, a third could not make our greatest artist safe enough to live (and die) in his own country.
It is likely that the BJP and the RSS would not have worked to actively protect freedom of expression in any case. But the crimes of the Congress (and the Left) make it easier for them to commit crimes of their own.
That said, the situation may indeed be somewhat worse than previously. For the present Government at the Centre is, without question, the most anti-intellectual Government India has ever seen. The appointments it has made, at the Indian Council for Historical Research, the Film and Television Institute of India, and the Censor Board, for example, display an absolute contempt for scholarship, literature, and the arts. This philistinism is deeply ingrained in the Government and in its top leadership. The Prime Minister himself does not think intellectuals, writers and artists contribute much to society, and this hostility to independent thinking and thinkers goes right down the line.
In the past, some writers had their books burnt, some filmmakers had their films censored, some artists had their paintings vandalised. But now, perhaps for the first time in our history as an independent nation, serious, well-respected, writers are murdered, physically eliminated for their views. In the last few years we have seen three such assassinations, those of Narendra Dabholkar in Maharashtra, of Govind Pansare also in Maharashtra, and of MM Kalburgi in Karnataka.
It may be no accident that these writers all wrote in their mother tongue. I may be tempting fate here, but it is my view that established Indian writers in English are relatively safe in this country, protected by their international reputations and the visibility they get in the media. It may also be that, since they speak to a narrow elite, writers in English constitute a lesser threat to radical or fundamentalist forces.
The political context of each of the three assassinations I have mentioned was different. Dabholkar was murdered when the Congress was in power both in Delhi and in Maharashtra. Pansare was murdered when the BJP was in power both in Maharashtra and the Centre. Kalburgi was murdered when the BJP was in power in the Centre and the Congress was in power in the State. But there was one chilling similarity.
All three were murdered because of their atheistic and rationalist views, their critical and skeptical understanding of the Hindu tradition. Almost certainly, all three were murdered by Hindu fundamentalists, thus making India a tragic mirror of Bangladesh, where atheists, secularists, Christians and Hindus are murdered by Islamic fundamentalists.
Is India still a 50-50 democracy, as I characterised it a decade ago? Societies and nations rarely, if ever, move in a linear fashion. There is progress in one sphere, regression in another. Compared to ten or twenty years ago, there is more freedom for young (especially urban) Indians as regards their profession, and their choice of marriage partners. Although caste and gender hierarchies still substantially exist, the ideologies that seek to justify them have noticeably lost influence. On the other hand, writers, artists and film-makers are probably less free, more vulnerable, than they have been at any time since the Emergency of 1975-7.
This essay is reprinted with the permission of the author from his book Democrats and Dissenters, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2016.