Shut Up India!: Free Speech is Failing in the World's Largest Democracy

Bahujan Samaj Party activists burn a poster of Bollywood film "Aarakshan," or "Reservation," during a protest against the fil
Bahujan Samaj Party activists burn a poster of Bollywood film "Aarakshan," or "Reservation," during a protest against the film in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. The protestors say the film speaks against India's affirmative action program that reserves education seats and jobs for the country's indigenous peoples and its dalits, or untouchables, who have no caste and have suffered centuries of severe discrimination, and members of other lower castes. 3 Indian states have banned the movie, slated to be released Friday, following apprehensions that certain scenes and dialogues may trigger trouble, according to a news agency. (AP Photo)

Amartya Sen's "Argumentative Indians" are increasingly losing their right to delight in vociferous debate, thanks to a series of new bans on books, movies, TV serials, artworks and even Facebook posts.

This perilous dip in tolerance and freedom of speech in the world's largest democracy is mostly driven by powerful vested interests intent on squelching voices that challenge their privilege, privacy and politics. But troublingly, this is being virtually ignored by many citizens and much of the media, underlining how the modern liberalism that underpins India's constitution is still undermined by feudal mindsets.

At the center of the latest firefights over free speech stand two women, Wendy Doniger and Taslima Nasreen. Both are polar opposites, one a Jewish-American academic, the other a South Asian Muslim author-activist. Their work has also riled parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the self-proclaimed 'Hindu right' and ultra-conservative Muslims. But the manner in which both groups have used intimidation and India's pliant free speech laws to silence Doniger and Nasreen is emblematic of how easily those who speak out are being shut up in today's India.

Doniger is the noted, if eccentric, professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago and appears to enjoy shocking people with sexual interpretations of revered texts. Since 2009, she has faced vilification and dodged eggs hurled at her by angry readers for her book, "The Hindus, An Alternative History." The book's application of Freudian psychoanalysis of revered Indian deities and myths has proved too avant-garde for traditionalists. Doniger's view that the elephant-headed god Ganesha's trunk really represents a limp penis -- and other such opinions -- sent many devotees into convulsions. They slammed Doniger as a debauched woman and filed a lawsuit seeking to ban her book in India. But even before the courts could rule, Doniger's local publisher, Penguin Books India, agreed to pulp all copies of "The Hindus," effectively barring its sale in India. For Nasreen, the Bangladeshi doctor turned writer now living in exile in India, the blowback for her "heresies" was even more bizarre. Her upcoming Bengali TV serial, "Dusahobas" (roughly translated as "Our Difficult Lives") deals with gender issues like dowry, forced marriage, rape and prostitution. But orthodox Muslim clerics called for "Dusahobas" to be banned even before seeing it and for no specific reason.

"(Nasreen's) writings routinely seek to ridicule Islam and vilify our revered Prophet Muhammad. In this serial, she might come up with something to show Islam in bad light again," is how Syed Mohammad Noorur Rahman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque in the Indian city of Kolkata, put it.

Disturbingly, there has been relatively little press coverage of what are essentially quasi-legal, private bans of Nasreen's and Doniger's work. There has also been very little public outcry and virtually no tangible challenge to them. Legally, there is nothing stopping a TV channel from airing Nasreen's serial. But none will. Though the literary cognoscenti are furiously emailing each other online links where one can download "The Hindus," no other publisher has agreed to pick up Doniger's book. Indeed, another book, "The Descent of Air India" by Jitender Bhargava, a tell-all tale on the allegedly massive corruption in India's national carrier, was also recently withdrawn by its publisher Bloomsbury. This after India's former aviation minister, Praful Patel, who is widely seen as the man who destroyed the airline, claimed the book defamed him.

Both Bloomsburg and Penguin are facing criticism for becoming their own judges and not waiting for the courts to rule against their authors. But in their defense, the publishers say Indian law does not make it possible for them to defend free speech as stoutly as they'd like. For one, India, despite its new self-image as a nation of the future, still uses a penal code dating back to 1862. In keeping with the straitjacketed mores of that Victorian era and the political necessity of stifling dissent in a then colonial country, it contains several sections that make it easy to restrict personal freedoms. Section 377 has been most in the news lately for its criminalization of gay sex. But Sections 153A, 298 and 295A are equally obtuse in giving judges great leeway in curtailing free speech.

Journalist Tamal Bandyopadhyay found out how easy it is to get muzzled in India when he wrote "Sahara: The Untold Story," an exposé on a business group of the same name. Though India's Supreme Court has expressly banned prior restraint and has found Sahara guilty of a $5 billion fraud, the Calcutta High Court has stayed the book's release and admitted a $30 million defamation suit against Bandyopadhyay.

Gags against writers like Doniger and Nasreen, who wade into sensitive religious domains, are even easier to get. For example, Section 295A of the Indian penal code vaguely states that any "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. . .shall be punished with imprisonment. . .for a term which may extend to three years."

Of course, the operative word here is "intended." But in both Doniger's and Nasreen's cases, that is exactly the inflammable claim their detractors make.

After the release and banning of Nasreen's 1993 book, "Lajja," ("Shame"), a raw and moving narrative about a Hindu family's persecution by Muslims, conservative Muslim clerics called Nasreen an "apostate" being paid by anti-Islamic forces to defame the faith. Such denouncements help orthodox clerics establish their credentials with local followers and foreign funders -- mostly Middle Eastern --, and Nasreen has become a favored target with them. Her calls to abolish Sharia law have even led Tauqeer Raza Khan, an ultra-conservative Muslim leader in northern India, to call for her to be beheaded and her murderer rewarded. Logically, Khan should have been immediately booked under 295A (and other criminal laws), but he's roaming free while Nasreen's books and serials are banned.

Doniger is as pernicious a force as Nasreen to the nationalist 'Hindu right.' Rajiv Malhotra, a New Jersey-based businessman turned ideologue, claims Doniger is part of a western plot to destroy Hinduism. In the paranoid worldview of Malhotra and his followers, people like Doniger are agents used by a sinister cabal of Western intelligence agencies, Christian evangelists, Communist China, and Islamists to destroy Hinduism and dismember India.

Such views find easy resonance with credulous Indians still reconciling a modern history replete with colonization, partition, border wars with China and Pakistan, failed socialism, secessionist threats, spiraling westernization and the rise of Islamic terror. The case filed against Doniger by Dinanath Batra, a self-described protector of Hinduism, states "The Hindus" was written with "Christian missionary zeal and the hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus." In the withdrawal settlement Penguin finally signed with him, Batra actually forced the publisher to affirm that it respected all world religions.

Such capitulation stems from the fear Indian publishers have of standing up to zealots and the politicians that back them. Bookstores, corporate offices, theaters and TV channels have been wantonly attacked by mobs when they have resisted demands to silence certain voices. Protection from the police has been half-hearted, at best.

In 2012, Salman Rushdie was forced to turn down an invitation to speak at a literature fair in Jaipur after local Islamist groups threatened to kill him and attack the festival. When a Bollywood film, "My Name is Khan," became a cause célèbre for a jingoistic regional party in Mumbai, its supporters stoned and ransacked several theaters. Widespread protests against films "Aarakshan," "Shudra" and "Papilio Buddha" that dealt with sensitive caste issues threatened to get so violent the films were banned in some states. In 2006, Christian groups forced EMI Music India to withdraw heavy metal band Slayer's album "Christ Illusion" and got the film "The Da Vinci Code" banned in the state of Goa. In all, some 55 films have faced violent protests and bans in India, and numerous more books have been banned, censored or withdrawn.

Ironically, these different chauvinist groups claim to loathe each others' extremism. But they have no qualms about imitating each others' intolerance and then justifying their calls for bans by pointing to each other, the classic trap of becoming one's enemy.

"If someone makes a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, Muslims are outraged around the world. So why should anyone write anything against Hinduism and get away with it?" Batra told Time magazine.

Even truth is not a defense against India's book-banning zealots. V.S. Naipaul's "An Area of Darkness" was banned in India simply because it was deemed too critical of India. Books such as Colin Maine's "The Dead Hand of Islam," Arvind Ghosh's "The Koran and the Kafir" and R.M. Eaton's "Sufis of Bijapur" have also been effectively banned simply because they highlighted aspects of Islam that are more than discriminatory toward other communities. So it is no surprise that even the truisms in Doniger's book are being blasted.

"The Hindus" states that ancient Indic texts were written at a time of great sexual openness in India. This is visibly true given the explicit carvings that adorn many Indian temples. It was only later Hindu conservatism, coupled with Islamic and Christian puritanism, which turned Indians into prudes. But the 'Hindu right' espouses a contorted interpretation of Indic civilization that reduces the profound pluralism of India's ancient scripture and mythology to terrifying banalities. It hates anyone who counters its pedantic view of Hinduism. So Batra simply dismisses Doniger's writing on ancient India's sexualism as the ravings of a "woman hungry for sex." Again, while this is worthy of defamation, it is Batra and his followers who freely insult, ridicule and defame Doniger while she is gagged. In their defense they say, "she started it."

Clearly, such petty egotism is a huge reason behind the backlash to many books and films. Often demands for bans are not driven so much by what books say as by the petulance those in power feel at being defied by petty writers. Possessing real power is sometimes less important than giving the impression one has it, as the saying goes. So in a country where a power is often measured by an ability to break the law with impunity, it becomes essential for the powerful to punish those who have the temerity to openly challenge them as if they were ordinary people.

This is an old tradition in India. In 1959, prickly bureaucrats banned Alexander Campbell's "The Heart of India" simply because of its side-splitting take on their pettiness and sloth. Stanley Wolpert's "Nine Hours to Rama" was banned in 1962 because police officers were enraged by the obvious suggestion that security lapses led to Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. In Chennai, the film "Thalaivaa" was briefly banned and cinemas screening it received bomb threats because of a dispute between the film's director and a local politician. In 1983, Indira Gandhi forced Salman Rushdie to remove a sentence from "Midnight's Children" that implied she was responsible for her husband's death. Fast-forward to 2013 and Javier Moro's "Red Saree," a "fictionalized biography" of Congress Party leader and Indira's daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, has been banned for saying Gandhi considered leaving India after her husband Rajiv was assassinated in 1991.

Such unchanging hypersensitivity has made Indian politicians particularly allergic to the freewheeling conversations online and on social media. So they have moved fast to muzzle them. In 2008, Indian parliament introduced Section 66A into the Information and Technology Act, which gives even junior policemen the right to arrest "any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device, any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character. . .or any electronic message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience."

The deliberate vagueness of Section 66A has been decried by activists and defended by the government on grounds that it is needed to control terrorism. But so far, Section 66A has only been used to harass and intimidate online users venting their ire at politicians.

In Mumbai, two girls were arrested for a Facebook post that asked why their city was virtually shut down for the funeral of a regional leader named Balasaheb Thackeray. In Chennai, Ravi Srinivasan became the first Indian to be arrested for a tweet when he accused Karti Chidambaram, the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, of corruption. Pune-based activist Manoj Oswal was arrested for having "inconvenienced" the relatives of union minister Sharad Pawar by accusing them of cheating a bed-ridden lady out of her land and holdings in the Sakal newspaper. Two Air India employees, K.V. Jaganatharao and Mayank Sharma, were arrested for a "lascivious" Orkut post that annoyed trade union leader Sagar Karnik and other politicians.

Even material that is clearly satirical has been squashed under Section 66A. Kolkata-based Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested for forwarding a caricature of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to friends and family. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was jailed after he lampooned Parliament and India's constitution. Sanjay Chaudhary was arrested for "objectionable comments and caricatures" of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, its education minister Kapil Sibal and a local state leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Nasreen herself is facing criminal charges under Section 66A for a tweet that simply said, "Indians shd speak up against fanatics who vitiate society & push it backward & politicians who encourage them. Else, it's bad news for democracy." She, Srinivasan, Oswal and others are challenging Section 66A's constitutionality on the basis that it discriminates against ordinary citizens by giving them less freedom of speech than media and corporations. But public and media support for them has waned and the issue is off the headlines.

This underlines the troubling truth that Indians are quite accepting of censorship. The British-educated lawyers who brought India freedom, men like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar, built on Britain's colonial constitution to give Indians new democratic rights inspired by the secular western liberalism they cherished.

But this always ran contrary to the reality that these ideas are not organic to the nation. Too many Indians still cling to old, feudal notions of society. Too many still rank religion, state security and regard of authority far above free speech in their hierarchy of values. Leaving anything uncomfortable unspoken is a great tradition here because there is still a greater social premium on observance and subservience than on questioning.

Indeed, even Nehruvian India was born in censorship, with reporting on partition and other sensitive issues severely restricted, often with the ready cooperation of editors and proprietors. Shortly after, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, the writings and court pleadings of his killer, Nathuram Godse, were also banned. While such restrictions may have been understandable in their time, what vexes freedom of speech activists here is that India's gagging habit is becoming worse rather than better.

India today is undergoing an immense churn that is reordering its social, economic and political life. It's all a blur at the moment and so impossible to say what form this emerging India will finally take. But one thing is clear: the old British-Nehruvian post-colonial India is crumbling. A new India that is more assured, more aggressive, more demanding and more itself, is breaking through.

This new India appears to seek to marry slices of modernity of its own choosing, such as free markets, with a revivalist, almost triumphalist reinterpretation of social, religious and political norms.

Feudal mindsets are resurgent in much of the country and appear to work at both conscious and subconscious levels against the drive for greater openness and discourse. In rural areas, village councils called khaps have become laws unto themselves, often issuing and carrying out death sentences against those who violate their ancient norms. For example, in many areas, boys and girls from the same village are not allowed to marry, and if they do, they are hunted down and killed.

A more well-meaning conservatism also persists, with grandfathers who have no quarrel with either Doniger or Nasreen generally inclined to overlook their gagging, not because they support authoritarianism but because they just don't think any book that offends anyone's religious sentiments should be published.

Across all communities, conservative groups are crying for a rejection of liberalism and a return to "purer" Indian values, even though there is no consensus on what these values are.

"We are not against modernity, but we are against westernization," Batra told Time magazine. "Through westernization, there's a renewed effort to enslave our country. Hindus all over the world should stand up against this."

The Islamists hounding Nasreen have their own vision of India. They reject the idea of Indians following common laws and insist Muslims be allowed to retain medieval social customs, including those that restrict their freedom to convert and impinge on women's rights.

Conservative Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Dalits and tribal communities are also seeking to give their traditions and beliefs various exemptions from the law. For instance, while a rigid reading of India's fundamental right to equality should disallow any form of discrimination in housing and education, India is full of schools and housing projects reserved for specific communities or through which specific communities enjoy preferences.

Like Batra, Islamists and other conservatives have no time for ideas like freedom of speech or personal freedoms -- or even human rights -- the moment they see these as contrary to their religious and political views. (This is one reason torture, illegal detentions etc. are widespread in India, but that's another story).

Naturally, politicians from across the spectrum have become adept at using these regressive tendencies to their advantage and often stoke such sentiments. Batra, Tauqeer Raza Khan and other conservatives all have close links to major political parties that woo them for their legions of obedient followers.

Civil rights activists outraged by the grinding down of India's liberties say they are outshouted, outmaneuvered and outgunned when they rise to protest. Ordinary Indians who also fear for India's freedoms are also weary of the persistent abuses that erupt across the country every day. They are simply too fatigued and fed up to fight every battle at their doorstep.

That even the ruling centrist Congress party, the natural inheritor of Nehruvian India, has lapsed into embracing highly authoritarian laws like Section 66A has also depressed many free speech activists and liberals who fret about the future. With the Hindu nationalist BJP poised to win the general elections slated for May, a new wave of restrictiveness looks eerily on the horizon for India.

About 25 years ago when India kicked off the economic reforms that ignited the national reconsideration roiling the nation today, many dreamt of turning their nation into another United States. But somewhere in the haste to achieve that, India has fallen into growing social conservatism, unfettered (crony) capitalism, rising ultra-nationalism and an increasing comfort with political authoritarianism that could well end up making it more like Putin's Russia.