Centre for Internet & Society

As India’s literacy rate improves, governments, courts, media, publishers and big business are all stifling free speech.

Haroon Siddiqui's article was published in thestar.com on February 16, 2014. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

In contrast to North America and Europe, India’s book publishers, newspapers and TV/radio stations are doing well, thanks to a rising literacy rate and a growing middle class. Authors, artists, journalists and filmmakers are enjoying big audiences and relatively good paycheques. Yet, paradoxically, free speech has never been so imperilled in the world’s largest democracy, for several reasons.

Governments are using colonial-era laws to stifle free speech. The lower courts and police are caving in to religious bigots who demand bans on what they don’t want to see and hear. Vigilante groups are using goon tactics to intimidate the creative class. Big business is slapping lawsuits and creating libel chill. Publishing houses are capitulating to legal, political and economic pressure. The media are too busy mollycoddling governments and advertisers to stand up for free speech.

Legal framework

The constitution guarantees free speech but, as in Canada and several European nations, it also imposes “reasonable restrictions” to maintain peace and public order. The Supreme Court has set a high bar for imposing any restrictions, yet both the federal and state governments routinely shut down anything that might flare communal riots, especially between Hindus and Muslims — a real and ever-present danger. Politicians don’t want blood on their hands to uphold the right of a preening writer to poke people in the eye. Critics counter that the political class doesn’t really care for intellectual freedom.

Libel and defamation laws criminalize speech and prescribe jail terms. This, again, is not much different than, say, the Canadian Criminal Code, under which those convicted of hate speech may be jailed for up to three years. (That’s what we are left with after the Stephen Harper Conservatives axed the civilian remedy that was available under the Human Rights Act.)

India’s Anti-Sedition Act prohibits words and actions that may cause “hatred or contempt or disaffection” toward government. This is used even against journalists, activists and those protesting government policies. As many as 6,000 farmers and fishermen were charged for opposing a nuclear plant along the southeast coast.

The Penal Code makes it an offence, punishable by up to three years in jail, to hurt anyone’s religious sensibilities; promote enmity between different religious groups; circulate “any statement or report containing rumour or alarming news with intent to create or promote, or which is likely to create or promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community feelings of enmity,” etc., etc.

Worse, the code allows anyone offended by anything to demand that the offensive material be removed.

Indians are easily offended, indeed are “desperate to be offended,” jokes novelist Manu Joseph. The milieu allows religious leaders and politicians to stoke real or imagined grievances and rush to the courts and the police, both of which usually cave in rather than risk the wrath of frenzied protesters.

“Instead of protecting the right of free expression, the state defends the offended,” writes Salil Tripathi on the website Index on Censorship.

Adds Kian Ganz, editor of the website Legally India: “Many of these British-colonial laws were written and enforced to ‘control’ a multi-ethnic and religious population. Yet they are still around and are regularly used to stifle free speech.”

Religious bigotry

While we hear mostly of angry Muslims taking offence to alleged insults to Islam — the 1988 ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses being the prime example — increasingly it is Hindu fundamentalists who have been agitating successfully against what they do not like.

“Hindu bigots have matched, or perhaps even outperformed, their Islamic counterparts,” writes Ramachandra Guha, India’s pre-eminent historian. He was condemning Penguin India’s decision last week to recall and pulp American academic Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: an Alternative History, under pressure from a Hindu group that said the 2009 book contained “heresies” and was focused on “sex and eroticism.”

There has been no bigger victim of Hindu wrath than the late M.F. Hussain, the “Picasso of India.” His priceless work was vandalized, he was slapped with hundreds of lawsuits and threatened with death for painting Hindu deities in the nude. He went into exile in Doha, Qatar, where I spoke to him on the phone in 2011 and heard his pain at having been hounded out of his beloved India. We agreed to meet later but he died soon after, at age 95.

Last year, India’s leading intellectual Ashish Nandy was threatened with arrest for ostensibly offending Dalits (Hindus of a lower caste, formerly known as untouchables).

In 2012, Mumbai police arrested a young woman who complained on Facebook about the shutdown of the city of 18 million on the death of Bal Thackeray, leader of a chauvinist regional Hindu party. Another woman who “liked” the page was also detained,both for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In 2011, the western state of Gujarat stopped the sale of American journalist Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi, which suggested that the great leader may have had a sexual relationship with a male German architect. The chief minister (premier), Narendra Modi, is now the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharata Janata Party for federal elections in May, which he is favoured to win.

In 2010, Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 book, A Fine Balance, was removed from the syllabus of Bombay University, his alma mater, following objections by a student, the grandson of Thackeray. The head of the university’s English Department had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

In 2008, Delhi University expunged from its history course an essay by A.K. Ramanujam on Hinduism following complaints by a Hindu group, and Oxford University Press India temporarily stopped printing it.

Other examples:

In 2007, a court issued an arrest warrant for actor Richard Gere for kissing Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, following complaints by irate Hindus. An institute in the western city of Pune was vandalized because American academic James Laine had done part of his research there for his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. An art gallery in Bangalore hastily removed partially nude pictures of Hindu deities fearing retaliation by a Hindu moral squad.

Guha, the historian, once suggested that both Rushdie and Hussain, one pilloried by Muslims and the other by Hindus, be conferred India’s highest civilian honours. “That would have been a blow for artistic freedom. And it’d have equally offended Hindu and Islamic bigots.”

Libel chill

There has been a steady rise in what free speech advocates see as nuisance lawsuits by corporate houses, businessmen and political parties.

In December, Jitender Bhargava, executive director of Air India until 2010, saw his book on the national airline withdrawn by Bloomsbury India, allegedly under political pressure.

The same month, another book, Sahara: The Untold Story, on the controversial finance and real estate conglomerate, was held back under a court order.

In 2011, Penguin removed a chapter in The Beautiful and the Damned from its Indian edition after Arindam Chaudhuri, who runs business schools, sued about his profile in it. He also sued Caravan, a journal of politics and culture, for an article on how he had “made a fortune off the aspirations and insecurities of India’s middle class.” The Delhi-based businessman still has the Delhi-based magazine entangled in the case he filed in a jurisdiction 1,750 kilometres away — and 300 kilometres from the nearest airport.

Penguin also held back a biography of J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who had a stay order issued against it.

In 1998, a book about the head of a textile conglomerate, Dhirubhai Ambani, was not published in India after the publisher was threatened with lawsuits. A second edition of The Polyester Prince was issued in India but with the offending material cut out.

It is difficult for outsiders, especially without the benefit of reading the materials in dispute, to judge the timidity of the publishers. But there’s no questioning the creeping self-censorship.

Obeisant media

Vinod Jose, executive editor of Caravan, writes in its annual media issue:

“Media owners bargained with the government to secure lucrative licences to mine coal blocks in return for their power to influence the public. Editors got caught on tape striking deals with lobbyists but remained arrogantly unapologetic. Owners fired political editors who wrote about politics independently . . . Forbes India pulled a story because it irked the finance ministry.”

Jose said that in 2013, the year surveyed, “the dominant mood of the press was docility.” If in the 1950s and 1960s, the media served the state, now they serve big business. They have begun to expose government corruption but remain mostly mum on corporate malfeasance. The Times of India, the country’s largest English daily, takes equity in some companies it provides advertising space to.

State surveillance

India, like the United States and other democracies, is under heavy criticism for invasion of citizen privacy under sweeping state surveillance, especially by its eight intelligence agencies that operate under mostly secretive powers.

“The real problem is that we don’t know what powers they do have — we only know bits and pieces about the Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), from some tender documents that indicate that the government intends to track web usage, phone calls, text messages and map location information, apparently without the knowledge of even telecom operators,” says Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama (Media Journal), a website that provides news and analysis of digital media. “The issue is even less obvious here than that of the NSA,” the National Security Agency in the United States.

“The rules give the Indian government the ability to gag free speech, and block any website it deems fit, without publicly disclosing why or who blocked it — or providing adequate recourse for getting the block removed.”

“Intelligence agencies are not answerable to parliament, only to the Home ministry,” says Anja Kovacs of the Centre for Internet and Society. There are few checks and balances, little or no civilian oversight.

“The Indian government’s centralized monitoring is chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws,” says Human Rights Watch. “New surveillance capabilities have been used . . . to target critics, journalists and human rights activists.”

“Every month at the federal level, 7,000 to 9,000 phone taps are authorized or re-authorized,” writes Pranesh Prakash, policy director for the Centre for Internet and Society.


It is useful to remember that whatever is true of India, the exact opposite may also be true. So, while the situation is getting bleaker on the free speech front, in India the state is not the sole culprit, unlike in Russia, China or other authoritarian places. India also has a vibrant civil society that’s hammering away — is free to hammer away — at the need for a liberal polity to be liberal. The intellectuals, activists and NGOs I have quoted, testify to that. Here’s another:

The PEN All-India Centre in Mumbai and the newly formed Delhi Pen, both part of the global network of writers dedicated to free speech, said this last week:

“The removal of books from our bookshops, bookshelves and libraries, whether through state-sanctioned censorship, private vigilante action or publisher capitulation are all egregious violations of free speech that we shall oppose in all forms at all times.”