India’s unease with free speech

ANURADHA RAMAN | Updated on May 06, 2014 Published on May 06, 2014

Thought control It has become rampant ALBUND / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

A Constitutional loophole allows the state, influenced by religious groups and business interests, to go on a censorship spree

In 1988, India became the first country to ban The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, following pressure from leaders of the Muslim community. Today, India continues its banning spree, reflecting the deep and growing unease with the freedom to express, an unease which goes back to the time when the Constitution was 17 months old. Since then, twenty-five books have been officially banned, including Joseph Lellyweld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, and Aubrey Menen’s The Ramayana.

One might have thought that those who fought hard for India’s freedom would have also fought for the right to free speech in the framing of the Constitution. Yet, unlike America’s First Amendment, which imposed restrictions on the state from curbing free speech, such restrictions were not put in place in the First Amendment to the Constitution of India.

India’s First Amendment, vigorously contested in Parliament by both the Left and Right parties, allowed the state to make laws in the interests of security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, and defamation or incitement to an offence.

Disappearing act

Since the 1950s, there has been a shift in who calls for bans. Unlike the state – which exercised its right to ban books – publishers, religious groups, caste groups, and corporates have claimed offence and sought bans on not only books, but also films, plays, and music. In many ways, the First Amendment, has also legitimised the people’s right to take offence and seek bans.

Over the past three months, five books have disappeared from Indian bookstores — books on corporates, religion, and caste.

The pulping of all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger, put the focus back on who seeks a ban. Reliance, the largest business house in India, brought a legal suit against the authors of Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, and has asked them to withdraw the book or face criminal and civil charges for defamation.

Different triggers

In 1991, as India embarked on economic reforms, two things were happening almost simultaneously.

As William Mazarella says in Censorium: “Many explained the censorship struggles of this period as symptoms of a clash between two formations: on one side, the process of globalisation and economic liberalisation that… brought a deluge of mass communication and, on the other side, the rise to mainstream power of an aggressively conservative form of Hindu nationalism… the intensification of censorship was one outcome.”

However, Hindu nationalism was just one aspect of this intolerance. A whole new cast of characters has appeared on the scene, taking offence to everything. The state has played a willing accomplice in the ban game, and courts decisions have often not helped.

In the case of Shivaji, author James Laine said he was unwilling to edit his book as suggested by the court. The Supreme Court quashed the ban on his book but the verdict came with a caveat directing Laine to edit some portions.

Laine held on to his right to express himself and the Maharashtra Government declared that the publishers had decided to withdraw the book — a move that earned the goodwill of the Maratha community.

For many groups, it is often religious faith, belief, aspersions cast on their leaders, or derogatory references to their caste that motivate them to seek a ban.

Dinanath Batra, the man behind the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, the group that demanded Penguin destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book, says an incorrect, offensive interpretation of Hinduism had injured his religious feelings, which is an offence under Indian law but only after a mala fide intention is established by the courts.

In the case of Doniger’s book, Penguin did not even contest Batra’s claim. In 2012, when Dalit communities demanded a ban on a cartoon of Ambedkar in a school textbook. The cartoon was removed, as the United Progressive Alliance did not want to offend a politically important community.

Corporate influence

Along with the liberalisation of the 1990s came the information explosion, which began with the advent of freeing television from government control. As a wary government introduced legislation to rein in the media, corporates stepped in. Their ownership has only brought in a further consolidation of powers --- the state, politicians (some of whom have stakes in media houses), and the corporates themselves -- raising questions about a convergence between content-providers and companies that own the news channels.

With close to 38 politicians in nine States owning or holding stake in newspapers and TV channels, and several large corporates controlling much of the media, it is fair to question the objectivity of the news disseminated.The Indian government’s control of free speech is also being regulated by the Information Technology Act. Two years ago, Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal asked Google and Yahoo to pre-censor content. In the name of curbing hate-speech, the Government also blocked Twitter entries critical of the government and Congress party leaders.

Provisions of the Act, passed in Parliament without much debate, are being fought by people in the courts.

Privately produced news is still banned on radio in India. Several social groups are fighting the government in the courts on this issue. We await the verdict.

The writer is Senior Associate Editor with the Political Bureau of Outlook Magazine. She is a CASI Spring 2014 Visiting Fellow. By arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on May 06, 2014
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