India has been enthralled in what Salman Rushdie called a ‘cultural emergency’, with writers and artists harassed for opinions. “In India today, it seems, free speech is itself an atrocity,” wrote Suketu Mehta in New York Times on 5 February 2013:
“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.”
Below are five of the incidents which filled the Indian newspaper and tv media in the beginning of February 2013:
• Author Salman Rushdie was to travel to Kolkata to attend a literary festival and promote the film ‘Midnight’s Children’, which is based on one of his novels. At the last minute, he said, he was informed that the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had ordered police to block his arrival, fearing his arrival would give rise to a “law and order situation”.
“The organisers 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,” commented Suketu Mehta, who is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the book ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’.
• 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.
• The Tamil spy thriller ‘Vishwaroopam’ was released in cinemas worldwide – but not in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where officials prevented its screening, after Muslim groups complained it is to be “insensitive to Islam”.
Although the film was cleared by Central Board of Film Certification of India, District collectors in the state of Tamil Nadu gave orders to the theatre owners to not show ‘Vishwaroopam’, citing Law and order problems. The ban in Tamil Nadu triggered a stop of screenings in neighbouring Indian states and foreign markets. An agreement with the Muslims of Tamil Nadu was settled on 2 February 2013, when Film Director Kamal Haasan accepted to mute five scenes.
(In Malaysia, the film was also banned, until it was agreed to cut or mute 16 brief sections of the film which were found to “disturb Muslim viewers”.)
• 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.
• In the north of the country, the Kashmir rock band Pragaash’s decision to quit music due to intimidation, threats of violence on social media and a fatwa from a senior local Muslim cleric, raised broader fears about freedom of expression in India. “Why does the government not take any action against the religious ban?”, asked Times of India.
The three teenage members of Pragaash (which translates as ‘Light’) told local reporters in India’s only Muslim majority state that they were sorry if “the people” were unhappy with their music and that, in order to respect the religious ruling issued by Grand Mufti Mohammad Bashiruddin, they would no longer play.
Free speech: core of democracy
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.”
Suketu Mehta commented: “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.”
“The time to act is now and it is up to authority to show that it is capable of taking a stand against people whose only pleasure is to deny others their freedom,” wrote T. Venkatram Reddy in an editorial of The Asian Age.
The New York Times – 5 February 2013:
India’s Speech Impediments
“India is in the throes of what Salman Rushdie rightly calls a ‘cultural emergency.’” By Suketu Mehta
The Guardian – 10 August 2012:
Religious censorship crushes creativity. So is it ever right to ban art?
India’s tendency for self-censorship is saddening. But even the most liberal minds sometimes see the need for holding back. By Jeet Thayil
The Indian Express – 1 February 2013:
Salman Rushdie Kolkata visit: Writers, film fraternity slam Bengal govt
The literary and film community today came out in support of controversial author Salman Rushdie and blamed the West Bengal government for cancellation of his visit to the metropolis.
SantaBanta – 1 February 2013:
Mamata blocked Kolkata visit: Rushdie
Controversial writer Salman Rushdie, who had to cancel his visit to Kolkata in view of protests on Wednesday, on Friday said West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blocked his trip to the eastern city where he was to be present at a literary festival.
The Guardian – 5 February 2013:
Kashmir’s first all-female rock group disband following threats
Pragaash quit three months after forming, pointing to fatwa from cleric and local opinion in India’s only majority Muslim state. By Jason Burke in Delhi
Times of India – 5 February 2013:
Exclusive: All-girl band ‘Pragaash’ gives in
As the J&K government does not take any action against the ban of the all-girl band by Grand Mufti, a member of the band finally reveals that the band ‘Pragaash’ is forced to quit.
p3.no – 6 Februar 2013:
Fatwa utstedt mot rockeband
“Pragaash, det første rockebandet fra Kashmir kun bestående av jenter, har måttet slutte med musikk etter trusler og trakassering.” By Ali R. S. Pour – plus over 20 comments
The Hollywood Reporter – 21 February 2013:
Malaysia Lifts Ban on Controversial Indian Thriller
Indian director Kamal Haasan’s “Vishwaroopam” was temporarily pulled from the country’s cinemas after Muslim groups complained it is insensitive to Islam
Daily Mail India – 14 April 2013:
Censorship is a slur on India’s ethos
By Peter V. Rajsingh