Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, attends the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) national convention in New Delhi February 27, 2014. Reuters
It is not just books on Hinduism that are under attack. After Jaico publishing house was slapped with a $32 million lawsuit this January by Sahara, a multibillion-dollar finance company, it held off distributing a book critical of the company, “Sahara: The Untold Story.” Bloomsbury canceled the release of “The Descent of Air India” after it received legal notice from a former aviation minister, Praful Patel, who objected to his portrayal. Neither book can be found in India today. Films, too, have been restricted.
For journalists in India, the picture is also bleak. Last fall, Siddharth Varadarajan stepped down from the top editing position at India’s oldest newspaper, “The Hindu,” after he refused to go along with demands made by the paper’s owners to put prime minister candidate Narendra Modi on the front page. On March 6, Varadarajan, an outspoken critic of India’s two leading political parties, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress Party, posted on his Facebook page that “four thugs” beat up the caretaker of his apartment in India’s capital city of New Delhi. “Tell your sahib (boss) to watch what he says on TV.” Varadarajan’s wife, Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, was also threatened. “We don’t know who they are, but it’s clearly aimed to intimidate,” Varadarajan said.
In December, Thiru Veerapandian lost his 17-year-old talk show on Sun TV, a Tamil-language channel, after he suggested that voters should think before they vote for Modi. Hindu nationalists demanded Veerapandian’s removal and the station caved. Last fall, after journalist Hartosh Singh Bal wrote a critical piece on Modi and his Congress challenger, the dynast Rahul Gandhi, he was fired by his employer, “Open” magazine because he was “making political enemies.” Bal has since been replaced by P.R. Ramesh, a close associate of the Arun Jaitley, opposition leader in the upper house of the Indian parliament and a BJP member. One of Ramesh’s first pieces for the magazine examined how “the dark agents of the Congress party” targeted Modi with a “conspiracy” to blame him for a series of extrajudicial killings in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Ramesh’s article confirmed what many in India were saying: You can criticize Modi, but in doing so you risk losing your job.
Some female journalists in India are fearful for their safety. After “Caravan” magazine ran a cover story on Swami Aseemanand, a Hindu nationalist leader in jail for his role in a series of bomb blasts, protesters burned copies of the magazine outside its office. Leena Gita Reghunath, the author of the “Caravan” article, told “The New York Times” that after the article’s publication she stopped staying at her residence for safety reasons. Sagarika Ghose, a veteran television journalist and deputy editor of the television channel CNN-IBN, was reportedly told by the management of TV18, which runs the channel, not to be critical of Modi on the air. She responded in a tweet, “There is an evil out there, an evil which is stamping out all free speech and silencing independent journalists: journalists unite!”
While Ghose is accustomed to criticism, she said it is the violent, graphic nature of the verbal attacks she hears when she criticizes Modi and Hindu nationalists that concern her. “I have been trenchantly critical of the Congress and the Gandhis, but no one has threatened me with death, gang rape or sacking,” she said.
These developments prompted the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists to write recently, “A figure who could one day head the world’s largest democracy should have a high tolerance for criticism. Yet Modi, his supporters, and some media owners apparently want to shut down such criticism. Free, independent news coverage is most likely to pay the price.” On Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of countries based on media freedom, India recently slipped nine positions to 140th out of 180.
Is Modi really to be blamed? The 63-year-old has ruled India’s western state of Gujarat since 2001 with an iron fist and has done little to counter his image as a strongman not open to criticism. In February 2002, five months after Modi became chief minister, a train was attacked by Muslims in the Gujarat city of Godhra, leading to the deaths of 59 Hindus. Retaliatory violence broke out immediately after, leading to the death of more than 1,200 others, almost all Muslim. In 2005, the U.S. denied Modi a visa because of his failure to take sufficient counteractions during rioting in 2002, making him the first, and the only, person to be denied entry to the U.S. based on religious-freedom violations. In December 2013, a court in Gujarat absolved Modi of any wrongdoing in the riots, and on February 13, the U.S. sent its ambassador to India, Nancy J. Powell, to meet Modi for the first time.
Even though Modi was cleared, that has not stopped him from dodging questions by the press, especially about the riots. Last month, he backed out of a Facebook forum on the upcoming elections when he learned he could not screen the questions in advance.
Modi’s record on free speech is equally spotty. In 2011, the Gujarat government banned the book Great Soul by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld after critics said the book claimed that the Gujarat born Mahatma Gandhi was a homosexual (Lelyveld denied this claim). In 2007, theaters in Gujarat refused to screen a film about the 2002 Gujarat riots called Parzania after pressure from the local government.
Modi is viewed as a shoo-in in the upcoming elections, although opinion polls in India (which claim he has a 78 percent popularity rate) are notoriously unreliable. That said, Modi is unquestionably at the center of Indian political debate today, a politician who seems to understand that the country’s growing middle class wants smartphones, not libraries. The middle class increasingly seems to believe that India should be more, not less, autocratic. Modi personifies that belief, he assures them, a politician who once boasted about his 56-inch chest, the person who will protect India from threats, be it from Pakistan, Muslims, China or books that suggest Mahatma Gandhi was gay.
For Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor from Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University who lives in Gujarat, Modi has succeeded because he has “developed Hinduism as a monolith.” Shah, a Hindu, views Hinduism not as a religion but as a collection of folktales and traditions, something Modi has perverted. “Modi has attempted to change this by creating a Hindu hegemony that is constantly fearful and insecure of losing their dominant status. Modi talks about the offended, hurt Hindu who is always under attack. And who is their savior? It is Modi,” Shah said.
This sentiment was echoed by Batra, the original petitioner against Doniger and an admirer of Modi, who told “Time” magazine, “Through westernization, there’s a renewed effort to enslave our country. Hindus all over the world should stand up against this. In the tiny world we live, we have to try and create heaven out of hell.”