India is still no country for free speech

Ahead of elections, threats of censorship are on the rise

Indian activists from the student's wing of Indian Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) protest near the US Embassy in New Delhi, India on 25 May 2010 against a book 'The Hindus' written by Professor of Chicago University, Wendy Doniger.
Anindito Mukherjee/EPA

AHMEDABAD, India — Her official title is the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, but these days Wendy Doniger, who has reignited India’s debate on free speech, is known by those trying to silence her as “a woman hungry of sex.”

On February 4, Penguin India, one of the country’s most respected publishing houses, agreed to destroy “at its own cost” all of its remaining copies of Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History.” The decision followed a four-year legal battle led by 84-year-old Dinanath Batra of the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Batra alleges in his petition to Penguin that Doniger’s book was “written with a Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in a poor light.”

Doniger, who is Jewish, writes in the book that she seeks to examine Hinduism not from the perspective of the male, upper-caste Brahmin but instead through the lens of “other religions, cultures, caste, or species (animals), or gender.” The book discusses sex, she says, because “The Sanskrit texts were written at a time of glorious sexual openness.” Batra objected to Doniger’s approach, saying that “it is offensive to suggest that the sacred text of Hindus has kinky sex in it.” Doniger responded in an op-ed in “The New York Times,” writing, “‘The Hindus’ isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.”

Indian law, it turns out, is on Batra’s side. Penguin defended the pulping of the book, citing Section 295a of the Indian penal code, which prohibits “malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feeling.” Now Batra is targeting another of Doniger’s books, “On Hinduism,” published by Aleph. On March 11, Aleph agreed to remove the book from circulation until it is reviewed by a group of writers and scholars.

Addressing the climate in India, Doniger’s colleague at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum, wrote in “The Indian Express” newspaper that “the politics of fear is in the ascendant.”

The timing could not be worse. Earlier this month, India announced the dates of its national elections, which will run from April 7 until May 12, with votes counted on May 16. India has 814 million eligible voters, 100 million more than in the last elections, in 2009. According to Reuters, candidates will spend around $5 billion on campaigning, more than half of what the top two U.S. presidential candidates spent in 2012. It is a remarkable democratic exercise, with 930,000 polling stations that will cost the government around $600 million. What is less remarkable, however, is that many of India’s most respected scholars, journalists and artists have been forced to cower this election season in the face of attacks on free speech.

We don’t know who they are, but it’s clearly aimed to intimidate.

Siddharth Varadarajan


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.

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.”

Good days are coming, boys. I see the signs of a change in political atmosphere.

Dinanath Batra

Hindu nationalist

But to assign Modi blame for the demise of free speech in India, as his opponents in the Congress Party have done, ignores Indian history and Indian law. Ananya Vajpeyi is an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, as well as the author of “Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India,” which recently won India’s top nonfiction prize. Vajpeyi shares Nussbaum’s concerns about Modi’s rise, but she cautions against viewing the present developments as being solely his responsibility.

“There have been attempts to curtail free speech under every type government, be it Congress, coalition, Left or BJP. No party is off the hook,” Vajpeyi said. She pointed out that India was the first country — even before Iran — to ban Salman Rushdie’s controversial book “The Satanic Verses,” in 1988 when the Congress party caved to concerns from fundamentalist Muslims.

India has been banning books since as early as 1924. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, corporations — all have managed to find something offensive, to cite Indian law and to ban books, exhibits, films and discussions.

What needs reform, according to Vajpeyi, is the law. In response to Penguin’s actions, Vajpeyi launched a petition addressed to both houses of India’s parliament urging that Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code be reformed to “protect works of serious academic and artistic merit from motivated, malicious and frivolous litigation.” On March 11, Vajpeyi closed the petition with more than 4,060 signatures.

But none of the political parties contesting the election seem interested in changing these laws or addressing what Salman Rushdie calls India’s “cultural emergency.” Speaking at Emory University in Atlanta about Doniger’s book, which Rushdie called “extraordinary,” he said the “attacks on the arts in India” amounted to “levels of oppression” not seen since the 1970s.

Regardless of whether Modi wins, India is about to undergo a major transformation this May. One thing that will not change, however, is that people there who find reason to take offense will continue to have the law on their side. The Indian government has given no indication it will take up Vajpeyi’s petition. Meanwhile, Batra feels emboldened.               

 “Good days are coming, boys,” he said. “I see the signs of a change in political atmosphere.” 

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