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India’s culture of grievance

By Index on Censorship / 16 February, 2009

india_newspapersThe legal system forces once proud newspapers to grovel when faced with pressure from religious groups, says Salil Tripathi

The Statesman is one of the oldest English language newspapers in India, with an illustrious history. Its editors and reporters have been renowned for their integrity and independence. In 1911, it challenged the decision of India’s imperial rulers to shift the country’s capital from Calcutta (Kolkata) to New Delhi, and between 1975 and 1977, it defied Indira Gandhi’s government during the Emergency.

Religious fundamentalists, however, are another matter. Last week, the Statesman‘s editor Ravindra Kumar, and its publisher, Anand Sinha, were arrested and detained briefly, before being granted bail, for having hurt the religious feelings of India’s Muslims. Self-proclaimed leaders of the Muslim community were angry after the Statesman published, in its 5 February edition, an article that had appeared originally in the London-based daily, the Independent. There, columnist Johann Hari had written an impassioned piece in which he cited examples of intolerance from various faiths, including Islam, and came down strongly against the notion of respecting faiths. In the statement that is most likely to have offended Muslims, Hari wrote: ‘I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year-old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.’

The article did not generate much controversy in Britain, but in India, Muslims protested, in a pattern similar to the drama surrounding the novel, The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel was first published in London, but the world discovered its controversial nature when the Indian government decided to ban the import of the novel. In February 1989, the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death sentence on the author.

That the protest against the Statesman occurred in India, around the 20th anniversary of Khomeini’s fatwa, may not be entirely coincidental. Parliamentary elections are due soon in India, and at such a time, politicians bereft of policies and ideas look for causes around which they can rally supporters. Hari’s article in the Statesman provided that opportunity.

Authorities broke up demonstrations growing widespread in Kolkata. Later, some Muslims sued under the notorious S 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, under which it is an offence to cause outrage to anyone’s religious sensibilities. The Indian constitution does guarantee freedom of speech, but it also imposes ‘reasonable restrictions’, and one such is not to harm relations between religious groups.

The lawsuit under S 295(A) left Kumar no choice, and he apologised promptly for ‘not anticipating the reaction to the story was an error of judgement and we have regretted that’.

What a contrast this is from the way the newspaper used to handle threats in the past. In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court declared then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s election to Parliament in 1971 void because she had indulged in ‘corrupt practices’. Two weeks later, Gandhi declared a state of internal emergency, arrested major opposition leaders and thousands of their supporters, imposed pre-censorship, and suspended civil rights.

Most newspapers acquiesced with the Emergency, toeing the government line. But the Statesman and the Indian Express stood apart. They challenged the government in various ways. In the early days of the Emergency, both newspapers left the space for the editorial blank. They published subversive letters to the editor. Their editors chose stories from abroad that made allegorical comments on the political situation in India. They would run photographs that made a larger point, and the captions to their photographs carried deeper meaning. Editors like Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjea, and S Moolgaokar at the Indian Express, and S Nihal Singh at the Statesman carried the flag of freedom high. The Statesman‘s publisher, CR Irani, challenged the Government’s decision to suspend advertising to the newspaper. In later years, Irani became an eloquent champion against UNESCO’s ill-advised move to control the media, through its ‘new international information order’ which would have effectively licensed journalists under the guise of offering them protection.

And yet, the newspaper caved in last week. Why?

Two reasons explain this. One is the ridiculous section of the Indian Penal Code S 295 (A) — which allows anyone offended by anything to demand that what offends him should be banned. Under the pretext of that section, and other similar laws, Indian busybodies have sought to control behaviour and expression they disagree with. This includes lawsuits against Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty for kissing in public; a slum activist called Tateshwar Vishwakarma suing AR Rahman and Anil Kapoor for insulting those who live in slums through the title of the film, Slumdog Millionaire (even if neither Rahman nor Kapoor had anything to do with naming the film); Muslim activists attacking actor Shahrukh Khan over a song in a recent film; and Hindu activists suing the artist MF Husain, for painting Hindu deities in the nude. India is a multi-everything country with a billion people, and the possibility of such disputes is endless.

And that’s where the second reason comes in: the failure of the state to protect rights. Muslims protesting against the Statesman are able to get away with it because of this failure. Anyone who can take umbrage, does; and his hurt feelings take precedence over others’ right to express themselves freely. Instead of protecting the right of free expression, the state defends the offended, thus circumscribing meaningful debate.

When the Statesman fights the government, it knows the enemy, and it knows the rules of the game. When it fights unelected, vigilante groups, it does not know who its enemies are. It deserves the state’s protection. Instead, the state threatens the editor with jail. Result: the world’s largest democracy narrows its discourse, talking about less and less in public, breeding more and more resentment in private. And a newspaper that could once challenge the highest of the land is made to grovel.

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