India: How to silence a nation
07 Feb 2012

Legal proceedings have been filed against four authors that read aloud from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic verses. Salil Tripathi explains how outdated Colonial-era legislation is being used to curtail free expression. 

The saga refuses to end.

The Jaipur story has now taken a new turn, on Monday (6 February) two courts in the city began legal proceedings after complaints were filed by among others, members of an organisation that campaigned against Salman Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival. They allege that the festival organisers and four authors who read from Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

The four authors — Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, and Jeet Thayil — read from the novel to express solidarity with the absent Rushdie, and as a mark of protest. Rushdie did not go to Jaipur after he received plausible information that security forces had evidence of death threats against him. Now the festival’s organisers are also being charged under provisions of India’s criminal laws, which date back to the colonial era.

The complainants main contention is that the authors and the festival organisers conspired “to promote enmity on grounds of religion.” One magistrate has recorded the complaint to decide if the case has any merit before it is sent to the police to register a First Information Report. That case will now be heard on 8 March. Another magistrate will record a complainant’s statement today. When such complaints are filed, the court can either ask the police to register a report and launch an investigation, or examine the complaint on its own, before deciding if the matter deserves to be sent to the police for further action. The courts have decided to examine the matter first, before sending it to the police.

The relevant sections under the Indian law are:

295-A (which deals with deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings)

298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings),

153-A (promoting enmity between groups on religious grounds),

153-B (imputations prejudicial to national integration)

120-B (criminal conspiracy).

Preserving communal harmony is a serious matter in India. These laws empower the state to prosecute anyone whose intends to and acts in a way that outrages religious feelings or promotes “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language,” and the all-important, all-inclusive “etc.”

Now think again about what happened in Jaipur: the four authors read extracts from The Satanic Verses, whose import is banned in India. Note, its import is banned in India; lawyers have pointed out that the government did not ban its printing or publishing — rather, Penguin, which had the rights to publish it in India, chose not to do so after the import ban was imposed, and its consulting editor recommended that it would be unwise to publish the novel. Leading Indian lawyers say that bane does not extend to reading the novel, or reading from it. In fact, in the years after the ban, several lawyers and writers read from it in public, as a mark of protest. They weren’t charged at any time. At the Jaipur Festival, parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, author and former diplomat, said he has read from, or cited the novel, without any problem.

And yet, now the four authors and the festival’s organisers — William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale, and Sanjoy Roy — face the prospect of being charged under colonial-era laws. Such a prosecution mocks India’s fine judicial traditions and runs counter to its constitutional guarantees of free speech (which are, it must be said, limited). It means if you say anything that someone considers controversial or offensive, then either that individual or the state can begin proceedings that could lead to prosecution. This isn’t a theoretical proposition, nor is this the first such complaint. Many film-makers, authors, and artists have been scarred by threats of such prosecutions. Many have sued for peace by dropping contentious material before publication; some have been prosecuted. Higher courts have usually dismissed the charges, but not before a long process that’s costly and stressful. (There is also the other threat of vigilantes doling out justice in the form of ransacked galleries or theatres, or attacks on artists, with the police doing little to stop such violence). This is preposterous — but such is the state of affairs.

Neither the authors nor the festival organisers incited any community, nor did they intend to insult any religious group. The festival organisers have said they were not aware that the authors intended to protest. After the four read from the novel, the organisers even issued a statement saying the authors had acted on their own. But none of that seems to matter to the complainants.

The charge is even more confusing since there has been no violence. Nobody went on a rampage; there was no riot. The four had never intended to incite anybody, and nobody got incited. However, some Muslim fundamentalist groups had offered rewards to throw shoes at Rushdie, or spit on Rushdie. Others had said that even a video appearance by Rushdie could have repercussions, irrespective of what he might say. Many might regard these statements as threats, but as of now, no police officer has pressed charges against any of those individuals, who were at least implying that matters might get out of hand for which, of course, they would presumably claim no responsibility.

And so it is that the one who claims offence and threatens to take the law in his hands, or suggests others might do so, remains free; the ones who read from a book are being charged under laws meant to prevent violence.

The Indian Penal Code, from which these sections are derived, was drafted in 1860, and much of that law has stayed fossilised, even though India gained Independence in 1947. It is important to remember the circumstances under which that law was drafted. In 1857, many princely states in India rebelled against the rule of the East India Company, and what followed was what India calls the first war of independence, and what Britain remembers as the Sepoy Mutiny. Soldiers of the East India Company rebelled against the company, and united with various princely states in a vain attempt to overpower the colonial rule. The war ended in 1858, with the Indian states surrendering, and soon thereafter, company rule ended, and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.

There were many reasons for the uprising, but the immediate spark was religious. Indian troops in the East India Company’s army were alarmed by rumours that the new British cartridges were greased with cow or pig fat. Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike were offended, unwilling to handle ammunition contaminated by animal fat which the respective faiths shunned.

Realising the combustible power of religion, the British decided to make maintenance of religious harmony their priority, and to do that, they took advantage of mutual suspicion among the communities. So anyone who disrupted harmony would be prosecuted, and people had the right to complain against anyone who disrupted such harmony, turning the “subjects” into informers. Colonial rulers had good reason to maintain such laws — to keep communities suspicious of one another and divided just short of fighting.

Free India is supposed to be democratic; its adult citizens vote their governments, and they argue with each other in a spirited manner. But these laws, relics of the raj, treat Indians as subjects, not citizens. They allow troublemakers to file spurious complaints under the provisions of these laws and restrict free expression, as had happened to the great painter, the late M.F. Husain, who was driven out of India, and died in exile in London last year. The same provisions are now being used against the novelists and organisers of a festival of literature.

This has gone on too long. Before it gets any worse, India needs adult supervision; it needs to repeal these laws, stop proceedings against the authors and festival organisers, and keep a stern eye on rabble-rousers who cry offence and threaten violence because they don’t like other people reading a book they haven’t read and which they are told they must dislike.

You can dislike a book; nothing is sacred. But if you don’t like a book, Rushdie had said in India in 2010, all you have to do is to shut it.

Instead, they want to shut conversations across the country through intimidation.

Salil Tripathi is a journalist and author and the chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee

11 responses to “India: How to silence a nation”

  1. […] the one that changed Rushdie’s life completely, came after the 1988 release of his book The Satanic Verses. While the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against Rushdie and […]

  2. […] followed, the one that changed Rushdie’s life completely, came after the 1988 release of his book The Satanic Verses. While the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against Rushdie and called […]

  3. […] against censorship for two decades in India, facing hundreds of lawsuits against his work. The ripple effects of the ban of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses were felt as recently as January […]

  4. […] against censorship for two decades in India, facing hundreds of lawsuits against his work. The ripple effects of the ban of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses were felt as recently as January […]

  5. […] However, when it involves the White Massa William Dalrymple, freedom for the Massa! Oppression when Massa is involved even if Massa ran away from the scene despite no attack on him! The whole nation has been silenced by a lawsuit against you! Lawsuit against you is injury to whole nation! Dalrymple Massa, my precioussss Massa! […]

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  10. Roberto says:

    George’s comment are more telling than the main article. Salil is apologizing for the congress party by deflecting the blame on colonial laws.

  11. George says:

    What a joke. Salil Tripathi is selective in his support for free speech. He has NOTHING to do with free speech and simply takes sides and defends his political party, the socialist Congress party which has been the biggest offender of free speech rights.

    For many years, he never spoke out against the draconian Emergency of Indira Gandhi. He wrote an article in the 80s WHITEWASHING Rajiv Gandhis’ ban on the Satanic Verses. His piece was a laundry list of a whole bunch of bans (it was a piece that was supposed to say, “hey, leave the Muslims alone”).

    Now he tries to blame the colonial era laws so that the Nehru family remains unblemished!

    Congress Party killed a person by attacking her during a protest at Ramlila grounds. Salil Tripathi justified that action and wrote a piece trashing the protester! That should tell you his position on free speech. (Google for Baba Ramdev on this issue.)

    Also google for Salil’s position on Geert Wilders and you will see that his article is a shameful example of how he attacked the victim. The first half of that article is devoted to trashing Wilders and his film. He would never do this for a socialist.

    For many years, he was quiet on Taslima Nasrin case as well and has actually justified other bans! Of course, in the recent past, he has tried to add a line or two buried in his article so that no one can point this out about him.

    Even the MF Husain case is nonsense. The lawsuits against him were a tit-for-tat by those who ran out of patience after asking for the removal of selective targeting of Hindus. Consider the facts. Salman Rushdie’s book is banned (the issue is whitewashed by salil).

    Then the Taslima Nasrin case happens. Many Hindus are arrested for supporting her freedom of expression. Now the Hindus wake up and realize that the state is being used by Muslims as a weapon against Hindus. So they hit back and ask that the paintings of MF Husain which depicts a Hindu Goddesses masturbating be withdrawn.

    Suddenly, Salil Tripathi and other Congress Party supporters are outraged! See the hypocrisy? That is not all. Lawsuits are filed against MF Husain as a matter of routine. Husain visits his son and dies while on a visit. Husain himself says he is not evading the lawsuit but that he did not know about the summons (fair enough since he is visiting his son and this can happen), but Salil Tripathi lies and claims that Husain died in “exile.”

    Also, the Husain issue is very minor since it was only a tit-for-tat by the Hindus which was used as a pressure tactic to remove the anti-freedom laws.