Recent estimates suggest that India has now overtaken China in population size, but where the world’s most populated country should be a beacon of democracy, the opposite may be true.
Under Narendra Modi, the press is being strangled; the judiciary is no longer independent; and protesters are thrown in jail. You can read more about this in our forthcoming Spring 2023 issue, where our Special Report focuses on the state of free expression in Modi’s India.
In the meantime, here is a quiz to get a flavour of what to expect.
Be prepared to have your eyes opened...
First off, in which year did Narendra Modi take office as Indian Prime Minister?
Which political party is Modi a member of?
In a grand show of vanity from the Prime Minister himself, which type of venue was named after Modi in February 2021?
Which international broadcaster's Delhi and Mumbai offices were searched as part of tax evasion allegations following a documentary it aired that was critical of Modi?
There were 182 internet shutdowns around the world in 2021. The Indian government was responsible for most of them. How many?
Which Indian city tops the list of the most surveilled cities in the world, with 1,826 cameras per square mile?
Where was India placed on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index in 2022 (out of 180 countries)?
As of February 2023, how many journalists were imprisoned in India?
Which streaming platform was forced to apologise and cut scenes from a television drama directed by a Muslim after BJP leaders alleged it was “deliberately mocking Hindu gods”?
In July 2021, it was reported that 17-year-old Neha Paswan was beaten to death by her uncles and grandfather in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for wearing what?
Acrassicauda concert at The Roxy in Hollywood, 10 June 2010. Credit: Flickr / Bruce Martin
Underground music scenes have begun sprouting up in many countries around the world in the last few years, where previously no such thing existed. These movements have managed, in many cases, to continue despite a continuing trend of censorship in the arts and government repression. Whether it be punks in Indonesia rebelling against Sharia law or hip-hop artists in Mumbai rapping about independence from Britain, people all over the world are fighting for their right to artistic freedom. Here are a few cities around the world where musicians refused to be silenced.
Even after social activist and creator of The Second Floor, a cafe that promotes discussion, performance and art, Sabeen Mahmud was murdered by armed motorcyclists in Karachi in April 2015, the experimental and electronic music culture has continued to grow. Refusing to be intimidated into silence, artists like Sheryal Hyatt, who records as Dalt Wisney and founded Pakistan’s first DIY netlabel, Mooshy Moo, and the producing pair of Bilal Nasir Khan and Haamid Rahim, who created the electronic label and collective Forever South, are challenging conventional ideas about the music culture in Karachi.
Punk music is one of the ultimate forms of expressing disdain for a system of oppression, so it comes as no surprise that so many youths in Indonesia have embraced the genre with a passion. The punk scene, which grew exponentially following the 2004 tsunami when a great many lost family members and help from the government was less than forthcoming. The hostility and discrimination against the punk subculture came to a head in 2012 when police rounded up 64 youths at a concert, arrested them and took them to a nearby detention centre to have their mohawk hairstyles forcibly shaved. Despite this, bands like Cryptical Death continue to promote their scene and pen songs about resisting repressive government figures.
The vitality of punk music is also present in Burma, where musicians have been advocating for human rights through fast-paced music since around 2007. No U Turn and the Rebel Riot are popular punk groups that routinely rail against a government that they feel is repressive and unjust. No U Turn sounds like a resurrection of Bad Religion-meets-Naked Raygun with a blend of biting lyrics and punishing speed.
Indian hip-hop pioneers have been appearing more and more in the last 10 years, with Abhishek Dhusia, aka ACE, forming Mumbai’s Finest, the city’s first rap crew, and Swadesi, another local group whose work they think represents feelings and ideals of many young people in the city. Swadesi, in particular, advocates for social justice within their band’s mission, with working for NGOs and organising events being an important element of their group.
Musicians in Iraq have faced a variety of oppressive control, ranging from young people being stoned to death by Shi’ite militants for wearing western-style “emo” clothes and haircuts to Acrassicauda, a popular heavy-metal band from Baghdad, receiving death threats from Islamic militants. Acrassicauda had to flee the country a few years after the USA invaded Iraq, going first to Syria and then to the USA, where they were given refugee status and from where they now continue to make music. They have hopes of touring the Middle East soon but have no idea when they will be able to return to Iraq.
Index on Censorship has teamed up with the producers of an award-winning documentary about Mali’s musicians, They Will Have To Kill Us First, to create the Music in Exile Fund to support musicians facing censorship globally. You can donate here, or give £10 by texting “BAND61 £10” to 70070.
The offices of an Indian media group have been attacked by a group of right-wing Hindu nationalists in Mumbai. Dozens of supporters of right-wing nationalist group Shiv Sena attacked the building Times of India on Saturday, protesting against a local newspaper’s coverage of their internal politics. The article, which ran in the Maharashtra Times, a Marathi-language daily that is part of the news group, said Sena politician Anandrao Adsul was going to change allegiances and join the rival National Congress Party (NCP). Seventeen Sena activists were arrested, following the attack.
The ever-readable Salil Tripathi, in his column in India’s Mint, points us to a disturbing story in Mumbai. The university there has withdrawn a book by renowned author Rohinton Mistry after a member of the right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena group complained it was offensive to his party.
…Rajan Waulkar, vice-chancellor of Mumbai University became the poster child of acquiescence to bullying when he hastily withdrew Mistry’s acclaimed previous novel Such A Long Journeyusing his emergency powers, after an undergraduate student aspiring for political leadership of the Shiv Sena’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, complained that the book made disparaging remarks against his party and his people. His claim to lead the youth wing rests on what he considers his inherent birthright—he is born in the Thackeray family.
Such A Long Journey is a thoughtful narrative about the scarcity-prone India at the cusp of the Bangladesh war of 1971, when Gustad Noble, a bank clerk, gets enmeshed in a conspiracy to assist the Mukti Bahini, the India-backed armed group fighting for Bangladesh’s freedom. He is brought to the shadowy world by an old acquaintance who is an intelligence officer, loosely based on the life of Rustom Nagarwala, who allegedly imitated prime minister Indira Gandhi’s voice and got a State Bank of India officer to hand him Rs. 60 lakh after the phone call, ostensibly for Bangladesh’s liberation.
The junior-most Thackeray’s complaint is vague, and political analysts might see his grandstanding as part of his desire (and his father Uddhav’s desire) to regain political ground, ever since Uddhav’s bête noire, his cousin Raj Thackeray, began wolfing down the Shiv Sena’s jhunka bhakar through his party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Salil points out an uncomfortable truth for fundamentalists:
Hindu nationalists get riled when they are compared with Muslim leaders declaring fatwas. But the difference between those who want Such A Long Journey or Breathless in Bombay banned and the clerics who hate Rushdie—and the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten—is marginal. Their threats chill free speech.