There was nothing new or exceptional about the recent controversy over Salman Rushdie's aborted trip to Asia's largest literary festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival in India.
On spurious security grounds, the Indian government cancelled the controversial author's trip and soon after that an attempt by the organizers to arrange his appearance via a video link fell through as local authorities warned them it could trigger violence at the event and in the city. The government's action followed a vigorous and predictable campaign by a senior conservative cleric and Islamic groups to stop the author from attending the event, on the grounds that his best- known work, The Satanic Verses, was offensive to Muslims. With elections due in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims constitute 18 per cent of the population, the ruling Congress Party was clearly eager not to upset the crucial Muslim vote. Yet this latest controversy once again stirred a debate on free speech in the world's largest democracy.
Of late, the state's stranglehold over free expression has been getting tighter. Ironically, as India strengthens its position in the international sphere and is serving a term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, its support of democratic principles within its borders has visibly weakened. The Free Speech Hub, an Indian media watchdog, recorded 24 attacks on journalists by vigilante groups and state security forces and 27 instances of censorship of content across media in 2011.
Successive Indian governments have been sensitive about religion and other issues that can be brushed under the carpet of national security. The Congress Party and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) share responsibility for the many and repeated assaults on free expression in the country. When it was in power, the BJP banned a book by the respected Delhi University historian D.N. Jha, which challenged the myth of the sacred cow and argued that Indians of the pre-Muslim period ate beef. It allowed riotous mobs to attack the sets of Canadian-Indian film director Deepa Mehta's film Water and banned her subsequent film Fire. The party did little to prevent rampaging crowds from attacking cinemas screening the Bollywood film Fanaa after its lead actor publicly criticized the construction of the Narmada dam – a controversial project because of the ecological damage and displacement of the local population it would entail.
Congress, a political party built on a foundation of liberal freedoms, has proved the most inconsistent. The Satanic Verses was first banned by a Congress government in the 1980s. And it was under a Congress government that novelist Rohinton Mistry's book Such a Long Journey was hastily removed from Mumbai University's curriculum in late 2010 after the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party objected to its alleged derogatory remarks about the party and its leader, Bal Thackeray. A Left-Congress government did not stand by author Taslima Nasreen when she was targeted by angry mobs for what were termed the ‘extremely liberal views' in her second book Shodh, and she was forced to flee India.
In 2011 reputed American radio journalist David Barsamian was deported within hours of arriving at New Delhi airport because he had flouted visa conditions by interviewing people in Kashmir as a tourist. In 2010, author Arundhati Roy was accused of sedition by the government when she dismissed India as a 'hollow superpower', saying that ‘India needs freedom from Kashmir, and Kashmir [freedom] from India'.
This kind of intolerance by officials would perhaps be understandable if the issue was simply about Kashmir, which lies at the heart of its difficult relationship with its neighbour Pakistan and remains a strongly emotive topic for a majority of its citizens.
But this discourse is not about Kashmir. Nor is it about the Muslim or Hindu right; both have lashed out with violence when their sentiments are hurt, and both have exploited their minority hold on coalition politics. Rather it is symptomatic of an increasingly insecure state that uses political expediency and exaggerated security concerns to clamp down on those who dare to dissent. Corruption dominated the national discourse in 2011, yet the issue was not the merits of the Lokpal Bill, which envisaged the creation of an anti-corruption ombudsman, but the manner in which the Congress government tried to clamp down on dissenting voices such as Anna Hazare and the public sentiment he whipped up through his non-violent fasting protests. The Rushdie imbroglio comes close on the heels of a Delhi civil court order that ordered 22 websites – including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook – to remove content regarded as ‘anti-religious‘ or ‘antisocial'. Within two days of the order, website operators were summoned to court on charges of criminal conspiracy and given a deadline to remove such content from their site.
Such steps taken by the Indian state belie the belief that it is only groups such as the Shiv Sena, which acts as the self-appointed moral guardian of Hinduism, that are responsible for most attacks on freedom of expression. The reason why mobs can attack cinema theatres, burn books and beat up those who hold different views – as demonstrated in the case of the violent assault on civil liberties lawyer Prashant Bhushan in Delhi in 2011 – is that the state acquiesces in such bullying and allows aggressors to act with impunity.
For those who take Indian democracy as a settled issue, a discussion on free expression is tedious, even unnecessary, because the clichés borrowed to explain the essence of India make allowances for such aberrations. However, a state that does not stand up to protect its citizens' fundamental rights is complicit in allowing violence to take place.
And then there is the link between India's domestic stance on civil liberties and the position it adopts in international forums. In its foreign policy, India remains ambivalent on the international protection of human rights, abstaining or blocking country-specific resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council. At the UN Security Council in 2011, India did not support a resolution on Libya calling for protection of the Libyan people, and at the Human Rights Council it abstained from the resolution that authorized military force to protect civilians and did not support a resolution creating an international commission of inquiry on Syria. To justify this position, India typically promotes the doctrine of private engagement as opposed to public pressure. Yet at home it allows a violent minority to dictate state policy.
For now the Indian state seems unlikely to reinforce the idea that citizens in a democracy can freely express opinions that some consider controversial or offensive. It seems even more unlikely that the government will send a strong message to this narrow-minded minority who try to control what individuals think, write and create.