In India, free speech a wavering ideal

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Booksellers offering their wares in Old Delhi, India. (Photo: Natalia Antelava)

Book sellers in Old Delhi spread their goods on the pavement along one the city’s busiest streets every Sunday.

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People push and shove as they scan rows of books laid out on the road. From Tolstoy in Russian to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it looks as if you could find anything here. But you can’t.

A bookseller offers an obscure tome on Siberian railroad systems by Salman Rushdie. But ask instead for a copy of India’s most famous author's best known book, “The Satanic Verses” and the conversation is over.

The man just grins and looks away.

Rushdie’s 1988 novel infuriated some Muslims for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. More than 20 years after its publication, the book is still banned in India.

Last month, Rushdie canceled a visit to India after he was told it was too dangerous for him to take part in a literary festival in Jaipur. He accused the Indian government of fabricating threats and preventing him from coming, just to please Muslim voters ahead of a key regional election.

Nilanjana Roy, an Indian literary critic, said whether Rushdie’s right, people who are running the world’s biggest democracy are failing to protect free speech.

“This entire business about having to cave in because the other side is being violent means you are allowing yourself to be bullied,” she said. “It is the state’s job to stand up and say we will not allow that to happen.”

It’s not just the Satanic Verses. Dozens of books and films are banned in India, often because of what’s deemed offensive religious content, though one of the Indiana Jones movies is banned for its so-called imperialistic tendencies and racist portrayal of Indians. Roy said she worries where things are heading.

“If everyone is free to claim offense, it will become less and less possible to accuse a politician of corruption, for example,” Roy said. “We love comparing ourselves to China in terms of how free we are, but if you look closely on it we’ve slid down to 122nd place in the list of countries when it comes to media freedom, to Internet freedom. That isn’t a happy ranking.”

Comparisons with China are growing increasingly common in India. Last year the country’s communications minister asked social networking sites to devise a system to filter and block “objectionable” comments. And the Delhi High Court is currently reviewing a case filed against 20 companies, including Google and Facebook, demanding that they pre-screen religiously “offensive” comments.

Vinay Rai, editor of Akbari magazine, who filed the criminal lawsuit, said India is a country that needs some censorship.

“Posting offensive content in a socially conservative country, which has a history of religious violence, presents a real danger to public,” Roy said.

But even when there’s no obvious danger to the public, the Indian government may still take offense.

Recently, a joke on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno turned into a diplomatic incident. The Indian government complained to the U.S. State Department after Leno showed a photo of India’s Golden Temple, which is sacred to Sikhs, and described it as Mitt Romney’s summer home.

The issue of free expression has prompted heated discussion in India. In a debate that was later televised, Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of the liberal Tehelka magazine, recently took on Justice Markandey Katju, the government-appointed head of India's press council.

“India is different,” Katju said. “For many in India, freedom is food and security.”

“But how do you change a society unless you push the boundaries?” Chaudhury asked. “How will the boundaries of the society be pushed unless we question them?”

But pushing boundaries can be dangerous here. There is a growing list of artists, writers, academics and journalists who have been beaten, harassed and pushed into exile.

In central Delhi, an artist named Balbir Krishan, a double amputee who is also openly gay, was attacked during a recent exhibition by masked men who pushed him to the ground and kicked him. His most recent work deals with gay themes.

The men shouted “Get out of the country, you don’t belong here.” It was only after 24 hours of media pressure that the police launched an investigation.

“It’s going to become more dangerous,” Krishan said. “I am scared.”

Krishan said his role as an artist is to show people things they don’t want to see, to make people uncomfortable and make them think.

But he added that unless politicians step in and protect his right to do that, then the voices of those who are against him will become louder and clearer than his.

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