What is happening to speech and press freedoms in India? We’ve seen a slew of high-profile resignations of senior journalists, whispers of a clampdown on anti-Modi sentiment, including tweets and op-eds, and a loud and intimidating Indian right. The latter even led to the removal from book stores of the newest edition of The Hindus: An Alternative History, by the eminent University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger.Jonathin Shainin’s post for the New Yorker goes some way in explaining India’s arcane and somewhat restrictive laws on freedom of speech, which show special “sensitivity” towards speech that gives “religious offence.” With “reasonable restrictions” in place, the courts have set a precedent for encouraging book banning, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses being a notable example; it was banned just a week after it was published in 1988.
The Indian legal system is not only favorable to plaintiffs alleging offense or defamation; it also grants powerful litigants the ability to suppress books before they are even published. In December, the Indian finance conglomerate Sahara—whose founder, Subrata Roy, is barred from leaving the country while courts resolve a series of legal and regulatory challenges against his firm—obtained an order from the Calcutta High Court blocking the publication of a book about the company. Sahara had filed a thirty-million-dollar defamation suit against the book’s author, Tamal Bandyopadhyay, the deputy managing editor of Mint, India’s most respected business newspaper.None of these cases involve the “banning” of a book by government action. Instead, they represent a kind of private censorship, in which interested parties find it easy to manipulate a rotten system and silence inconvenient opinions. Governments at the state and national level have never hesitated to ban books—and there is little practical distinction between the major political parties in this regard—but these days there is no need for them to do so.
After a cover story that implicated the RSS, the BJP’s “parent party,” in a spate of terrorist attacks, the magazine that ran the story received a host of threatening calls. Vinod Jose, the executive editor, told Scroll, “I cannot imagine any other media house in today’s environment, where I could have published this story”.The truth is that Hindu nationalism is rising along with Narendra Modi’s chances at the prime ministership in this spring’s general elections after a decade of Congress rule. Modi’s popularity has brought new life to the nationalists. Shainin correctly identifies the weakness of institutions keeping political (and academic, in Doniger’s case) discourse at a civil level. Ironically, in an attempt to prevent “hurt feelings” the Indian legal system favors the activists who threatened to sue the publishers of The Hindus and clamps down on free speech.This is a terrible precedent for Modi’s (likely) rise to high office. If so many journalists, writers, and media outlets can be silenced by activists in the opposition, one can imagine them exerting even more pressure once in government. Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi was banned in Gandhi’s (and Modi’s) home state of Gujarat, for the crime of supposedly hinting that Gandhi was homosexual. There is little to suggest that Modi won’t try to make that ban apply nationwide. And if he doesn’t, other activists certainly will.