Tomsk to Jaipur: India fails to protect freedom of speech

Salman Rushdie's wholly involuntary no-show at the Jaipur Literary Festival, a big event in India's cultural calendar, highlights yet again the country’s failure to uphold freedom of speech as well as the authorities’ cynical readiness to pander to religious fanatics for narrow electoral advantage

What a difference a few weeks can make!

In the dying days of 2011, cabinet ministers and senior diplomats of India and Russia feverishly engaged in assuaging the hurt feelings – mostly exaggerated – of India’s politicians and sections of the media over an appeal lodged in a court the Siberian town of Tomsk.

That appeal at the behest of the Russian Orthodox Church was for a ban on an annotated version of the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, used by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Hare Krishna cult. The Gita is considered sacred by Hindus and India’s parliamentary business was interrupted at length as government and opposition leaders vied with one another in condemning the move in faraway Tomsk, whose court eventually threw out the appeal.

Few, if any, among those who were up in arms then had, or have since, voiced any regret over India’s own sordid record of bans, prohibitions and abject failures to protect not only freedom of expression but even the life and limb of those targeted by religious fanatics.

Many books, films, works of art and exhibitions have either been banned officially or have had to be suppressed because often a Hindu and occasionally a Muslim group objected to them and the state could not be bothered protecting the rights of the authors and exhibitors. India was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in October 1988. Texts by revered authors have been taken off university syllabi on similar pretexts.

Reporters Sans Frontieres noted in a report entitled ‘Start of 2012 marked by violations of freedom of information in world’s biggest democracy’, that it was concerned over a series of breaches of and attacks on journalists in India. A judge of the Delhi High Court told representatives of global internet companies: “like China, we will block all such websites” if they did not remove content deemed offensive and objectionable. That India is envious of China’s runaway economic growth has long been obvious. But that an Indian judge should be extolling Chinese prowess in curtailing freedom of expression is disturbing.

Spectacularly underlining RSF’s concerns, India’s politicians, religious fanatics and the police teamed up later in January to keep the Booker-prize winning author Salman Rushdie from the Jaipur Literary Festival, concocting reports of threats to his life. They effectively barred the author, who holds a Person of Indian Origin visa-free travel status, from a talk-show at the festival. And after writer Hari Kunzru, critic Amitav Kumar, poet Jeet Thayil and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi read out quotations from The Satanic Verses in protest at the treatment meted out to Rushdie, they were bundled out of Jaipur at short notice.  The same combination of politicos, fanatics and police then stopped the organizing of a video link with Rushdie at the last minute.

From Tomsk to Jaipur, in a few weeks, nay days, official India had gone into the banning mode.

Since there have been many previous occasions over the past 24 years when readings from The Satanic Verses have been organized and since Rushdie has been visiting India regularly in recent years and had previously taken part in the Jaipur Festival in 2007, the explanation that most commentators and the media agree on is that the Congress party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted to woo Muslim voters ahead of legislative elections in February in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh (adjacent to Rajasthan, of which Jaipur is the capital).

The reasoning is that pandering to vocal Muslim fanatics would help deliver the entire “bank” of Muslim votes. It is seen as a short cut to winning votes. The more painstaking way would be to address the real grievances of the Muslim masses, by improving their access to education and to jobs. But both the government and the opposition find it easier to deflect attention from real problems plaguing India and instead compete in sectarian one-upmanship such as through the bullying of literary figures or some prosecutor or court in Siberia.

In an open letter published in The New York Times on 19 October 1988, Rushdie had told the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had banned The Satanic Verses: “I deeply resent my book being used as a political football; what should matter to you more than my resentment is that you come out of this looking not only Philistine and anti-democratic but opportunistic.”

Two and a half decades later, that holds true today for Prime Minister Singh and the motley crowd of legislators and officials around him.

About the author

N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes Walker Jay's blog.