Two articles from the BBC and The New York Times discuss limits of free speech in India.
Is India facing what author Salman Rushdie calls a “cultural emergency” with writers, painters and filmmakers being targeted by the mob? (The Emergency in the 1970s was the darkest hour in Independent India’s history when civil liberties were suspended.)
Consider the events that have made the front pages this week.
Leading academic Ashis Nandy is threatened with arrest after he makes controversial remarks about corruption and disadvantaged groups at the popular Jaipur literary festival. Sir Salman himself is asked to stay away from a film promotion and a literary festival in Calcutta, supposedly one of India’s more liberal cities, because authorities fear protests from fringe Muslim groups. Similar groups have demanded a ban on actor-director Kamal Haasan’s new film Vishwaroopam, prompting the star to complain about “cultural terrorism”.
The outsize controversy over the remarks made by Prof Nandy, who was once voted one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals by Foreign Policy magazine, demonstrates how fringe groups can threaten free speech with impunity.
At a panel discussion ironically called the Republic of Ideas, the scholar said “most of the corrupt” in India came from its most disadvantaged groups, but he also said that corruption among the rich was less conspicuous.
INDIA is in the throes of what Salman Rushdie rightly calls a “cultural emergency.” Writers and artists of all kinds are being harassed, sued and arrested for what they say or write or create. The government either stands by and does nothing to protect freedom of speech, or it actively abets its suppression.
This year, the world’s largest democracy ranked a miserable 140th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index— falling nine places from last year. Today, Afghanistan and Qatar have a freer press than India.
In recent years, the government has cast a watchful eye on the Internet, demanding that companies like Google and Facebook prescreen content and remove items that might be deemed “disparaging” or “inflammatory,” according to technology industry executives there.
In November, police in Mumbai arrested a 21-year-old woman for complaining on Facebook about the shutdown of the city after the death of the nativist politician Bal K. Thackeray; another Facebook user was arrested for “liking” the first woman’s comment. The grounds for the arrests? “Hurting religious sentiments.”