Free speech is under tremendous threat in India: Suketu Mehta

New York: Free speech has innumerable enemies in India and few principled defenders said writer Suketu Mehta pointing out that the state either stands by and does nothing to protect free speech or actively abets its suppression.

Mehta, who is the author of "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found,” blasted self-anointed ‘guardians of the religion’ that wanted books banned, doing a disservice to the intellectual conversation that Indian society needs.

“In the Hinduism I know, books are sacred. If my foot so much as touches a book, I will reach out with my right hand, touch the book and then touch both my eyes and my forehead, in respect and apology. What sort of Hindus are these that demand that books be pulped and thrown into the trash?” asked Mehta.

 Free speech is under tremendous threat in India: Suketu Mehta

What sort of Hindus are these that demand that books be pulped? asked Mehta

“This is surely not the Hinduism of the Rigveda, from which the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan takes it motto: Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides, which harm no one; are unimpeded and victorious over the forces of division. This is the philosophy that makes me proud to call myself a Hindu, one that is not afraid of any kind of thought from anywhere in the world. The people who want Doniger’s book banned and pulped are cowards, afraid of thoughts from all sides,” Mehta said at a talk in the Indian consulate in New York.

You can disagree with Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, but wanting it banned encourages a dangerous trend: This is the third book in as many months to be quashed by using legal threats. Intolerance is on the rise and the book publishing industry’s response has been astonishingly feeble. Defending free speech in India was not worth even a minor cost for publishing giant Penguin Random House, which stopped publication of Doniger’s book and settled out of court with the Shiksha Bachao Andolan.

Earlier in January, Bloomsbury India knuckled under pressure from Congress leader Praful Patel and briskly pulled copies of The Descent of Air India after the former aviation minister filed a criminal-defamation suit. Instead of defending the author Jitender Bhargava, a former Air India executive, Bloomsbury declined to fight the case, and tendered an apology to Patel. The author says he still stands by his criticism of several decisions made by Patel which dealt a body-blow to the ailing national carrier.

Publishers in India are nervous about lawsuits because fighting libel charges takes a long time, given the slow pace of India’s courts. Publishers end up deciding that it’s better just to give in to a complaint rather than spend years trying to fight it.

Here is the sad truth: the Indian legal system is not only favorable to plaintiffs alleging “hurt sentiments,” offense or defamation; it also grants powerful litigants the ability to suppress books before they are even published. The Sahara group filed a Rs 200 crore defamation suit against journalist Tamal Bandyopadhyay in the Calcutta High Court blocking the publication of his book Sahara: The Untold Story.

The Indian Constitution lists “freedom of speech and expression” among the fundamental rights it guarantees, but it also allows the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of “public order, decency or morality.” Compared to those of the United States, these terms are highly restrictive. What is worse is that the laws have been interpreted, over the decades, to carve out larger and larger exceptions to the right of free expression detailed in India’s Constitution.

“It is clear that what the country needs is an unqualified constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech — like the American First Amendment. Otherwise, India’s claim to be the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is disingenuous,” said Mehta.

Mehta, who teaches at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, pointed out that in the late 1950s, India successfully eliminated famine, due to a combination of free press that vigorously pursued reports of mass starvation and an opposition that would take up such reports in legislatures.

“Indians need to understand that free speech, the right to think and exchange ideas freely, isn’t just an elite privilege; it is at the core of the democracy that we so cherish,” said Mehta.

“It saves lives — tens of millions of lives, as Amartya Sen has demonstrated in his studies of famine. The lack of a free press in China led to twenty million people starving to death in the Great Leap Forward, because no one could raise the alarm in the government-controlled newspapers.”

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2014 09:44:19 IST