Rather than fighting individual battles, it is time to make the law defend freedom of speech.
The decision by Penguin India to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History and pulp the remaining copies follows an out-of-court settlement of Penguin India with Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a little known organisation led by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, well known for his role in the introduction of Hindutva distortions in school textbooks during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
What has been particularly shocking is the manner in which the publisher has conceded to these outrageous demands without even fighting them in the sessions court. As various commentators have pointed out, such surrender by a well-known and financially capable publisher has dangerous implications. It sets a (semi-legal) precedent, it emboldens the extremists and it pushes authors and other publishers towards self-censorship.
It is now, unfortunately, becoming all too common for publishers to bow to blackmail, both legal as well as extralegal, and withdraw books. Just some weeks ago, Union Minister for Heavy Industries Praful Patel forced Bloomsbury to withdraw Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India [Amazon link]which argued that Patel was responsible for the financial and operational troubles of the national carrier.
In both these instances, the formal legality of the action hid the coarse extralegal pressure which remained like the proverbial elephant in the room. In the case of Doniger’s book the unsaid was the very real possibility of violence against the publisher, bookshops, and even authors and institutions who may have collaborated with Doniger as happened in the case of James Laine, to “avenge” whose book on Shivaji the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was vandalised.
In a context where Narendra Modi is apparently politically in the ascendance, it is easy to frighten publishing houses which are also big businesses. In the case of Bhargava, it seems obvious that the publishers did not want to pick a fight with a powerful union minister.
That a prominent minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could arm-twist a publisher to withdraw a book which criticises him, is a particularly galling finale to the way the fundamental right to the freedom of expression has been attacked under its watch. In the decade that the UPA has been in power, there has been a steady and dangerous erosion of this right.
On one side are the acts of omission like the inability to protect and defend an artist like M F Hussain and authors James Laine and Taslima Nasreen, and the unwillingness to resist demands by different extremist groups claiming “hurt sentiments”. On the other side has been the UPA government’s acts of commission in corralling speech and expression within ever tighter legal restrictions, like the laws which criminalise expression on the internet, the increasing number of requests to block websites and the creation of a surveillance system for mobile and online communications.
It is this which has created an atmosphere where it becomes so easy for demands for bans and censorships of books, paintings, films, etc, to be made so successfully. What Penguin India and Bloomsbury have demonstrated is that a couple of decades after Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was blocked in India (technically it was only a ban on importing the book), it does not even need actual violence or the threat of violence for the government or publisher to buckle.
As Wendy Doniger has pointed out in her statement, it is the threat of criminal prosecution which weakens the stand of the authors and publishers. India has rightfully, like most democracies, made hate speech a criminal offence. However, our judiciary has interpreted this to include any statement which “hurts the sentiments” of a community,
while being unpardonably lax in punishing actions which actually hurt and kill members of a community, particularly those who are minorities or marginalised. Under the present interpretation of “hurt sentiments”, B R Ambedkar would be sharing a prison cell for his Riddles of Hinduism with D D Kosambi for his Myth and Reality.
While the governments in India have always been willing to give into demands for protecting “hurt sentiments”, it is after the unfortunate decision by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government to ban The Satanic Verses that this trend has strengthened. It needs to be remembered that there was hardly any demand for its ban or protest against its contents by Muslims in India or elsewhere.
It was on the assumption of non-Muslims that Muslim sentiments will be hurt that the book was banned, an act which led to other countries like Pakistan and Iran taking even stronger action against the book and its author in a dismal show of grandstanding.
There has been no effort by governments to reverse this trend and various organisations claiming to represent Hindu, Muslim, Christian and other community sentiments have come forward with demands against various paintings, films, books, songs, etc. The violence, which has often followed, and the threats of violence have never been resisted, other than by small civil society organisations.
The governments and the courts have shown what can only be called a criminal neglect towards the need to uphold the freedom of speech.
This bodes ill for the health of democracy and secularism. It is necessary that the laws regarding hate speech are given a clearer and precise interpretation. It is also necessary that threats to freedom of speech and expression need to be punished and not tolerated.
We need laws which will hold our governments and police liable for failing to protect the citizen’s fundamental rights; we need the Supreme Court to intervene and clarify the conditions under which the right to freedom of speech can be curtailed. Otherwise we can soon bid goodbye to this fundamental right.