Fearful Silence

Salil Tripathi

One of the quirks of public debate in India in 2015 was when writers and artists began returning honours from state academies, or the state itself, as a mark of protest against rising intolerance in the country. The anecdotal experience was sobering : Dr M M Kalburgi, an award-winning writer, and Govind Pansare a left-leaning activist-author, were murdered, Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan was humiliated and forced to sign an undertaking that he would not write anymore (and he withdrew his books from circulation); when slogans critical of India were raised at a demonstration at the Jawaharlal Nehru University student leaders were arrested, beaten up by lawyers, charged, and released, but now face disciplinary actions from their university, and the government was encouraged to consider new laws to stifle freedom of expression on the Internet even after the Supreme Court had ruled against a restrictive legal provision of the Information Technology Act.

Later, when Aamir Khan, a leading Bollywood actor who happens to be Muslim, said at a public forum that his wife was concerned if it was safe for them to live in India and when India’s respected central bank governor Raghuram Rajan said that India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of inquiry are critical for economic progress, they were both condemned. Some ruling party supporters called for a boycott of Khan's films, and a concerted campaign began to remove the central banker from his position. (Rajan decided to leave his position when his term ended but he did not blame the campaign against him).

In each instance the response of several politicians and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was unanimous—scorn towards the critics and the invocation of rabid nationalism, to portray the dissenters, be they writers, journalists, artists, or activists, as unpatriotic. In a comical turn of events, Anupam Kher, an actor who supports the government, led a march in Delhi to declare that India was a tolerant country; how dare critics call it intolerant. Irony died, as it often does at such times.

In this succinct update to imposing Silence : The Use of India's Laws to Suppress Free Speech—a comprehensive report that PEN International, PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto published over a year ago—the researchers focus on cases of censorship ol cinema, intimidation of writers, arbitrary use of the law and online harassment. This update is based on a two-week visit to Jaipur, Hubli and Delhi in January 2016 in which PEN researchers met with journalists, writers, film-makers, and lawyers. It makes a strong case for India to revoke specific laws and create a legislative framework and encourage a culture of tolerance so that public debate is possible, so that India can awake into that heaven of freedom that Rabindranath Tagore wrote about in his famous poem—where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.

The prognosis is mixed. Investigations to apprehend the killers of Kalburgi remain sluggish. The JNU students have no respite from facng disciplinary action from their university. It is not known but far from impossible, that the government may reintroduce a bill to curb online freedom of expression. The silver lining has been the judiciary. After the Central Board of Film Certification directed nearly 80 cuts from a controversial film Udta Punjab, the Bombay High Court restored all but one scene. And the Madras High Court ruled recently that the state needed to do far more to protect the rights of Perumal Murugan. A country with a democratic constitution and aspiring to be a tolerant and equitable society doesn't silence its writers; it doesn't ban its film-makers; it doesn't intimidate its dissidents. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen had celebrated the culture of debate in India, when he called Indians argumentative. India needs to rediscover those traditions—of dissent, debate, discussion, and dialogue—as it makes material progress.

Vol. 49, No.22, Dec 4 - 10, 2016