As India muscles its way to the front rank of global powers, one of its principal strengths, supposedly, is its vaunted democracy. Unlike most of postcolonial Asia and Africa, India has never succumbed to military rule. Indeed, except for a brief two-year interregnum in the mid-1970s, when Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, suspended elections under a state of emergency, the world's second most populous country has been ruled by leaders chosen by universal adult franchise.
Every five years or so, we are reminded that an Indian general election represents the world's largest democratic exercise. India may be poor and chaotic compared to China, the argument goes, but its democratic tradition makes it a safer bet in the long term than a one-party state terrified of Google. Tell that to Shah Rukh Khan. The Bollywood superstar, the best known and most bankable actor of his generation, is currently embroiled in a war of words with the Shiv Sena, an ethnic chauvinist party with deep roots in Mumbai, the country's financial and entertainment capital.
Khan's alleged crime is saying that he would have liked to see Pakistani cricketers included in the third edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a cricket tournament in which the world's best players slog it out on behalf of teams representing eight regional franchises. (Khan, a long-time resident of Mumbai, owns a Calcutta-based team, the Kolkata Knight Riders.) In itself, the actor's view - that India should "open our arms to everyone" - is hardly uncommon among cricket fans or the public as a whole. Indeed, Pakistanis participated with distinction in the first two editions of the IPL. But for the rabble-rousing Shiv Sena, a famous Muslim figure's apparent sympathy for India's archenemy, Muslim-majority Pakistan, was too good a political opportunity to miss. A party member of parliament declared that if Khan were so keen on Pakistani players "he could go play his matches in Lahore, not in India".
Last Sunday, about 50 Shiv Sena protesters were arrested outside Khan's Mumbai home. Worried by the prospect of violence, cinema owners in the city have reportedly begun pulling down posters of Khan's forthcoming film, My Name is Khan, about an Indian Muslim's travails in post-September 11 America. On the face of it, the stand-off between Khan and the Shiv Sena can be dismissed as just another act in the vaudevillian drama of 21st century India, where diplomacy, movies and sport are often difficult to tell apart.
Other democracies, too, have their share of spats between cultural elites and self-appointed representatives of the proverbial man on the street. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, the country music band Dixie Chicks caused outrage in middle America when the lead singer said she was ashamed that the US president George W Bush was a fellow Texan. Nor is the Shiv Sena's opposition to normal sporting and cultural contact with Pakistan impossible to fathom, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 Pakistani gunmen killed 173 people, and wounded 308.
Nonetheless, the ongoing brouhaha in Mumbai illustrates one glaring difference between India and a mature democracy. In India, any group with a grudge, and the goons to back it, can resort to violence or the threat of violence to shut down free speech. If the Shiv Sena makes good its threat to disrupt screenings of My Name is Khan, the film's producers stand to lose millions of dollars. In October last year, faced with a similar threat from another political outfit, the same producer had to publicly apologise for a film in which characters used the anglicised name Bombay rather than the official Mumbai.
In another infamous incident in 2003, a mob ransacked a reputable research institute in the western city of Pune for helping an American scholar, who wrote critically about Shivaji, a revered 17th century ruler. And one of India's most celebrated painters, MF Husain, 94, lives in exile in Dubai and London, unable to return to India for fear of reprisals from extremist Hindu groups outraged by his paintings of Hindu goddesses in the nude. Many galleries will not exhibit his work.
Nor do overtly Hindu outfits such as the Shiv Sena and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party affiliate, the Bajrang Dal, have a monopoly on violence and intimidation. Indeed, in many ways, Muslim groups have long set the benchmark for India's grievance culture. In 1989, India became the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses - Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against the author followed press reports of protests in India. More recently, in 2006, Haji Mohammed Yaqoob Qureshi, a minister in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, publicly offered a US$11 million (Dh40m) bounty for beheading the Danish cartoonists who had drawn the Prophet Mohammed. The following year, in the hi-tech city of Hyderabad, three legislators of a local Islamic party roughed up Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author critical of her country's treatment of its Hindu minority and Islam's treatment of women. Subsequently, the government of West Bengal state in eastern India had to call in the army to quell rioters in Calcutta, whose demands included Nasreen's expulsion from the country. The author currently lives in the US.
Somewhat paradoxically, India's problem with hair-trigger hysteria is set against the backdrop of one of the world's fastest growing economies. Despite making a serious dent in both poverty and illiteracy since the advent of economic reforms nearly 20 years ago, the country has failed to foster the commitment to freedom of speech that forms the bedrock of a true democracy. Instead of standing on principle, the Indian state's first instinct is to cave in to the mob.
It is hardly surprising then that painters such as Husain and writers such as Nasreen prefer to flee rather than risk physical injury or worse, and that those who don't have that option usually apologise without fuss. And while rising prosperity has deepened the ranks of a pan-Indian middle class, the twin engines of economic liberalisation and globalisation also appear to be feeding a resurgence of ever narrower religious, caste and linguistic identities. Extremist Hindu groups attack shops selling Valentine's Day cards. Fundamentalist Muslim clerics urge their followers not to sing the national anthem. Christians attempt to shut down screenings of the allegedly blasphemous The Da Vinci Code. Several states - including Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh - face regional, linguistic (or both) movements that are quick to take to the streets to press their pet cause.
Needless to say, India's democratic experiment represents a relatively rare thing: a largely successful postcolonial polity. But unless the country finds a way to ensure that the moderate majority prevails more often over a plethora of bullies, vandals and petty despots, the odds of the country fulfilling its potential will remain slim. Unlike China, India is too heterogeneous not to expect disagreements among groups to crop up regularly. Unlike Singapore, India is too large for the state to effectively shut down uncomfortable debate and discussion.
The country's only long-term hope is that both the state and society begin to set ground rules that punish those who would shut down free speech. This makes the outcome of Shah Rukh Khan's spat with the Shiv Sena an important bellwether of the state of India's democracy. Sadanand Dhume is a Washington- and New Delhi-based writer, and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist. His next book examines the impact of globalisation on India