x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Censorship and sensibility in India

Is India now a paradise for those who take offence? Critics believe the new culture of outrage is sending real thoughts underground. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

Muslim clerics demand removal of objectionable scenes from the movie Vishwaroopam at a protest in Lucknow.
Muslim clerics demand removal of objectionable scenes from the movie Vishwaroopam at a protest in Lucknow.

NEW DELHI //The past few weeks in India have seen films, an all-girl rock band, a fashion show, a Booker prize-winning novelist and a reputed academic become targets of harassment, legal action or threats of violence.

The most prominent case involved Vishwaroopam, a Tamil film that will be released in Tamil Nadu on Friday after a two-week delay. The film was blocked by the state government after some Muslim groups protested that it depicted Muslims in poor light. The director, Kamal Haasan, had to agree to cut seven scenes.

"The culture of taking offence has acquired an epidemic proportion, and we are moving in a direction where nothing, it seems, is a safe topic," said Salil Tripathi, who wrote the 2009 book Offence: The Hindu Case, on how Hindu fundamentalists have succeeded in censoring and banning many cultural works and teachings.

"If India doesn't step back from this abyss, it will begin to resemble the dictatorships where people speak in coded language, where real thoughts go underground," Mr Tripathi added.

On Sunday, a fashion show in the southern city of Visakhapatnam was cancelled after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu group, protested against women modelling dresses bearing images of Hindu deities.

In Delhi, an art gallery had to temporarily shut down on Monday after the VHP called for a ban on a retrospective of the modern nude because the exhibit included "indecent pictures". The VHP's women's wing, the Durga Vahini, harrassed women who were smoking and drinking in a restaurant in Mangalore last week.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, a Muslim cleric in Kashmir a fatwa against Pragaash, an all-girl high school rock band that was deemed "un-Islamic". The band has dissolved, although Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, defended them last weekend on Twitter, saying: "I hope these talented young girls will not let a handful of morons silence them."

Last week, the author Salman Rushdie cancelled a visit to a literary festival in Kolkata, citing security concerns after protests by Muslim groups. The fair's organisers subsequently denied having invited him. Yesterday, the Indian Christian Republican Party complained to the police that Kadal, a new movie set in a Tamil Catholic fishing community, shows a framed picture of Jesus Christ being thrown to the floor.

These instances have sparked widespread criticism of what an editorial last week in The Hindu newspaper called India's "flourishing outrage industry". In the International Herald Tribune, the columnist Manu Joseph called modern India "a paradise for those who take offence".

The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but it is not without caveat. The constitution allows for "reasonable restrictions" on this right, in the interests of "public order, decency or morality".

Further, the Indian Penal Code contains two laws that have been invoked repeatedly to cramp free speech.

Section 295A punishes those who "outrage [the] religious feelings of any class" by spoken, written or visual means, with a fine or a prison term of up to three years.

Section 505(2) promises a similar punishment to those who make "statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes" on grounds of religion, caste, language or race.

Nikhil Mehra, a lawyer who practises in the Supreme Court, said both laws are antiquated holdovers from colonial India.

"The problem is that these laws are so broadly worded that cases can be impossible to quash, because it is difficult for a judge to take the view that some piece of speech does not promote enmity between groups," Mr Mehra said.

"I'd say there's no chance that these laws will be struck off the books," he said. "Politically, nobody will do it, because we have such a huge vacuum of leadership that nobody has the guts to step up and suggest such changes."

Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, has extensively analysed cases where these laws are applied in conjunction with India's information technology act, which governs online speech.

"Given India's history of communal violence, it would be extraordinary for courts to directly criticise such laws," Mr Prakash said. But these laws are two among many "patently unconstitutional laws" in India's statute books, he pointed out.

"How could it be constitutional to prevent the free broadcast of news over radio, for instance, or to prohibit speech online that causes 'annoyance'?" Mr Prakash said. "Not only are antiquated and speech-restricting laws not being struck off, more such laws are being added to the statute books all the time."

An example, he said, was section 66a of the information technology act, which aims to curtail "offensive messages" online but is often used to target dissidents and even posts on social media.

Ssubramanian@thenational.ae