Two stories this week made me think about the perilous state of free speech in India: One is the arrest on charges of sedition of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi; the other is older, but I was reminded of it by an excerpt of novelist Salman Rushdie’s memoir in the most-recent issue of The New Yorker.
First, the cartoon.
Trivedi is a 25-year-old cartoonist and anti-corruption activist. Two of his cartoons drew particularly strident responses, prompting a Mumbai lawyer to complain and leading to the charges against Trivedi.
In one, Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani man convicted of carrying out the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is depicted as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution (presumably, the complaint is that Kasab’s death sentence hasn’t yet been carried out). In another, India’s national symbol of three lions have morphed into wolves and the motto Satyamev Jayate (“The truth will triumph”) has been turned into Brashtamev Jayate (“Corruption will triumph”) — it’s a linguistic pun that makes more sense in Hindi.
Reaction to the cartoons has been mixed — even on Trivedi’s Facebook page.
One woman wrote:
“At least respect our national symbol! please dont make a joke with our prides..”
And that was one of the milder comments.
Trivedi was granted bail today, and he’s vowed to campaign against the nation’s British-era sedition laws.
“If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one,” he’s said.
His story is hardly unique. As Soutik Biswas of the BBC has written:
“So, have Indians become more intolerant?
On the face of it, yes. In recent months, the chief minister of West Bengal state sent a professor to prison for emailing cartoons critical of her, there was a massive row over old cartoons showing Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and the government has been talking about curbs on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter”
Now, to the second story: Rushdie, the novelist, has a new memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker. The excerpt deals with the novelist’s travails following the publication in 1988 of his most controversial novel, “Satanic Verses.” The book and that era hold a special memory for me. I remember going with my older sister to Folyle’s in London where they’d stocked the book behind the counter despite bomb threats. The line snaked through the store, a defiant public message if there ever were one.
In his memoir, Rushdie describes living life under a fatwa, in hiding, and not knowing if a day is your last. Mostly, he seems aggrieved that his novel was perceived more as an “insult” than a piece of literature. Of course, the book was banned in India, and Rushdie explains how that came about:
“Then, on Thursday, October 6th, his friend Salman Haidar, who was Deputy High Commissioner of India in London, called to tell him formally, on behalf of his government, that “The Satanic Verses” had been banned in India. The book had not been examined by any properly authorized body, nor had there been any semblance of judicial process. The ban came, improbably, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit” of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.”
As we can see, things have changed little in the more than 20 years since that ban.
What does this means for India?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press and freedom of speech. India has no such guarantee. In fact, it allows for “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public.”
It’s easy, of course, to resort to that old saw, free speech good; restricted speech bad. But in India, everything is more complicated. A cartoon drawn with righteous indignation can lead to arrest on charges of sedition; an offhand remark can spark religious riots. Many Indians, including my friend and former editor Aakar Patel, believe India’s media should not have a U.S.-style free press. He has based his view on reporting on the 2002 Gujarat riots.
So should India’s laws allow artists and writers and cartoonists to be arrested when their work is deemed to be against the “interests of the general public”? Far be it for me to sit in the U.S. and prescribe what may or may not be good for India (for the record, I believe in Voltaire’s line: I disagree with what you say, but will defend unto death your right to say it), but surely laws governing the media and literature need to be re-examined by a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.