Freedom of Speech in the World’s Largest Democracy Is Increasingly Elusive

May 29, 2015 Updated: May 31, 2015

In January, an Indian author announced his own death in a Facebook post. “Author Perumal Murugan is dead,” it said. “He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live.” He then withdrew his books from circulation, and disappeared into anonymity.

The decision was the author’s own choice, but the circumstances that led to it reveal an increasingly bleak situation for free expression in India. For Murugan, his self-censorship began following the publication of his book, “One Part Woman,” in 2010.

The novel, set over a century ago, follows a childless upper-caste couple in rural South India and their struggle to conceive. In an ancient temple ritual, the woman sleeps with another man from a lower caste and becomes pregnant.

Instead of protecting Murugan’s right to free expression, the local government gave a platform to his opponents.

In 2014, groups from the region in which the novel is set began burning copies of the book and demanding its author’s arrest. Their grounds? That it portrayed not only extramarital sex, but sex between individuals from different castes, and  this was an insult to the community.

Among those demanding Murugan’s arrest were local representatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allied far-right Hindu organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Instead of protecting Murugan’s right to free expression, the local government gave a platform to his opponents, organizing a conference where they could air their outrage. Shortly after, Murugan posted the Facebook status declaring his demise.

Imposing Silence

This incident demonstrates how difficult it is in India to talk about hugely important issues like caste, but it is only one example of a controversial opinion being silenced in the country.

India’s laws are being used for arbitrary, inconsistent censorship in every field from literature to film to social media.

Last week, literary organization and free speech advocate PEN International released a report titled “Imposing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Suppress Free Speech.” It detailed an alarming trend toward stifling expression, and how India’s laws are being used for arbitrary, inconsistent censorship in every field from literature to film to social media.

Last year, American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus,” was withdrawn in India following a successful lawsuit filed by a right-wing organization pushing to remove “anti-national” content from education. In an interview with TIME Magazine, the leader of the organization, Dinananth Batra, said that the book portrays Hinduism in a negative light and that, as a Hindu, his sentiments were hurt. Shortly after Penguin India withdrew Doniger’s book, a notice was served to publishers of her previous books, demanding that they also be withdrawn.  

A copy of Perumal Murugan's book "One Part Woman" is at a bookshop in New Delhi, India, on Jan. 15, 2015. The novelist Perumal Murugan went into hiding and said he has quit writing after his latest book about a woman's efforts to get pregnant with a stranger sparked virulent protests by right-wing Hindu and caste groups. "Writer Perumal Murugan is dead. He will continue to live as a teacher," he wrote in a Facebook post in which he also promised to compensate booksellers for any losses. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Perumal Murugan’s book “One Part Woman” at a bookshop in New Delhi, India, on Jan. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

The PEN report reflected on this type of “mob-censorship” by saying, “India’s obscenity laws side with the offended party and are easily leveraged by aggrieved groups or individuals.”

However, the government also clamps down on free speech when it feels threatened. The Indian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(A). However, the article also places “reasonable restrictions” on it, under categories like “security of the State,” “decency and morality,” and “incitement to an offense.”

These broad exceptions mean that the degree to which free speech is protected ebbs and flows with the government in power.

Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes defamation, and has been used to convict individuals without proof that they actually caused any harm. The potential to harm is enough. In May 2014, a student was arrested for sending an allegedly offensive WhatsApp message about Modi.

A History of Suppression

India has a history of tight government control. In 1988, India was one of the first countries to ban the publication and sale of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses” after many Muslims accused the author of blasphemy.

A blocked message is displayed on YouTube in the place of a BBC documentary on the victim of a December 2012 gang-rape, in Bangalore on March 6, 2015. India said it had asked YouTube to block access to a documentary about a savage gang-rape in Delhi, after barring broadcasters from airing the film. AFP PHOTO / Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A blocked message is on YouTube in place of a BBC documentary on the victim of a December 2012 gang-rape, in Bangalore, on March 6, 2015. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

During a 21-month national emergency declared by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, journalists, activists, and leaders from across the political spectrum who were critical of her government were arrested.

The day the emergency was declared, The Times of India printed an obituary to “DEM O’Cracy, beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice.” The Indian Express printed a blank editorial page.

Censorship of film in India is an arbitrary process.

In 2015, the censorship of a rape documentary was eerily reminiscent of that period.

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin’s “India’s Daughter” garnered controversy from activists and the media, who protested the filmmaker’s interview of a man accused in the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Their vehement objection to giving the rapist a platform resulted in the Indian government banning the documentary. Consequently, the news network that was supposed to air the film broadcast images of a lamp burning in front of a black background for an hour instead.

Censorship of film in India is an arbitrary process. A chapter in the PEN report talks about a “politicization of the film board,” by which voices that challenge the official government narrative are silenced. When it came into power last year, the Modi government replaced liberal members on the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) with conservatives.

The 2014 film “Haider,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in modern-day Kashmir, was released only after 41 cuts were made to it. The reasons cited were that the film portrayed the Indian Army negatively and encouraged separatist sentiment in the unstable region over which India and Pakistan have fought four wars.

Ray of Hope?

Last month, India’s Supreme Court found a law that had been used to arrest bloggers and social media users for posting alleged anti-national content on the Internet invalid.

Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act has been controversial since the act was passed in 2000. It stated that anyone sending or posting “grossly offensive” material online for the purpose of causing “ill will” could face up to three years in prison.  

The very broad provisions of this section were exploited by politicians at every level to stifle criticism. In March, a teenager was jailed for posting a comment about a state minister. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for posting cartoons lampooning the Indian Parliament.

In 2012, a woman from Mumbai was arrested and detained for 14 days for complaining about a citywide shutdown in the wake of the death of a controversial far-right politician. Her friend, who ‘liked’ the status, was also arrested.

Following their arrest, 24-year-old law student from Delhi, Shreya Singhal, filed a petition challenging Section 66(A) of the IT Act in the Supreme Court. The court declared the section unconstitutional in 2015.

Whether this decision by the court is indicative of a changing stance toward free expression in India, or is just a one-off judgment amid ever-tightening suppression remains to be seen.