Apr 222014

My column, in last week’s DNA

In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.

A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.

The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.

There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.

If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.

Feb 022012

My column appeared in the DNA on Republic Day rather appropriately (it usually appears on a Monday) :D. It deals with the issue of reasonable restrictions on free speech & the 1st amendment to the Indian Consititution that possibly needs to be repealed..

This week, India celebrates the 62nd year of being a Republic. On a cold winter’s day on the January 26, 1950, the Constitution of India came into effect. In one stroke, it decimated millennia of institutionalised discrimination, inequality, bias, bigotry and prejudice. It put the rights of the individual above age-old strictures — the right of women, people irrespective of caste, and tribal people. It guaranteed justice, equality, and freedom, irrespective of gender, caste, community, or any other grouping within its boundaries. The Constitution enshrined six fundamental rights – The right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, culture and educational rights and finally the right to constitutional remedies that allow you, the citizen, to take on the whole system — organised religion, the State, society — to ensure that your rights are not violated.
On the face of it, the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution would give Indians the greatest freedoms possible in the world. But, that is not the case. Our freedoms are not absolute. There are what is called reasonable restrictions on our freedoms, especially the freedom of speech and expression.
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution deals with the protection of rights regarding the freedom of speech — including the right to express, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to form associations and unions; the right to move freely throughout the Indian Union and settle anywhere within its boundaries; and to practise any trade, any occupation that one chooses. Theoretically, this means that you can write and publish The Satanic Verses in India; as a private group, you can hoist the flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar; that you can belong to SIMI; that you can freely settle in any part of India including Jammu and Kashmir; and that you can run a beef stall in Madhya Pradesh or a liquor shop in Gujarat. But, we know that none of that is true. We have freedom but not absolute freedom. So how did Section 19 of the Constitution that guarantees you so many freedoms become so restrictive?
The answer is the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution. The first amendment in 1951 sought to curtail the freedom of expression as laid down in Article 19(1). The reason stated for this amendment was, “The citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by article 19(1)(a) has been held by some courts to be so comprehensive as not to render a person culpable even if he advocates murder and other crimes of violence.’
It is ironic that the First Amendment to the American Constitution made the freedom of speech an almost absolute right, while the first amendment to the Indian Constitution took an absolute right and (reasonably) restricted it. The amendment modified absolute rights to relative rights and said that these reasonable restrictions were in the interests of the general public.
The question is what is reasonable? Is it reasonable to burn the Indian flag as an act of protest? Is it reasonable to garland a statue of a dead king with slippers? Is it reasonable to kill a cow and eat its meat? Is it reasonable to question the existence of god? Is it reasonable to ask for independence? Is it reasonable to paint pictures of the Prophet Mohammed? Is it reasonable to question the historical veracity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? Is it reasonable to fly the Pakistan flag as a sign of friendship? All of these are various forms of expression. The question is not whether you approve of these or not. The question is do people have the freedom to express their views without fear of arrest or reprisal.
Reasonable restrictions have been exploited by political parties, and communal leaders to deprive individuals of their freedoms using the threat of communal riots and violence to curtail expression. The State has buckled under the pressure over and over again. As a result, individual rights have been sacrificed at the altar of buying peace. The State needs to stop using ‘reasonable restrictions’ as a crutch and back individual liberties as laid down in the Constitution. It is not the role of the government to determine whether a restriction is reasonable or not. Its job is to provide security to the individual to practise their freedoms without fear. Maybe it is time that they got rid of the ‘reasonable restrictions’ vis-à-vis free speech and restore our freedoms to those guaranteed 62 years ago on the first day of the New Republic.

Dec 212011

This from India Today

In the midst of a debate on monitoring content, a Delhi court has restrained social networking sites including Facebook, Google and Youtube from webcasting any “anti-religious” or “anti-social” content promoting hatred or communal disharmony.

Additional Civil Judge Mukesh Kumar, in an ex-parte order, directed the social networking websites to remove the objectionable content in the form photographs, videos or text which might hurt religious sentiments.

The court on Tuesday passed the order on a civil suit filed by Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasmi through advocate Santosh Pandey who had also submitted the printouts of the contents

Someone needs to give judges, ministers, politicians and bureaucrats a crash course on the nature of the Internet. The fact that it is not centralised. the fact that it is not controlled. The fact that it is made up of billions of computers across the world. Even if the content is deleted from social networking websites, and doesn’t get replaced, doesn’t mean it won’t exist on the net and won’t be shared again. And, there is no way anybody can guarantee that this ‘offensive’ stuff won’t be shared again.

On a more practical note, practically everything modern can be considered to be hurting religious sentiments. To start off, every religion can be considered offensive to someone else from some other religion. When the revealed religions say there is but one God, and he is ours, it can be considered offensive to all non revealed religions. Religious traditions like Buddhism which dont have a God at its core, it can be considered to be offensive to those who believe in the concept of God. Religious traditions like Hinduism which accept animism, atheism, monotheism and polytheism would probably blow the brains of those who don’t understand variety. So, what all do you ban ?

So what kind of content would be declared offensive in the future ?

  • Would Atheist material be hurting religious sentiments?
  • Modernity & modern laws – universal suffrage, equality of genders, universal education, banning of child marriages, equal rights, the rights of women, the rights of sexual minorities, – could these be considered as hurting religious sentiments?
  • Constitutional Law can it be considered to be anti- religion and hurting religious sentiments.
  • How about videos that talk about women’s emancipation? The right of a woman not to be beaten or raped inside a marriage – is that anti-religion? Is the concept of divorce and material associated with it anti religion
  • Is science anti-religion ?
  • Is content that talks about evolution anti religion?
  • Does content that talks about the right of Dalits to worship in temples, be considered to be anti-religion.

People who file cases against content or cause violence based on their response to content are guilty. Not the content. It is their ego responding. Not God. Not religion. Politicians and courts need to start ignoring this offended ego. 

We jump up and down like a bunch of scalded kittens when an obscure group tries to get a ban on the Bhagvad Gita… they are mirroring our actions.What is religion for one, is offence for the other. there will be no end to this, unless someone draws a lakshman rekha on this silliness. If something offends you, don’t read. But, expecting the world to share your outrage on the offense is stupidity. The system is encouraging such stupidity.

Religion or God, don’t need mere mortals to defend them. They can manage on their own. The greatest blasphemy is to assume God needs your help … S/he doesn’t.

Oct 282010

How many people in India have the ability to bring people from various parts of the political spectrum together ?
One and only one, Arundathi Roy.

After putting me off the Narmada Bachao Andolan, feeling sorry for tribal development or lack of it, in Naxal infested areas – she has made me question my doubts about the role of the State in a modern world. If she supports any view that are even 3 light years close to mine – then I must be wrong :)

But, it is not just me that she has impacted. People from all ends of the political spectrum are coming together on common ground…

Sanjay Jha – writes in Hamara Congress. Obviously the name of the blog tells you his political affiliation:

Before condemning the Indian state and government ( always our perpetual soft targets ) for its “ brutal ways” and mocking India’s freedom and democracy in a public platform , Ms Roy needs to do some serious introspection on her much-postured predilections on Kashmir’s Azaadi . A lesson in history might help, including contemporary politics Or may be it is time to take a long sabbatical in Kerala’s backwaters perhaps, and write a book titled The Goddess of Nothing !

Kanchan Gupta – the acerbic right wing commentator – writes

Nor is this the first time that Arundhati Roy has questioned the quality of democracy in India; she has done so repeatedly. Invited for a book-reading session at New York’s Town Hall, she had stunned the gathering by suddenly launching a vitriolic attack on democracy in India. “The biggest PR myth of all times is that India is a democracy. In reality, it is not… There is no real democracy in India. Several States in India are on the verge of civil war… In Iraq, there are 1,50,000 military personnel, whereas in Kashmir Valley there are some 7,00,000,” she had said. Not surprisingly, she got a standing ovation. Who is to tell the Americans who applauded her that had India not been a democracy she would have been frog-marched to Tihar Jail immediately upon arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport on her return?

Srinivas Ramani – of EPW, considered left wing – has this to say on FB

Arundhati Roy.. People either go gaga about her or Gag-Gag. I am mostly “ugh-ugh” and move on. …Arundhati Roy now seems to have taken her carpetbagging a step further from Medha Patkar/ML-Lib to the Maoists and Islamic Fundamentalism. One wonders, what next.

Manish Tiwari – Congress loudmouthspokesperson, who suffers from acute footinthemouthitis, had this to say :

“I do not understand why exaggerated importance is given to her who is not in the political mainstream. It is erroneous and uncalled for. Is she an MP? Is she a political leader. She is an author,”

if you do a search on twitter for arundathi roy – you will again find people from all sides of the spectrum uniting on how much of a self publicist she is

@Mirzairfan76 says

arundathi roy is a chameleon.I have no problem with your anger,your voice s against injustice and oppressive military prsce ..an angry kashmiri is not a seditionist,but arundathi roy speaks the language of the enemies of india on fragmentation.

@freaks007 says

Seems she has stayed out of limelight for quite some time and is intent on changing that! The nation doesn’t need your pity!


Heard Arundathi Roy is forfeiting her passport and moving to Afghanistan. Moving to a greener pastures to fight for rights.

The Reuter’s blog has the best take on this issue

Indeed, after winning the 1997 Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, Roy has become a serial controversy-inciter. Whether it’s stirring the ire of India’s nationalist right with an over-zealous defence of the insurgent left, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with displaced residents in criticism of the industrialist central government, stirring debate is her current raison d’être.

India appears to have treated her remarks as such.

I haven’t included the BJP’s official comments on this because they seem to be hell belt on making a self publicist into a martyr – thereby, perpetuating the myth of her importance and relevance. and, another view which is quite relevant in this context :


BJP wants the gov to take action against Arundathi Roy for being a separatist. i wonder what they were thinking when they demolshd /t masjid

When discussing Indians and our opinions I am often reminded of an old Jewish Joke –where there are two Jews there are three points of view :) Indians are pretty much like that … and to get most people to agree, on a more or less similar view, takes an act of genius :)

So, the National Integration Award for 2010 – goes to Arundathi Roy :)


(seriously, stop paying that woman attention – have you noticed that she only visits an area or a cause when it is hotting up. Medha Patkar did the hard work,  Arundathi Roy piggy backed on Narmada Bachao; The Naxal movement has been on for the last 20 years; it is after the media discovered ‘backward’ areas that Arundathi Roy discovered the same; Kashmir has been simmering from when I was in school – yet it is after the current bout of highly publicized outbursts of violence that Ms.Roy has discovered Kashmir.

If tomorrow morning, the media goes mad about Irom Sharmilla – Ms.Roy will find a new cause to piggy back on … she is a media groupie and the media in turn is her groupie…. kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it?

May 082010

From the ToI, a couple of days ago :

Those who speak in favour of Maoist guerrillas will face legal action and 10 years imprisonment, the government announced Thursday in a warning to civil society groups who raise voices in favour of Leftwing extremism.

Much as the idea of Mamta Banerjee, Arundati Roy & Digvijay Singh locked up in adjoining cells is interesting, it seems to be an overkill to prosecute people for speech and create more martyrs ….

The Government would be better off, trying to combat propaganda with propaganda, rather than prosecution. Creating more Binayak Sen’s is maybe, not the right way to go….especially when you seem to be doing the right things to bring the Maoists to heel….

Cut off the Maoist funds, seal the borders, send people who provide material support to prison – even if they are supporting your party from the outside ….. but prosecuting members of civil society for speech – even if it is speech you don’t agree with — is futile – it will lead to more speech in favour of what you are trying to suppress .

This is the full quote from the GoI,

It has come to the notice of the Government that some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs/intellectuals to propagate their ideology and persuade them to take steps as would provide support to the CPI (Maoist) ideology. It is brought to the notice of the general public that under Section 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, any person who commits the offence of supporting such a terrorist organization with inter alia intention to further the activities of such terrorist organizations would be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with fine or with both. General public are informed to be extremely vigilant of the propaganda of CPI (Maoist) and not unwittingly become a victim of such propaganda.

This is being issued in public interest so that the general public are aware that the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and all its formations and front organizations are terrorist organizations whose sole aim is armed overthrow of the Indian State and that they have no place in India’s parliamentary democracy. CPI (Maoist) continues to kill innocent civilians including tribals in cold blood and destroy crucial infrastructure like roads, culverts, school buildings, gram panchayat buildings, etc. so as to prevent development from reaching these under-developed areas.

Propaganda needs to be combated with propaganda, religion with religion, law with the law — using the Power of the State to combat propaganda is a bit like using a earth mover to crack open a walnut — kind of an exercise in futility !