Freedom of Expression: Indians are Becoming Increasingly Intolerant

Instead of nurturing the spirit of debate, we have become aggressive, bigoted and abusive

Published: Aug 12, 2013

In 1999, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance honoured the scholar, economist, and philosopher Amartya Sen with India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, a year after his Nobel Prize. One of Sen’s more interesting books is The Argumentative Indian (2006), celebrating our propensity to challenge views we disagree with. Indians argue with one another, he says, and from those dynamic encounters new ideas synthesising different viewpoints emerge, making unity in diversity possible in this complicated nation.

In July this year, in response to a question from a journalist, Sen said he would not support Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister, to be India’s Prime Minister; he believes Modi fails the secularism test, which he sees as a necessary precondition to govern a country as diverse as India.

Insults came thick and fast from some of Modi’s supporters, some saying Sen had no right to express views on Indian politics (he remains an Indian citizen, although he has spent the bulk of his life abroad). Photographs emerged on the internet of a partly-clad young woman, purportedly Sen’s daughter Nandana, an actress. Sen was admonished to control his daughter before telling India who should govern the country. The photograph went viral, appearing on websites supporting the BJP. The BJP distanced itself somewhat from the insults, but one of its parliamentarians, Chandan Mitra (who edits the newspaper The Pioneer) said on Twitter: “Next NDA Government must strip him of Bharat Ratna.” Sen agreed to return the honour if Atal Bihari Vajpayee, under whose tenure Sen was honoured, were to demand its return. A day later, Mitra, who has a PhD from Oxford, expressed his regrets, particularly after the intellectual class turned against him.

From Mitra’s perspective, once you are honoured by the state, you cannot question its politics. The intolerance that lies at the heart of Mitra’s intervention is actually as much of a fundamental Indian trait as is our argumentativeness. And it is depressing.

Online anonymity allows many to take potshots at people whose views they disagree with. I happen to agree with Sen on his view regarding Modi, and as a result I’ve received occasionally creative and amusing, but often annoying, abusive and personal insults on Twitter. I don’t block them—that would give them the standing they don’t deserve—but I use fresh ones to embellish my Twitter bio (@saliltripathi), because their invective reveals more about their poor upbringing, and the kind of company they keep, than it says anything about me. But other journalists have felt offended: I understand Rajdeep Sardesai withdrew briefly from Twitter, and Sagarika Ghose wrote an op-ed criticising those she felt had insulted her. There is a point to Ghose’s complaint: There is definitely some misogyny involved in such insults, but that is a broader problem with the internet, where anonymity emboldens uncivil men to make the kind of remarks they would not make had their identities been known. (But being rude is not the monopoly of men.)

We like an argument, provided we get the last word and we are winning. But those who challenge or question us: Well, they shouldn’t be allowed to. Not argumentative then, but aggressive, assertive, intolerant, abusive. Instead of vaad-vivaad or tark-vitark, the spirit of debate based on reason, India has become the land of jiski lathi, uski bhains (the one who owns the stick, owns the buffalo). We drive the opponent away by shouting louder and vitiating the atmosphere.

This affects every sphere. Take politics: The Hindu nationalist right has many scalps to its credit, such as hounding the painter MF Husain out of India, to die abroad in exile; marching against the publication of the works of BR Ambedkar, who drafted India’s constitution; attacking art galleries; and banning books, most recently Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, and Jaswant Singh’s biography of Jinnah (both bans by the Modi administration).

But let not that lull you into thinking that the Congress champions free speech. That party earned for India the dubious honour of becoming the first country to take action against Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses; a Congress government banned its import, and a quarter century later, another pleaded helplessness when Rushdie could not attend the Jaipur Literature Festival after a fictitious death threat surfaced against him. Congress governments have banned books by Aubrey C Menen and Stanley Wolpert in the past, and the English translation of a Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi has not been imported into India, because its publishers fear legal trouble. In late July, the Congress’s students’ wing forced a Mumbai restaurant called Aditi to close, because at the bottom of each bill the restaurant manager printed a message, condemning a new tax. The restaurant re-opened after the offending lines were removed from future bills. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Information and Technology, produces laughable lists of websites that he’d like banned, because they blaspheme religions or insult political leaders.

The Left does little better. In 2003, a Communist government in West Bengal banned Dwikhandito (Split in Two), Taslima Nasreen’s memoir, because of fears that it might stoke religious violence. And it isn’t only about Hindus and Muslims: Christian activists destroyed copies of The Da Vinci Code in a bookstore in Kolkata, and seven states initially banned the film.

The sad reality is that Indians don’t appear to mind such restrictions. The bogey of potential violence is so successful, most people think the government is right in acquiescing with those who claim they are offended instead of protecting those who wish to speak freely.

The law backs them. Even though the Constitution’s Article 19(1)(a) grants all citizens the right to “freedom of speech and expression”, it also places “reasonable restrictions” on that right, and those restrictions are a grab-bag of concerns, including the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.

This is an absurdly long list; as Behram Contractor, the gifted columnist who also wrote under the pseudonym Busybee, said about the Emergency of 1975-77, the only safe topics left were cricket and mangoes.

Today, anyone who feels offended can complain to restrict the offender’s right to express herself under Section 153(A), saying that the speaker is “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc”, and doing acts prejudicial to maintain harmony. And the state has made it a criminal offence to “outrage religious feelings” with malicious intent under Section 295(A).

Some perspective here: That code was drawn up in 1860, soon after the 1857 War of Independence, after which the British Government took over India’s governance from the East India Company. Laws meant to control “subjects” are now being used to disempower citizens.

Sections 295(A) and 153(A)—and now Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, under which someone giving offence through an email or through any online activity can be jailed for up to three years—have provided busybodies of all hues the chance to claim offence and seek curbs on writers, artistes, actors, film-makers, and others they don’t agree with. Remember the professor who sent cartoons critical of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee? Or the young woman who clicked ‘Like’ on Facebook when her friend criticised the enforced bandh that followed Bal Thackeray’s death? Arrests were prompt. At least in the Maharashtra case the overzealous police were disciplined. Otherwise, state hypersensitivity remains the norm. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The moment someone claims offence, the State forces the one who speaks to swallow her words. Adults are suddenly seen as vulnerable infants and the State becomes the nanny.

 And earlier this month in Chennai, a text message purportedly from the city’s police to the University of Madras said it should cancel a planned lecture by Amina Wadud, an American scholar of Islam, because of fear of violence. But the police said they weren’t aware of such a message. Who sent it?

This is similar to what happened in Kolkata earlier this year, when Rushdie was invited, but the city’s police played a dubious role by informing Muslim groups of his likely presence, and then warning the organisers that they should think again about inviting him, shirking their obligation to protect free speech. Note the pattern: The authority engineers a situation where it doesn’t have to formally ban anything; expecting the organisers to use their good sense and call off the event.

This creates a culture of fear, not a mind without fear. It forces obedience and compliance; it does not spur imagination, nor nurture a spirit of inquiry. It breeds a culture of conformity, not creativity. And so we learn to argue only within our minds, confide with a few, keeping our head down.

In an Irani restaurant, as Nissim Ezekiel showed us in his poems, and Rushdie in his fiction, the surly owner would place a list of taboo topics his patrons are banned from discussing: No religion, no politics. The owner’s father’s portrait growls at you as you quietly dunk your bun maska in cutting chai, uncertain if it is safe to talk.

I had always thought that if you didn’t like a film, you told others how bad it was; if you didn’t like an artist, you didn’t go to his exhibition; if you didn’t like a book, you didn’t buy it. Better, you wrote your own, arguing with it. Instead, we ban films, exile artists, burn books.

At such times, the heaven of freedom in which Rabindranath Tagore wanted this country to awake, seems very far.

(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Prakhar

    I really don't think it is an India specific phenomenon. It is a worldwide epidemic. USA was supposed to be a shining beacon of freedom. Maybe we should ask Snowden and Julien Assnage about this. Or the millions of Iraqis. or the current standoff between GOP and Democrats. We all are civil till the time our life stays comfy. Adversity and that too sustained adversity brings the worst out in everyone. India's growth story was supposed be immune to politicians. Congress proved that with determination and sustained brazenness anything can be ruined. In 2004 people could afford to be argumentative and tolerant. With the rising prices, blatant and remorseless corruption and lack of development, the tempers are flaring. It is easy to be tolerant when there is food in your stomach and a roof over your head. Not so easy when times are tough and when one needs to blame someone. Modi has risen only because of Congress misrule.

    on Nov 26, 2013
  • Salil Tripathi

    Thank you for the many interesting comments. Some responses: 1. Adf: An arrest or being charged are not the only ways to intimidate someone. If you read the full article, you will find that I\'ve condemned the arrest of the two young women as well. Besides, the BJP has banned more than one book - Jaswant Singh\'s book on Jinnah, and Joe Lelyveld\'s book on Gandhi - both were banned by Mr Modi\'s government in Gujarat. 2. Dj: The idea of listing each party was precisely to show that banning is not the monopoly of one party. Besides, when you bring up Nazis you are speaking of violent conflict. I\'m speaking about arguments. Have I said anywhere that violent Nazis should be argued with? 3. Vk: It is not intolerant to call an article stupid. It is intolerant if you seek that article, magazine, or the writer to be banned or jailed. 4. Pj: you will find that people not connected with political parties are also intolerant. 5. Praveen, Vamsi, Leslie, Utkarsh, and Sunil - thank you for your kind words.

    on Aug 22, 2013
  • Adf

    Oh please spare us. No doubt the BJP and the communists show intolerance, but this article reeks of bias. Congress actually bans and censors things, imposed the Emergency, is responsible for most of our intolerant laws, cracks down on peacfeul protest, throws people out of the party for criticizing the \"Gandhis\" or for praising the opposition and a million more examples. Yet you spend half a page attacking Modi, a man who I should add has been criticized like no Indian politician has ever before. Yet he arrests no one, despite ruling talking about it, and the enitre intro plus. BTW what exactly happened to Sen? Was he arrested? Was he charged? I know of atleast two ladies who were by NCP-COngress arrested for posting on FB. And why no mention of TMC and the Tamil Nadu parties? Also, incase you are keeping count. The BJP has in its history banned one book (criticizing Shivaji due to their alliance with SS). Congress has banned all the others.

    on Aug 20, 2013
    • Dj

      Salil is an equal opportunity offender, according to his own words on Twitter. So he has to find similar cases on all sides to maintain a pointless image of being unbiased. Anybody who is afraid of being biased more than being afraid of not being true to facts is not worth listening to. There are human beings in every group and every group will have some morons, so listing out cases from each group to say that one is unbiased is totally unintelligent and pointless.

      on Aug 20, 2013
  • Dj

    And, what about people and groups that misuse tolerance? When a tolerant people rise up against the rampant misuse of their long-held tolerance, this is what you get. Radicals don't get a free ride for long, they give rise to radicals on the other side, in a vicious spiral. There is simply no other way. Nazis couldn't be made to change their ideas by being argumentative with them. Slavery wouldn't be abolished by the North being argumentative with the South.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Vk

    Intolerance isn\'t always bad or unjustified. The world very often tolerates a lot of nonsense for much too long, at significant cost to people.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Vk

    This is a superficial identification of the rise of intolerance without delving into why its on the rise and without looking at the antagonists or what are these people really fighting. Let me point out a few things which will help delve deeper into this rise of intolerance. a) The long held notion of pseudo-secularism, which is now prevalent in the West under the label of multi-culti and political correctness. These notions push the absurd notion of equality of cultures or communities or idealogies, and truth or facts are willy-nilly ignored for these fake ideas. Meritocracy, truth takes a back seat and sensitivities and feeling and mere notion of offense determines the debate. This makes an honest argument impossible. b) Groups using victimhood, and conspiracy theories, which makes alliances with the left in all democratic countries easy and again undermines meritocracy and honest debate. c) policies in India have promoted the communal divides and helped cement them. Why blame the groups for intolerance when the state actively promotes and rewards division? The people are merely carrying out the state\'s intention. d) Ignoring elephants in the room. What about institutional intolerance in religious schools or religious sects which are immune to facts. And, intolerance is independently on the rise due to foreign funding of places of worship. Where is the study and accountability for this? e) Lack of education. Why expect anything better with the level of education in the country? f) Lack of economic development. Why expect anything better with the poor level of economic development in the country? g) Why talk about intolerance among the people when there is intolerance between parties to the extent that they cannot treat each others with respect and live on intolerance politics, to the extent that Parliament does not function. ----- Bottomline, you need to be honest about this culture of intolerance and where it is coming from. And, you need to attack the institutional culprits, not merely listing out the various transgressions from each side. That very act points to this urge to paint all parties with the same brush, when clearly that is not the case. Be prepared to be honest first, before you ask for tolerance. Dishonesty should not be tolerated. Subjugation of truth in the interest of political correctness should not be tolerated. These perverted ideas of political correctness, multi-culti, etc are worse than intolerance, especially when intolerance is meritocratic or truthful. In other words, instead of making a superficial whine about intolerance, lets look at the roots of intolerance and objectively determine if the intolerance is actually justified. After all, if something is indeed stupid, its not intolerance to say so vociferously, is it?

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Pj

    It has become fashionable to say that all Indians are intolerant, when in fact it is only the political parties targeting votebanks that are intolerant.

    on Aug 15, 2013
  • Gunjan

    Sir, I don\'t doubt your intellect, but with all due respect, I felt that you are very prejudiced toward certain political party. You are hypocritically cited certain social medium of MODI and all, but you yourself trying to pique us by this article.

    on Aug 13, 2013
  • Sunil Noronha

    Hmmmmmmm. Have to agree. Our country is becoming a totalitarian state. Recently as yesterday parliment was passing a law exempting lawmakers from the all empowering RTI act. Official thugs is what we hv become. cant think what next

    on Aug 13, 2013
  • Utkarsh

    The author has highlighted a very important point. The ability to sit and reason and listen to what the other has to say is missing from many in India. This includes most of the better educated in this country. Tolerance and acceptance of another\'s view is very important for any progressive country and society and we must remember that before we get stuck in a rut of mediocre thinking.

    on Aug 12, 2013
  • Vamsi Koka

    So very true, Salil. The minds of our nation have got tuned to believing without thinking, in every sphere. We stopped questioning and follow blindly. We fancy hero worship and idolise without thought. A difference of opinion is not being tolerated, be it in politics, religion, ideology, or even a personal conversation. If we need to progress and move forward, we must learn to accept the differences in opinion. It\'s only then we as a nation can peacefully co-exist with the population of a billion.

    on Aug 12, 2013
  • Lesley

    Greatly appreciate your article, Salil. I too am a journalist who stays off Twitter because not only did people throw abuse at me, one can't do anything to remove one's name from their atrocious tweets. Twitter is a fantastic concept with a lot of advantages, but till the time it is a space that can be abused in this way, many who don't want to put up with abuse have to stay off it. Many of my colleagues continue to receive the most violent threats all the time. Promisingly, with the spate of rape threats against feminists in the UK, Twitter is trying to respond to the challenge. We will see if they are able to create a more effective platform. But what can one say for the many Indian publications who do nothing to moderate abusive comments on their articles? They may think they are upholding free speech, but in fact they are stifling it as many who don't wish to get abuse thrown at them, simply don't engage. Dilip D'Souza has just written another good piece about this same issue in DNA. And all the points he made were amply illustrated in the comments that follow his article.

    on Aug 12, 2013
  • Praveen Kumar

    A brilliant article. Nowadays everybody wants a piece of the fame and what better way than to abuse the basic freedom of speech. With media outlets clamouring for news stories and lack of any real stories, they immediately showcase these idiots and give them their fame.

    on Aug 12, 2013
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