India: How to silence a nation


07 Feb 2012

The Satanic Verses

Image via Wikipedia

Legal proceedings have been filed against four authors that read aloud from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic verses. Salil Tripathi explains how outdated Colonial-era legislation is being used to curtail free expression.

The saga refuses to end.

The Jaipur story has now taken a new turn, on Monday (6 February) two courts in the city began legal proceedings after complaints were filed by among others, members of an organisation that campaigned against Salman Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival. They allege that the festival organisers and four authors who read from Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

The four authors — Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, and Jeet Thayil — read from the novel to express solidarity with the absent Rushdie, and as a mark of protest. Rushdie did not go to Jaipur after he received plausible information that security forces had evidence of death threats against him. Now the festival’s organisers are also being charged under provisions of India’s criminal laws, which date back to the colonial era.

The complainants main contention is that the authors and the festival organisers conspired “to promote enmity on grounds of religion.” One magistrate has recorded the complaint to decide if the case has any merit before it is sent to the police to register a First Information Report. That case will now be heard on 8 March. Another magistrate will record a complainant’s statement today. When such complaints are filed, the court can either ask the police to register a report and launch an investigation, or examine the complaint on its own, before deciding if the matter deserves to be sent to the police for further action. The courts have decided to examine the matter first, before sending it to the police.

The relevant sections under the Indian law are:

295-A (which deals with deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings)

298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings),

153-A (promoting enmity between groups on religious grounds),

153-B (imputations prejudicial to national integration)

120-B (criminal conspiracy).

Preserving communal harmony is a serious matter in India. These laws empower the state to prosecute anyone whose intends to and acts in a way that outrages religious feelings or promotes “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language,” and the all-important, all-inclusive “etc.”

Now think again about what happened in Jaipur: the four authors read extracts from The Satanic Verses, whose import is banned in India. Note, its import is banned in India; lawyers have pointed out that the government did not ban its printing or publishing — rather, Penguin, which had the rights to publish it in India, chose not to do so after the import ban was imposed, and its consulting editor recommended that it would be unwise to publish the novel. Leading Indian lawyers say that bane does not extend to reading the novel, or reading from it. In fact, in the years after the ban, several lawyers and writers read from it in public, as a mark of protest. They weren’t charged at any time. At the Jaipur Festival, parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, author and former diplomat, said he has read from, or cited the novel, without any problem.

And yet, now the four authors and the festival’s organisers — William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale, and Sanjoy Roy — face the prospect of being charged under colonial-era laws. Such a prosecution mocks India’s fine judicial traditions and runs counter to its constitutional guarantees of free speech (which are, it must be said, limited). It means if you say anything that someone considers controversial or offensive, then either that individual or the state can begin proceedings that could lead to prosecution. This isn’t a theoretical proposition, nor is this the first such complaint. Many film-makers, authors, and artists have been scarred by threats of such prosecutions. Many have sued for peace by dropping contentious material before publication; some have been prosecuted. Higher courts have usually dismissed the charges, but not before a long process that’s costly and stressful. (There is also the other threat of vigilantes doling out justice in the form of ransacked galleries or theatres, or attacks on artists, with the police doing little to stop such violence). This is preposterous — but such is the state of affairs.

Neither the authors nor the festival organisers incited any community, nor did they intend to insult any religious group. The festival organisers have said they were not aware that the authors intended to protest. After the four read from the novel, the organisers even issued a statement saying the authors had acted on their own. But none of that seems to matter to the complainants.

The charge is even more confusing since there has been no violence. Nobody went on a rampage; there was no riot. The four had never intended to incite anybody, and nobody got incited. However, some Muslim fundamentalist groups had offered rewards to throw shoes at Rushdie, or spit on Rushdie. Others had said that even a video appearance by Rushdie could have repercussions, irrespective of what he might say. Many might regard these statements as threats, but as of now, no police officer has pressed charges against any of those individuals, who were at least implying that matters might get out of hand for which, of course, they would presumably claim no responsibility.

And so it is that the one who claims offence and threatens to take the law in his hands, or suggests others might do so, remains free; the ones who read from a book are being charged under laws meant to prevent violence.

The Indian Penal Code, from which these sections are derived, was drafted in 1860, and much of that law has stayed fossilised, even though India gained Independence in 1947. It is important to remember the circumstances under which that law was drafted. In 1857, many princely states in India rebelled against the rule of the East India Company, and what followed was what India calls the first war of independence, and what Britain remembers as the Sepoy Mutiny. Soldiers of the East India Company rebelled against the company, and united with various princely states in a vain attempt to overpower the colonial rule. The war ended in 1858, with the Indian states surrendering, and soon thereafter, company rule ended, and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.

There were many reasons for the uprising, but the immediate spark was religious. Indian troops in the East India Company’s army were alarmed by rumours that the new British cartridges were greased with cow or pig fat. Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike were offended, unwilling to handle ammunition contaminated by animal fat which the respective faiths shunned.

Realising the combustible power of religion, the British decided to make maintenance of religious harmony their priority, and to do that, they took advantage of mutual suspicion among the communities. So anyone who disrupted harmony would be prosecuted, and people had the right to complain against anyone who disrupted such harmony, turning the “subjects” into informers. Colonial rulers had good reason to maintain such laws — to keep communities suspicious of one another and divided just short of fighting.

Free India is supposed to be democratic; its adult citizens vote their governments, and they argue with each other in a spirited manner. But these laws, relics of the raj, treat Indians as subjects, not citizens. They allow troublemakers to file spurious complaints under the provisions of these laws and restrict free expression, as had happened to the great painter, the late M.F. Husain, who was driven out of India, and died in exile in London last year. The same provisions are now being used against the novelists and organisers of a festival of literature.

This has gone on too long. Before it gets any worse, India needs adult supervision; it needs to repeal these laws, stop proceedings against the authors and festival organisers, and keep a stern eye on rabble-rousers who cry offence and threaten violence because they don’t like other people reading a book they haven’t read and which they are told they must dislike.

You can dislike a book; nothing is sacred. But if you don’t like a book, Rushdie had said in India in 2010, all you have to do is to shut it.

Instead, they want to shut conversations across the country through intimidation.

Salil Tripathi is a journalist and author and the chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee

Organisers wash hands off Amitava Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, others


 This was after Amitava Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, others read out passages from The Satanic Verses.

This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Any comments made by the delegates reflect their personal, individual views and are not endorsed by the Festival or attributable to its organizers or anyone acting on their behalf. The Festival organizers are fully committed to ensuring compliance of all prevailing laws and will continue to offer their fullest cooperation to prevent any legal violation of any kind. Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken. Our endeavor has always been to provide a platform to foster an exchange of ideas and the love of literature, strictly within the four corners of the law. We remain committed to this objective.

Demanding a ban on visit of Salman Rushdie to India is outrageous: PUCL


Salman Rushdie

Image via Wikipedia

Press Release

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) views it with deep concern that some organizations have demanded ban on entry of Salman Rushdie in the country. The present call is illogical, preposterous and untenable as the writer has visited the country for several times after the Satanic Verses book controversy.

Those who have called for banning his entry must know that Rushdie being person of Indian origin does not need permission from the government – a visa – to visit his home country. To demand an unconstitutional measure to be invoked against some one, one might not agree with is as condemnable as when some lunatic groups would demand that certain book be taken off the shelf or some painting exhibition be not held or that the majortarian way of life should be standard for all in the country.

PUCL believes that the present demand is self defeating and is against the interest of the community in the name of which such demands are made. Above all demands such as these run counter to the values of a democratic society that the India is. Those who are misguiding gullible people are indulging in politics of symbolism based on emotional exploitation of the people thereby damaging our shared constitutional values. PUCL appeals to people to see through such moves and ignore such calls.

 

Sd./- Pushkar Raj General Secretary

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