Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
My heartiest congratulations on your victory: the nation has voted you into this coveted seat at a time when India is critically ill with corruption. Your election speaks of faith and expectations, and the task that confronts you is mammoth. As you set about fulfilling the wide-ranging promises of your campaign manifesto—fighting poverty, reducing illiteracy, creating jobs, providing health care to the poor, rehabilitating slums, protecting tribal rights, improving sanitation, providing water and electricity where none exist, bringing subsidized food and housing to the poorest of the poor, stabilizing the stock markets, controlling inflation, lowering inflated food prices, preserving natural resources—as you do all that, might I add one more item to your list of priorities: protecting the arts? Freedom of artistic expression is one aspect of India’s democracy that has truly been neglected, and it has brought more humiliation and shame from the world beyond our borders than the corruption within.
I fear, Mr. Prime Minister, that India is falling prey to a kind of fascism far worse than we have seen before in the course of our tumultuous history. Repression of the arts springs from our own loins, attacks us on our own soil, mocks our constitution, ties up our courts, subverts our police, and silences the means by which we claim to be a democracy. Practiced with increasing fervor, it generates fear and denies free speech and free thought their God-given sanctity.
As you must know, the most celebrated case occurred this year when Penguin India, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History,ordered unsold copies of the work to be withdrawn and pulped after a member of a right-wing organization brought civil and criminal lawsuits against it. The author, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, contended that Hinduism was a pluralistic religion open to various interpretations; the complainant held that the work had several factual errors that showed Hinduism in a poor light. In support of the author, the American Academy of Religions issued this statement:
To pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished.
The lawsuits were filed in 2010, the year the book was published in India, and after four years of litigation, the publisher conceded that “the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” Here, Mr. Prime Minister, is one example of our national shame.
Now, may I remind you of another case from a decade ago?
On January 5, 2004, activists from a right-wing group called the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the office of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a 97-year-old library and repository of more than 29,000 manuscripts and 125,000 books, 20,000 of them rare. The militants, numbering around 150, destroyed valuable manuscripts and manhandled the staff. They protested the fact that an American author, a professor of religious studies at Macalester College, had conducted research there for his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. They also accosted and assaulted a respected historian whom the author, James Laine, had thanked in his book. The state filed charges not against the vandals but against Laine, accusing him of “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot” and “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, and language.” The publisher withdrew the book, the state banned it, and the author was threatened with arrest if he were to return to India.Read More at: http://theamericanscholar.org/letter-from-mumbai-intolerance/#.VC7cl2ddWEw