Wall Street journal draws attention

March 15, 2010

Indians boast of living in the world's most populous democracy, and rightly so. Regular elections and vigorous public debate are a rebuke to anyone who thinks that liberty can't flourish in a large, largely poor, culturally and linguistically diverse country. But in one area of life officials' concerns for keeping peace between various religious and ethnic groups is threatening a core freedom: speech.

In a little-noticed case on Feb. 26, police in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh arrested Macha Laxmaiah, an author who writes using the pseudonym Krantikar ("revolutionary"), and his distributors, including Innaiah Narisetti, president of the Hyderabad-based nonprofit Center for Inquiry, for "hurting the sentiments of Muslims." Their alleged crime? The distribution of "Crescent Over the World," a book including contributions from Salman Rushdie, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, and a cartoon from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Mr. Narisetti is out on bail now; Mr. Laxmaiah remains in custody.

Then there are the continuing attacks on Ms. Nasreen and her supporters. Last week, masked men broke into the offices of Kannada Prabha, a local-language newspaper in the southern state of Karnataka. Its weekly magazine had published a piece allegedly written by Ms. Nasreen that criticized the burqa, the veil that many Muslim women wear. Muslim groups had protested the article—which was three years old and republished by the Kannada newspaper without her permission—and violence in two towns ensued, leading to two deaths and dozens arrested. Ms. Nasreen, who fled Bangladesh in 1994 after Muslim fundamentalists threatened her life, currently divides her time between Sweden and the United States, but says she wants to live in India. The government stands in the way, not permitting her to stay in Kolkata, where she prefers to live, and keeping her at an undisclosed location in New Delhi under security surveillance during her last extended stay in the country ostensibly for her own safety.

The sensitivity doesn't just concern Islam. Last week, India's foremost painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, who is 94, decided to give up Indian nationality and became a Qatari citizen. Mr. Husain is a Muslim, and among the many themes he has painted are a few paintings of Hindu deities in the nude. These works were completed and first displayed decades ago, but since the mid-1990s Hindu nationalists have campaigned against him, saying his work insulted their faith. They attacked galleries exhibiting his works, threatened him with violence, and filed lawsuits against him. The state attached some of his property and police officers issued arrest warrants against him, even as the Delhi High Court (and later the Supreme Court) ruled in his favor and officials publicly praised him. Unwilling to trust the state to protect him, Mr. Husain, who has lived abroad much of the past decade, gave up his nationality.

Meanwhile, India's elite literary academy, known as Sahitya Akademi, chose Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad's Telugu-language novel, "Draupadi," for an award recently. A clutch of Hindu activists protested, saying the novel depicts Draupadi, a character from the epic poem "Mahabharata," in an indecent way. In February at a function where Mr. Prasad was being feted, Hindu activists jumped on the stage, throwing shoes and other objects at him. In response to a complaint by a Hindu group, the state's human-rights commission asked the Akademi to halt the award and asked why the book was being honored.

These are all victories for competitive intolerance. Fearful of sectarian violence, India's local governments are increasingly stopping artists, writers or researchers from practicing their crafts. Instead of making it harder for the fundamentalists to take the law into their hands, India silences those who push the boundaries of public debate to preserve harmony. India used to be a more tolerant place, but following the ban on Mr. Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" in 1988 following Muslim protests, other groups have become bolder in demanding restrictions on books, films and art they don't like. The frequency of such protests has increased.

The Congress Party-led government could start to remedy these ills by revisiting India's byzantine legal restrictions on speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but the state can place "reasonable restrictions. . . in the interest 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." The normal penal code makes it a criminal act to "outrage religious feelings" with malicious intent, and outlaws "promoting enmity between different groups . . . and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony." The law dates back to 1860, established by the British colonial authorities.

Despite these serious problems, India by and large isn't an intolerant place today. But as other democracies have found, small restrictions on free speech can often mushroom into bigger threats to civil liberties. The only Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote a poem before independence from Britain, in which he dreamed of an India "where the mind is without fear." He would be disappointed by the trends evident today.

Mr. Tripathi, a writer based in London, is the author of "Offense: The Hindu Case" (Seagull, 2009).