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Press Freedom in India

There have been many bizarre twists and turns in the application of press freedom in India over the years.

Wendy Doniger

The latest episode was the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus - An Alternative History, from circulation by Penguin Press. This was due to legal action threatened by “Shiksha Bachao Andolan” (Save Education Movement), a minority Hindu Pressure group. To them the book was an insult to Hinduism. Wendy Doniger is a distinguished Professor of History at the University of Chicago and is widely respected by the academic community.

This is causing a great deal of commotion in the Indian news media. Both Penguin Press and “Shiksha Bachao Andolan" have been widely and strongly criticised by many distinguished columnists and editors of the Indian press.

Penguin, without fighting the case in court, caved in to the anger of the pressure group. It agreed not to reprint any future copies and to withdraw all unsold copies of the book and pulp them. The excuses offered by Penguin, a subsidiary of the British owned Pearson, are feeble and would not have been accepted in the UK. As for the “Shiksha Bachao Andolan” they knew that they could they get their way. It is a blot and a shame on Penguin, a highly reputable international publisher of popular paperback books.

A similar previous incident was in 2011 when sales of a book containing a thought provoking essay Three Hundred Ramayana by A K Ramanujan was stopped by the same pressure group. The publisher in that case was OUP India. It is inconceivable that Oxford University Press fell by the wayside and failed to stand up for press freedom and was cowed by the actions of an extremist minority group.

Interestingly enough, neither of the two publishers challenged the actions of this minority pressure group in the court. The general view seem to be that the publishers would have won. However the existence of the antiquated colonial laws IPC (India Penal Code) Sections 153A and 295A also came under heavy criticism as their outcome could be unpredictable penalising the publishers. Most newspapers are expressing their opinion asking the Central Government to amend the above laws to meet modern criteria.

There are numerous examples like these in India with contrasting results. Mr Jawaharlal Nehru placed a ban on the publication of the book “India Wins Freedom” by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad until after his death. The Maulana was the most important Muslim leader who tried to keep India united and safeguard their interests. In the book he criticised Nehru for his de facto sabotaging of the Cabinet Mission Plan, acceptance of which by Mr Nehru and Mr Jinnah would have kept India united as one country. Mr Nehru’s action led Mr Jinnah to claim his share of India i.e. Pakistan. The book also mentioned Mr Nehru’s intimate relationship with Lady Mountbatten and his friendship with the Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. These relationships helped him to gain undue favours from the Viceroy who was honoured as the first Governor General of Independent India.

Another significant incident was the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book “Satanic Verses” by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Without knowing her exact motive, it is reasonable to assume that the book might have offended not the Muslims only but the Hindus and Sikhs also, as it contained sections depicting vulgarity objectionable to these communities. Before the book was banned it received little publicity and poor circulation. Mrs Gandhi unintentionally helped Mr Rushdie to be rich and gain fame or notoriety depending on one’s point of view.

The other episode which is rather hypocritical of the Indian publishers and politicians is to print and publicise the Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen ‘s fiction Lajja (Shame) where she described systematic burning and destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples in Bangladesh. Since she escaped from her homeland she was given persona non grata there. Her later writings, some of which are critical to both Muslims and Hindus, have been banned from publishing in India. She now seems to hiding somewhere in Delhi and barely appears in public. In spite of many admirers here Salman Rushdie is not as welcome in India as beforeThe local governments are restricting both of these writers’ from visiting sensitive areas in their jurisdiction. They are more concerned with the votes in the ballot boxes than press freedom.

Mohammad Soukat Ali was educated in the sciences and embarked upon a career in agricultural economics in West Bengal, India, before working in the UK civil service. He writes articles and essays on Islamic reform and history.