March 20, 2004

Censorship As Riot-Prevention

by PG

While the Constitution of India, like that of many post-colonial nations, borrows several aspects of the U.S. Constitution, it contains peculiar twists of its own that permit New Delhi to take actions that would be much more challenged in Washington, D.C. One such action is the Indian government's routine book-banning.

Salman Rushdie lived in hiding for years after the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses because his apostasy brought an Iranian fatwa, or death sentence, down on his head. The fatwa has been revoked officially, and The Satanic Verses is being quietly released in several countries that previously had no publisher willing to associate with the book.

At the time, India had -- and has -- one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and thus was a non-Islamic nation that still had to contend with the ire of many citizens at what they perceived as blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Rioting over the book preceded even the fatwa, and the national government banned it before its Indian publication.

Rushdie was permitted to visit India in 2000, but The Satanic Verses cannot be sold legally, although black-market (and probably non-royalty-paying) copies abound. Nor is it an exception; the latest controversy is over a work of nonfiction.

Maharashtra's home minister and state NCP president R. R. Patil has warned that a serious law and order situation could develop in the state vis-a-vis American scholar James Laine’s controversial book Shivaji: Hindu king in Islamic India.
After an initial reluctance to back this censorship, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reversed and declared the federal government's support for the state's decision.

Even as various Hindu leaders puff themselves in indignation at any slights to a historical hero, the main concern in most acts of censorship is not the offense to a particular official's sense of propriety, but the chances that it will lead to "a serious law and order situation," i.e. violence. At least sixty people were injured and one killed during The Satanic Verses riots, and the radicals have not gotten more peaceful in the succeeding years.

An editorial by a retired policeman, published in 2000 as India debated allowing a controversial filmmaker to make a movie that portrays a custom of Indian society negatively, effectively explains why a nominally secular and free-speech-protecting nation has so much censorship:

The vast majority of literary journals have during the previous quarter century repeatedly criticised the administration for not respecting the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19(a) of the Constitution. It appears that very few have bothered to read the proviso in Article 19(2), which reads as follows:

"Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any law, or prevent the state from enacting any law, in so far as any such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right, conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign powers, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence."

Scholars of comparative law might note that India directly amended its constitution in 1951 and 1963 to include these demurrals. The U.S. Constitution has no such exceptions in its text; their existence in the doctrines of "fighting words" and libel law have been built by jurisprudence.

Despite Supreme Court rulings that say the rights to free speech and press are not absolute, legal bans on books and movies face a major hurdle in the First Amendment. The prima facie assumption is that there is serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value in these works, and the more challenging they are to the established conventions of religion and history, the more value they are likely to have.

In volatile countries, however -- where a disputed election like Bush v. Gore would have led to rioting, not just grumbling -- the importance of free speech has to contend with the importance of maintaining stability. Although I am inclined to oppose all censorship, I also would not want to underestimate the probability of a work that would be protected in America being a lighted match in India.

March 20, 2004 06:06 PM | TrackBack
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