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Traditional censorship prevails in India

Debarati Guha / ad,ssJanuary 2, 2016

With its architecture, literature and yoga poses, India is famous for diversity. But no matter how rich its culture may be, thinking outside the box is not exactly welcome, especially when it comes to religion and sex.

Protest against rape in India, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Saurabh Das
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Saurabh Das

On December 16, 2012, a group of young men brutally gang raped Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi. Less than two weeks later the 23-year-old student succumbed to her injuries.

Those tragic events brought the state of women's rights in India to the attention of the international community. But despite the international outcry following Pandey's death, public discourse on violence against women remains controversial in India, as it touches upon two of the biggest taboo subjects in the country: religion and sex.

India's censorship policies are largely based on the strong Hindu nationalist forces that run the country. Afraid of upsetting the establishment, the guiding principles behind India's cultural landscape have grown into a minefield of taboos, stifling a long-overdue public debate.

Ambiguous law: more than a loophole for crowd control?

India's modern image is closely linked to its economic strength. Like Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa, the subcontinent is one of the world's fastest emerging economies. The government likes to think of India as the world's largest democracy and frequently cites Article 19 of its constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental civil right in what is a secular republic - at least on paper.

But the unfortunate reality: India has a widespread reputation for strict censorship based on an ambiguous clause dating back to British colonial rule.

Protest against rape in India, Copyright: Getty Images/N. Seelam
The public rose up in protest after the brutal rape of Jyoti Singh PandeyImage: Getty Images/N. Seelam

In 1927, a book about the alleged promiscuity of the Prophet Muhammad sparked serious unrest among the Muslim population in Punjab Province; the book's publisher was killed during the riots. With a potential escalation of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims looming, the British colonial administration issued a regulation still applied to this day: Section 295 A of the Indian penal code.

The article stipulates that "willful and malicious" violation of any religious sentiments is punishable by law with up to three years in prison. In the past 80 years, the paragraph has been applied to censor or ban theater performances, art exhibitions and books.

A law against women?

No one is safe from India's ambiguous law: British author Salman Rushdie was not only censored but also denied an entry visa because of his controversial 1988 book "Satanic Verses," which many Muslims consider to be offensive to Islam. The travel ban was lifted only in November 2015.

Predating Rushdie's case by more than 50 years, US writer Katherine Mayo caused even greater commotion when her book "The Face of Mother India" was published in 1935. In it, she described how India had to deal with alarming cases of child marriage, domestic violence and rape. Sparking an international scandal, the book contributed to the raising of the minimum age of marriage to 13 - then considered progressive.

The colonial law, however, continues to oppress women disproportionately today. Telling Jyoti Singh Pandey's story, the 2015 BBC documentary "India's Daughter" by Leslee Udwin sparked worldwide media coverage - but was banned in the country.

Salman Rushdie, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert
Salman Rushdie opened the 2015 Frankfurt Book FairImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

Exile and imprisonment

In a climate of religious intolerance and sexual oppression, many artists and intellectuals see themselves forced to work under self-censorship or even to flee the country.

Maqbul Fida Husain, one of the most internationally acclaimed 20th century Indian painters, chose the latter. Often called the "Picasso of India," Husain had depicted naked Indian goddesses in some of his paintings - and received death threats from Hindu extremists who promised a reward to anyone who would hack off his hands.

Husain left India in 2006, saying, "Without my hands I am nothing." He died in London in 2011.

Booker Prize-winning essayist Arundhati Roy says she sees no end to the conflicts in India that arise from the country's taboos and result in the "lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings."

Arundhati Roy, Copyright Imago/Hindustan Times
Writer Arundhati Roy returned her Indian National AwardImage: Imago/Hindustan Times

In the daily newspaper Indian Express, Roy wrote that conditions in the country had deteriorated to the extent that entire sections of society were "being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the (next) assault will come," adding, "Censorship has been outsourced to the mob."

In November 2015, in protest against religious intolerance and growing violence by right-wing Hindu groups, Roy returned the Indian National Award given to her in 1989.

A culture of protest

What does all this add up to? Has championing freedom of speech in India become a hopeless cause?

Taj Mahal, Copyright: picture-alliance/David Ebener
One of India's cultural splendors: the Taj MahalImage: picture-alliance/David Ebener

In one of its many traditional texts, the "Sa Prathama Sanskrati Vishvavara," India is designated the world's first and foremost culture. Its contributions are in fact many, ranging from epic literary works such as the "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata" to the invention of the number zero; from sitar master Ravi Shankar to dance guru Birju Maharaj; or simply from chicken curry to Bollywood movies. Indian culture manifests itself in diverse traditions, values, languages, and arts.

Copyright: picture alliance/Dinodia Photo
Bollywood movies are one part of India's rich cultureImage: picture alliance/Dinodia Photo

But India is also recognized for its culture of protest, the independence movement and the nonviolence ethic embodied by Mahatma Gandhi. A culture of protest is a culture of hope - a hope that lives on in India, not only through various artistic expressions but also in its collective resistance to any kind of injustice. To address the taboo subjects India faces today, that spirit will have to be revived, enabling various social fractions to work together on solutions.

That process has already begun.

Protesting the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, tens of thousands took to the streets in the country. On September 13, 2013, a court in Delhi found all six offenders guilty. Saying women deserve a better role in India, the public had made itself heard.

Thanks to social media and the permanent struggle of feminist, humanist and civil rights groups, that great Indian spirit of hope lives on. Before long, India will once again hold up the banner of freedom of expression.

The author, Debarati Guha, is a journalist in DW's Bengali section. Guha's article is part of a collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur" and DW's multimedia series "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."