Is Freedom of Speech Under Attack in India?

June 25, 2015 was the 40th anniversary of India’s horrifying Emergency, when amongst other atrocities, newspapers and radio channels strictly displayed only what the government desired. Recently, L K Advani, the founding father of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stated he isn’t confident the Emergency period cannot occur again. “Forces that can crush democracy are stronger,” he declared. There is speculation that Advani was referring to Prime Minister Modi and his government. However, India’s Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, strongly believes that civil liberties are stronger than they were and that it is impossible for India to fall into another emergency period. On the anniversary of Emergency, Modi stated that his government is determined to preserve a democratic system for all citizens to prosper under.

But has freedom of expression in India really improved after all these years? On June 23, Indian police arrested three men who were accused of burning Sandeep Kothari, a journalist, to death for his investigation into an illegal mining case. On June 1, a journalist named Jagendra Singh was burnt alive for his commentary on Ram Murti, a Samajwadi Party Member of Legislative Assembly, in which he accused Murti of forcible land grabbing and illegal mining. These crimes of stifling Indian media have not been given adequate attention by Modi’s government, contributing to the rise of self-censorship in media. The head of the Press Council of India believes the body currently only has moral authority and should have more powers to investigate these deaths and bring justice to Indian journalists.

Censorship is ripe in India’s literary scene as well. Many books that were banned under the British Raj are still currently banned. India was one of the first countries to ban Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses,’ in 1988, and over the past few years, censorship has become even more stringent. Despite India not having an official blasphemy law, books are predominantly banned for allegedly opposing the dominant religion, Hinduism. Even as recently as 2014, a far-right Hindu group protested against Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus’ on the grounds that it portrayed Hinduism in a negative light. The book was eventually withdrawn from the country.

Last year, Tamil author Perumal Murugan, professed on Facebook that “the writer is dead” and that he would no longer write after receiving death threats and being pressured to tone down his alleged anti-Hindu rhetoric in his book ‘One Part Woman’. The municipal government organized a conference for members of the public, including local representatives from the BJP and another far-right Hindu group to voice their displeasure with his book. The BJP’s ties to these Hindutva groups may be why the government is less willing to ensure freedom of expression in the country.

On the bright side, India’s Supreme Court struck down the ‘draconian’ Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act in March, meaning that individuals can no longer be imprisoned for expressing ideas that the government deems offensive. There are obviously still restrictions, but the striking down of this law is a step towards ensuring freedom of expression in the world’s largest democracy.