Freedom of Expression in Free India

(US-India Stats)

Dr D.S.Rao

Dr. D. S. Rao, former Editor of Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, has given a lecture on 22 March, at the Ohio State University, Lima, USA. The lecture was attended by several professors and students, who took keen interest and raised questions about intolerance in India and US. Dr. Rao pointed out human intolerance is a universal issue and no country is totally free from it. He gave examples from ancient to modern times. The lecture was highly appreciated. He used power point, giving basic statistics about India and US. Towards the end, he showed three controversial paintings of M. F. Husain, and analyzed different ways of looking at them. He emphasized that a great work of art can be viewed from numerous perspectives. In any case, suppression in matters of arts is counterproductive and only draws more attention. Dr. Rao spoke extempore, but we have obtained a copy of his notes, which is no substitute for his captivating extempore exposition, and reproduce it below for our readers.


This basic information about USA and India shows, both the countries have a lot in common. We tend to think that democracy, and freedom of expression, are our additions to the civilization, and the ancients knew nothing of the sort. The sooner we stop thinking so, the better, because both these ideas have been around since how long, nobody knows. Ancient Greece in the West, and ancient India in the East, had had their brush with both these ideas.

I hope you are familiar with Socrates of Greece, and know his story. He had to pay with his life, for the exercise of his freedom of expression. He preferred to take hemlock, rather than submit to the ways of his new rulers. That was about two thousand five hundred years ago, in the West. But, in the East, in India, about the same time, Buddha broke with conventional thinking, and lived up to a ripe old age, giving birth to a whole new religion in his name. The ancient Indian rulers did not give him poison; instead, absorbed his philosophy.  However, in the West, again, two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was crucified for his mission, but his ideas outlived him and grew to be the largest religion in the world today.

That was long, long ago. Since then, there have been rebels who wouldn’t submit, and there have been rulers who wouldn’t give in. The French Revolution of the eighteenth century is remarkable, among other things, for one reason: Liberty. The words of Voltaire, oft quoted and most relevant to us today, are: ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the last for your right to say so.’ Both US and India won their Independence from the British Rule: one by force, the other not by force, but nonviolent means. And, freedom of expression is one of the freedoms enshrined in the constitutions of both the countries.

India became Independent in 1947, took twenty-nine months to draft its Constitution, borrowing freely from the constitutions of other democracies, particularly UK, and US, and, in January 1950, proclaimed itself a republic. The Preamble ensured all the citizens of the new Republic, ‘liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship’, as in the US. The Article 19 of the Indian Constitution provides that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, subject to the usual restrictions like libel, threat to life or property.

We shall consider how this basic human right to freedom of expression has been honored by the Government and exercised by the people of India, in three areas: literary, general, and visual.

A curious fact is, free India was led by three writer-prime-ministers, for thirty-three years of its sixty. The first, Jawaharlal Nehru, was in power for 17 years. He was a prominent leader of the Indian National Congress, which had led India to its Independence. Indian National Congress is very much like the GOP of US, except that it leans toward the left. During the Freedom Struggle, the British rulers had incarcerated Nehru nine times; jailed him for nine years. Nehru used prison time for writing books. One would think that a freedom fighter, a writer jailed for propagation of his ideas, would, when he became the head of the government, uphold the writer’s freedom of expression. And this he did, in speeches. But when it came to action, he faltered, and failed the very first test.

The first literary book that was banned in Independent India was on religious grounds: The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen, published in 1954. The Ramayana, as some of you may know, is an ancient Indian epic, written by Valmiki, in Sanskrit. Some consider it as the first epic ever, and its author, the first poet ever.  Aubrey Menen is a writer of Swiftian vintage, and could write a savage satire, and this he did, in his retelling of the Indian epic. A connoisseur would enjoy the humor, ponder the satire, and put away the book. But, not a religious zealot, and there are plenty of them in India, who could easily be roused by leaders, who do not read books, but demand such books be banned. And, Nehru, the Prime Minister, thought it expedient to ban the book. Let us consider the tone and tenor of the first book banned in free India. Here is an excerpt:

‘The best way to avoid confusion in thinking about the ways of human beings is, to remember that the number of the ideas that have really moved mankind is very small, and most of this small number of ideas are very simple. The difficulty is that, you and I have room in our heads for only one or two of these simple ideas at the same time.

For instance: one of the most powerful notions in the history of thought is that of the Devil. Another powerful idea is that of Nature obeying fixed laws. If you believe in Nature obeying fixed laws, and I believe in black magic, and if we both want to obtain a nugget of gold, you will go prospecting in some place, which your study of the laws of geological action has led you to believe, has auriferous rocks. I will put a lump of lead in a basin, and sacrifice a cock at midnight, on a bare mountain. You will think me, an unsavory charlatan; I will think you, an uninspired fool. Nowadays, our friends would expect you to find the gold: in the Middle Ages they would (privately) have put their money on me. Because I cannot see your simple idea and you cannot see mine, we shall not only differ in our ways of getting gold, we shall differ about nearly everything under the sun. Since you believe that if you know how Nature works, she will do as you bid her, you will be confident that if things are left to you, and your co-workers, everything can be made bigger and better and everybody made happier. I, on the other hand, believe in the power of evil and I shall say that men are wicked, and nothing will make them better, and the fact had best be faced. Your idea may lead you to discover antibiotics or nerve gas: mine can make me a great leader of men. (13-14).

And, after 276 pages of delightful humor and caustic satire, Menen gets his mouthpiece, Valmiki, conclude:

‘There are three things, which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third’ (276).

Plainly, the book was intended to make people laugh, and consider. But the Hindu extremists, even before reading it, had made up their minds, they wouldn’t like the book, and the Government, led by a writer Prime Minister, banned the book for political reasons. Even sixty years after its publication, Menen’s book remains banned in India. Meanwhile, the book thrived and went into several editions, more so, since the English language itself prospered all over the world, with the new academic discipline, World Literatures in English.

Another book banned in India about the same time is Nine Hours to Rama by the historian Stanley Wolpert, a University of California professor. This book is a fictional account of the last day of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, and focuses on his assassination. It was banned because it speaks of the poor security, and hints at possible incompetence, and even conspiracy.

More recently, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, an essay by A K Ramanujan, of the University of Chicago, was banned by the Delhi University. The Academic Council of the premier University of India was blissfully ignorant of the fact that the National Academy of India had earlier published A Critical Inventory of Ramayana Studies in the World: basic bibliographical information alone runs into a thousand pages. A whole library can be filled with the Ramayana versions, retellings, interpretations, as well as poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, based on the characters or episodes from the epic. Some of them are not merely critical, but also vituperative.

Nehru was elected President of the National Academy of Letters, India – Sahitya Akademi – ‘not because he was the Prime Minister, but because he had carved out a place for himself as an eminent writer in English’. He was President of the Akademi for ten years, till his death in 1964. As President of the Akademi, he had always upheld the writer’s freedom of expression. In the Akademi too, he had to face demands for removing books from the Translation Programme, for one reason or another.

One such, in the very early days of the Akademi, was Voltaire’s Candide, the French classic, selected for translation into the various Indian languages. Veteran K.M. Panikkar had agreed, in 1956, to translate the book into Malayalam. On re-reading the book, he felt that it was ‘extremely unsuitable for translation into Malayalam’ because it was mainly an attack on the Catholic Church, and would be resented by the Catholics in Kerala. The various incidents alluded to in the book relate to Catholic history. The villains are the Grand Inquisitors, Jesuits, Franciscans and other representatives of the Catholic Order. One of Voltaire’s characters is the illegitimate daughter of a Pope. While the book itself was undoubtedly one of the world’s great classics, its translation into Malayalam would invite a great deal of criticism. Panikkar went on: ‘In view of our Government’s attitude towards books involving religious controversies, e.g. Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, it may even lead to a book of the Akademi being suppressed and confiscated by the Government. I would, therefore, advise … not to undertake this work, in any case not in Malayalam, and also in other languages.’

Radhakrishnan, the Vice-President of the Akademi, was a renowned scholar, writer, and statesman. He disagreed with Panikkar’s view. The original French edition and its English translation were not banned in India, not even in the Catholic countries of Europe and South America. An attack on the forms of the Catholic Church was not necessarily an attack on the Christian religion. If such objections were upheld, the field of selection of classics would be severely limited. At this rate, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice would be treated as an attack on the Jews.

Nehru agreed with Radhakrishnan, and Candide remained on the Akademi’s translation programme. It was published in five Indian languages. But Panikkar had his way and the Akademi did not publish the book in his language, Malayalam.  Panikkar’s panic, however, turned out to be unnecessary, because, as early as 1947, long before the Akademi came into existence, an advocate had translated Candide into Malayalam and published it. Obviously Panikkar did not know of it. In any case, satires on the gap between religious profession and practice are nothing new. Fifty-five years before Voltaire’s Candide,was Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, another mordant satire on Christianity.

So far, we have been considering the writer’s freedom of expression in books, its profession and practice in Independent India, and its first Prime Ministerwearing two hats, one as the Chief Executive of the largest democracy in the world, the other as the Presiding Officer of the Association of Writers, the National Academy of Letters.

The third Prime Minister of India was Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. She ruled for sixteen years. Unlike her father, she had no reputation as a writer; consequently, she did not have to wear two hats, of the ruler and the rebel. For our discussion, she plays the most important part. She proclaimed the infamous National Emergency, which lasted a little over two years, from 1975 to 77. She was a popular leader, thrice elected. However, in 1975, the Allahabad High Court, considered an appeal against her election, on the grounds of adopting electoral malpractices, and found her guilty. The verdict rendered her continuance as Prime Minister untenable. She could have appealed to the Supreme Court, against the High Court verdict. Instead, she chose to invoke a constitutional provision and imposed National Emergency, claiming domestic disturbances, and consequent threat to national security. She assumed dictatorial powers, amended the Constitution, subverted democratic processes, ruled with an iron hand, jailed and liquidated the opposition, imposed press censorship – in short, martial law under political guise. Large column spaces of newspapers went blank, because the matter had been censored. Nothing could be published without the Government approval. There was apparent calm and discipline, and some relief from the messy parts of democracy. On the other hand, discontent was simmering, and the Prime Minister’s inner circle was blissfully ignorant of it. Flatterers told the Prime Minister what she wanted to hear. After a little over two years, she decided to legitimize her actions, and called for elections, having been assured by her advisers that she would sweep the polls. She released some of the opposition leaders from jails. The elections, however, were a huge surprise. The Indian electorate decimated the Congress, the Prime Minister’s GOP, and reduced it to its lowest number ever in the Parliament. Indira Gandhi was denied even a membership of Parliament, though she had contested from two constituencies. Thereby ended the darkest period in the story of Independent India.

For our purpose, we shall take up two aspects, the state censorship, and the writers’ response. Journalists and editors were gagged, and couldn’t do much, except whine in private, or in jail. There were a few honorable exceptions. The premier institution of writers, the National Academy of Letters, chose to be silent. This hurt one novelist, Nayantara Sahgal, to such an extent that she chose to resign her membership of the Academy. Here are excerpts from her letter:

The word “intellectual” is something of a farce in India, and during the Emergency it was reduced to total farce, as far as the non-performance of one body, … the Sahitya Akademi, was concerned. Aware of the timidity of the Indian intellectual and his anxiety to stay on the right side of power, I wrote to the … Akademi … on the single issue of censorship, suggesting that … (they) condemn it.  … I reproduce the main part of the letter:

‘The question of free expression and the free circulation of ideas is crucial to a free society.  I should have thought nothing could be as important as this to the Akademi, which is concerned with writers and their work …  failure to bring up this issue … convinces me that the Sahitya Akademi of India does not concern itself with free expression.  Indeed, it seems willing to be a servile body, an obedient servant of dictatorship … had Jawaharlal Nehru, its founder, been alive today, he would not have tolerated such a situation.  He would probably have been in jail, for he would not have kept quiet on any matter concerning human freedom. I regret, I cannot serve on any committee that is so lost to self-respect as to remain silent on the censorship that is strangling India today.  Kindly accept my resignation.’

The Emergency, however, rolled on without a murmur from the Akademi.

After the Emergency, and the elections, the Government led by the new Prime Minister Morarji Desai, restored all the freedoms denied by the Indira Gandhi Government, and the Constitution was restored status quo ante. The nation breathed again.

A chastened Indira Gandhi, however, staged a come back in the next elections, and became Prime Minister again. During her final term, something of literary significance occurred, to do with freedom of expression. 

In 1981, Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize for his s second novel, Midnight’s Children. The book was sought to be banned in India for its derogatory references to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the Widow, and her son Sanjay Gandhi as Labia-lips. When consulted, the then Chairman of the National Book Trust of India, Krishna Kripalani, advised the Prime Minister not to ban the book, for a ban would only boost the book and invite unhealthy curiosity. Left alone, the book would have its natural cycle. He proved prophetic. While Midnight’s Children had its share of limelight, and faded, his next novel, The Satanic Verses, published in 1988,raised a huge controversy all over the world, for its irreverent references to Prophet Mohammad and the Quranic verses.  India, then under the leadership of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, promptly banned The Satanic Verses, to appease the Indian Muslims.  From Iran, Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa, calling for death to Salman Rushdie.

Shortly thereafter, the Akademi organized an international seminar on “Freedom and the Writer”, where protests, book bans and fatwas dominated the discussions.

The Akademi Fellow and former Vice-President, Srinivasa Iyengar recalled:

‘The atmosphere was understandably tense, for Ayatolla Khomeini’s death sentence on Rushdie was a lethal radiation racing blindly in various directions.  Not a few present felt caught in a tangle of frustrations, for the subject of the Seminar was indeed an embattled one.  Freedom of expression and publication, an unquestionable and fundamental human right, may legitimately occasion dissent or disagreement, but not prosecution or persecution, and certainly not deprivation of life itself.’  

Eventually, the President of the Akademi wrote the following letter to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi:

I have not read the controversial book, The Satanic Verses, and cannot give any opinion on its merits or otherwise…  All I wish to suggest is that you may kindly consider rousing international opinion to condemn the ‘death sentence’ issued against Salman Rushdie…  Violence, I am sure you will agree, is counterproductive, particularly in matters of mind, and will make martyrs of mortals. In this connection, I may draw your kind attention to the case of Boris Pasternak, in which your distinguished grandfather, Jawaharlalji, intervened, more in his capacity as President of Sahitya Akademi than as Prime Minister of India, and his intervention secured the safety of Pasternak…  I have no doubt that you will continue to uphold the tradition, and do your best to rouse international opinion against the threat to the life of a writer.’

There are more books that raised controversies and protests. Some books were banned, and became, consequently, commercial successes; the books that escaped ban had a normal shelf life and faded.

Another Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpeyi, who also wore two hats, of the poet and the politician, faced violent protests and demands for book bans. He said: ‘The poet in me tells me not to listen to the politician in me, and the politician in me tells me not to listen to the poet.’ That was in 2003. We recall that nearly half a century earlier, the first President of the Akademi, also the first Prime Minister of India, too had voiced similar concerns: ‘As President of the Akademi I may tell you quite frankly I would not like the Prime Minister to interfere with my work.’ So the tension between the ruler’s urge to regulate and the writer’s itch to rebel continues.

Let us now turn to the freedom of visual expression. I’ll show you three paintings by M. F. Husain, the bare-foot, best-paid, painter of India; one of his paintings sold for1.6 million dollars at a Christie auction (2008). He was an Indian Muslim artist who had painted, among others, images of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Later in life, he became the target of Hindu extremist groups, who took exception to his nudes of the Hindu deities. His galleries were vandalized; some of his paintings, which had been on view for nearly three decades, were suddenly discovered to be indecent and offensive, and were destroyed. Court cases were filed against the painter. Though the High Court ruled in his favor and upheld his right to freedom of expression, he was heartbroken; he left his beloved Mumbai, went into voluntary exile, and died in London, at the age of 97. The ultimate tribute to the great Indian Muslim maestro was paid by a Hindu artist, Veer Munshi: he painted Husain as a Hindu god. Now, let us take a look at three Husain paintings.

D.S. Rao, Ph.D., is an author, literary critic, retired professor, and former Editor of Indian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently, he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.


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