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by Hans Dembowski

Freedom of speech in India

As the debate on fundamental human rights is intensifying in India, websites seem to be making a positive difference. The press is active too, but it has a long history of being very careful about the judiciary.

Freedom of speech has become a hot topic in India. The main reason is that some leaders of the dominant government party BJP have begun to campaign against what they consider anti-national and anti-patriotic rhetoric. Matters have escalated at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where student leaders were arrested because they condemned the death penalty. One of them has been released on bail, two others were still behind bars when these lines were written.

Court cases against them are expected to go forward. I hope they will not be sentenced. India has a long history of liberal democracy. Freedom of speech has largely been appreciated.

Today, opposition supporters are appalled by the BJP’s authoritarian stance. An interesting twist is, that the BJP used to agitate against Muslims and other minorities, and resorting to nationalist rhetoric serves to veil its anti-minority stance. It does not make anything better, of course.

As it happens, I have my own experience of merely limited freedom of expression in India. I am one of half a dozen or so authors whose books have become affected by censorship. In my case, the distribution of the book I wrote about public interest litigation in Calcutta – now Kolkata – was discontinued. The reason was that the Calcutta High Court started contempt-of-court proceedings against myself, the publisher and several other parties. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and this company of international reputation immediately apologised to the court and stopped selling the book. I was never notified and even less heard by the court, and the case has now been pending for 15 years. As I have argued before, I do not believe that I am guilty of contempt and certainly never intended to scandalise the judiciary.

India’s press is aware of my case, but mostly shies away from covering it. Editors say that it is impossible to tackle pending legal matters. Their stance means that the Indian public is not fully informed of issues of public interest. On the internet, however, things are apparently different.

For the 15th anniversary of my case, I wrote a short essay for a newspaper. I had been in touch with the editor of its opinion pages some time back, but he had moved on to another job elsewhere. So I asked another journalist if his paper would carry the story. He was enthusiastic, but his editor was not. As usual, the reason was that the case was still pending. The journalist I had sent my proposal then suggested I get in touch with a news website called The Wire, which soon published my essay:

This was a pleasant experience, but I wondered if it would find any readers. It did. I soon got an email from another friend who had been made aware of the story by yet another acquaintance. Moreover, a journalist from yet another website contacted me to ask for an interview. This website is called Bar and Bench and claims to be “the new face of legal journalism in India”. Again the experience was good. We exchanged a few emails, and the result was:

It is inspiring to see that web-based journalism is filling gaps the print media have allowed to widen in India. Who knows, maybe the interview will help me to find a publisher interested in bringing the book back to the book shops.

I’ll happily admit, however, that Indian newspapers have been doing a good job of covering and opposing the repressive tendencies at JNU in Delhi. My impression is that, though they are generally afraid of the courts, many of them do not shy away from tackling the administrative branch of government, which is important for keeping democracy alive.

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