Why censorship is the greatest threat to India: Michael Edison Hayden

Guest post by MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN: An editorial published earlier this month in India Today bemoans India’s willingness to placate religious fundamentalists through artistic censorship. The author, Peter V. Rajsingh, makes the familiar point in “Censorship a slur on India’s ethos” that religious zealots have become “purveyors of infantilising values of Victorian colonial missionaries”. What he says is true, but India’s real problem with censorship extends far beyond removing images of bare breasts from movie screens. There is possibly no issue today – including the vile treatment of women and the relentless threat of terrorism – that poses a greater threat to the happiness and security of Indian citizens than that of censorship. And I believe that it is extremely important for those of us who live here, and love this country to comprehend the weight of this situation before it is too late.

Let us first go back in time to September 13th of 2012 – before India’s news cycle became dominated with what was an overdue discussion about women’s rights. Freelance political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was being released from Arthur Road Jail and large crowds of people waved Indian flags in celebration of what seemed like a small victory for freedom of speech. Arrested on grounds of sedition for publishing a series of cartoons highlighting corruption in the Indian government, Trivedi had just spent four days in Mumbai’s oldest prison before being freed under a wave of protest. Later that night, the wild-haired, bearded Trivedi appeared comfortable and refreshed while doing the rounds on the evening talk shows.

“Although I’m free, the battle will continue,” he told reporters. “Whenever there is an infringement of legal rights, our fight will continue.” On Oct. 12, the Maharashtra state government dropped those sedition charges against Trivedi, as India’s court system worked uncharacteristically quickly to erase the embarrassing memory of the cartoonist’s arrest. Problem solved, right?

Not quite: What many of Trivedi’s supporters may not have realized that day is that due to loosely worded laws and a creaky legal system – the suppression of speech and press by imprisonment has become uncomfortably commonplace in modern India. In short, there are bigger things at stake here than bare breasts or curse words. While India might be slightly better off than its economic rival China on these matters, the difference between those two countries is not as great as many of us would like to believe. And without serious legal reform, the situation can worsen.

According to a government-funded 2011 survey of India’s prisons, 64.7% of all persons occupying prisons in India were labeled as “under trial”. This is due to a tragically slow average length of trial here, which a legal expert with whom I spoke, Mihir Desai, who served as director of the Mumbai based India Centre for Human Rights and Law from 1997-2007, estimates to last between three and ten years for an average criminal case. If a corrupt politician wishes to send a dissenter to prison in India, he or she can have that person booked with an imaginary crime, knowing full well that charges alone can keep an arrestee locked up for multiple years. Once an accused has finally completed the lengthy “under trial” period and theoretically been found innocent, he or she then has very little recourse to seek amends for false imprisonment. What does that mean for censorship? Well, without the benefit of the type of public protest that Mr. Trivedi inspired, anyone can currently be imprisoned in India for voicing disagreement with the government – for any length of time.

Pashant Rahi, 53, a former journalist and chairperson of the Delhi based Indian Social Science Congress, an academic group with a strong interest in human rights issues, told me that what happened to Trivedi “was actually minor compared to many similar arrests that have occurred here.”

“The national media, who normally ignores issues of government suppression, couldn’t ignore that incident because of how small his crime was and how paranoid it made [the government] look,” Rahi said. Trivedi, Rahi speculates, might still be serving time on the anniversary of his arrest were it not for the vocal support of the Hindi language papers that published the cartoonist’s work.

Rahi knows something about the power of protest: He served three years and nine months as a political prisoner under charges of sedition and waging war against the Indian government. Rahi, then a political activist, was accused of sympathizing with Naxalite causes and being a terrorist. He contends that several crucial pieces of information had been doctored in his police report. “I was actually arrested on a Dehradun [city in north India] street corner but the report said that I was arrested in a jungle that I had never been to before in my life,” Rahi says. “I might still be in jail if it weren’t for protests surrounding the arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen,” a doctor and activist who was arrested in May of 2007 under suspicion of transmitting documents between Naxalite leaders during prison visits.

Sen, like Amit Trivedi, became a minor cause célèbre in April 2011.  When Sen was freed under the pressure of public outcry, Rahi, a similar but less well-known case, was as well. “For those who are not journalists or successful doctors, the imprisonment can go on endlessly,” Rahi told me.

Such was the case for Arun Ferreira, the social worker arrested in 2007 while organizing protests in low-income communities of Mumbai. Like Rahi, Ferreira was accused of being a Naxalite terrorist. Ferreira alleges that police beat him during questioning and administered “truth serum.” Charged with sedition, waging war against the government and attacking a police officer, he spent four and a half years in jail waiting for his case to go to trial; he was released in January, and cleared of all eight of the charges against him. “In the evening, I was made to squat on the floor with a black hood over my head as numerous officers posed behind me for press photographs,” Ferrira wrote in a June article in Open. “The next day, I would later learn, these images made the front pages of papers around the country. The press was told that I was the chief of communications and propaganda of an ultra-left wing of Naxalites.”

PA Sebastian, 64, a Mumbai-based attorney and the co-founder of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, an organization that provides legal defense to India’s political prisoners, told me that that what happened to Ferreira is doomed to repeat with other prisoners, unless more attention is brought to the issue of India’s overwhelming number of prisoners “under trial”. He believes that local governments in India are actively exploiting the failures of the legal system here to imprison dissenting voices and anyone else who might be viewed as an obstacle to power.

“With men like Ferreira, it’s not based upon some personal vendetta,” Sebastian said. “Politicians simply exploit the legal system to put him out of the way.”

For Ferreira, the cost of prison extended beyond simply the loss of time and personal dignity. His son, who was only two at the time of his arrest, had to be tricked into thinking that his father had been away on business for five years. “It’s not a question of just robbing five years of your life when you got to jail for so long, it’s a question of drastically changing your life,” Ferreira explains. “People change their perception of you when they know you’ve been in prison.”

The same can also be said for Sahil Maqbool, a 44-year-old Kashmiri investigative journalist who was arrested, he believes, for reporting on sensitive issues like “encounters,” instances where police or military operatives shoot a suspect and later claim self-defense. Maqbool was arrested in September of 2004 while writing for the Urdu language paper Chattan. He was held in an interrogation cell for approximately one month, where alleges to have been beaten, suspended from the ceiling by his arms, and had the muscles broken in his legs by “rollers”, a torture technique where two men stand on either side of a heavy block of rounded wood, placed on top of a suspect’s body. Maqbool was later transferred to Jammu and Kashmir’s Central Prison where he was held for an additional three and a half years before being released.

“My life, my entire career as a journalist was destroyed by this ordeal,” Maqbool told me. Maqbool has written an Urdu language memoir of his time in prison, the title of which translates roughly to The Darkness Inside.

I highlight these instances that have occurred at various times over the last decade not to trivialize Mr. Rajsingh’s concerns in India Today about artistic censorship, but only to demonstrate that this threat to freedom of expression is far more severe, far more endemic than many of us would like to admit. The popular complaint about India’s reluctance to trust its citizens with foul language, incendiary art, and obscenity ought to include these more serious events, lest Mr. Trivedi’s call to battle last year be swept away with the rhythm of the news cycle. And if you prefer to imagine that such concerns do not apply to you right now, keep in mind that leadership changes are always on the horizon in a democracy: Without aggressive reform, these gaping holes in India’s legal system can be exploited by a new generation of politicians who might not be as generous in spirit as the current crop.

So, when you notice that the word “fuck” has been effectively scrubbed out of a film’s subtitles, you are entitled to roll your eyes at the screen. But do not mistake it for anything less than the most superficial aspect of a more serious problem: Censorship in this country can and does get much, much scarier. India can fix this problem by demanding rigorous reform to its broken legal system, or it can do nothing. But if nothing is done, do not be shocked if in future generations, words like this, or even those of Mr. Rajsingh in India Today are never published at all. It is a chance that no one among us should be willing to take.

(Michael Edison Hayden is an American writer based in Mumbai who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Caravan, among others. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEHayden.)

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