Critics say recent trend of bans shows how ‘thin-skinned’ Indian politicians have become.
“Don’t eat it, read it, see it, feel it,” sings the Michael Jackson impersonator as she raps her way through a list of pleasures banned by India’s conservative government before chorusing: “Just beep it!” As the world’s largest democracy, India has long been proud of its tradition of artistic, cultural and religious freedoms. But a series of bans, ranging from eating beef to watching the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, has sparked accusations of a growing climate of intolerance under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Critics say the bans show how “thin-skinned” their politicians have become in the Internet age where attempts to put a lid on offending material are likely to backfire. The spoof of Jackson’s classic “Beat It,” which was made by Indian comedy trio Enna Da Rascalas, has gone viral since being uploaded on YouTube last week, reflecting the backlash against blacklists. Announcing a ban earlier this month on a British-made documentary about an infamous 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the comments by one of the rapists could fuel public anger.
Days later, a government-appointed board of censors blocked the release of Fifty Shades of Grey in cinemas, despite being shown a toned-down version. And a comedy “roast” show that featured several Bollywood stars has fallen foul of the authorities after being uploaded on the Internet and is now at the center of an obscenity investigation over some of its sexually explicit jokes.
“For this government, it seems a ban becomes the quickest way to eliminate a problem,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist based in Haryana state. “Bans do not tolerate disorder but without debate and disorder, you can’t have a free democracy. It is just making life complex.”
Historians point out that the center-left Congress party, which has ruled India for most of the post-independence period has its own track record of bans, particularly during the 1975-77 “Emergency” under Indira Gandhi. British author Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses was for example banned in India for allegedly insulting Islam.
But the last two decades has seen a general relaxation on the part of the watchdogs with TV channels able to air shows like Sex and the City that would have once been considered too racy. Even the movie of Rushdie novel Midnight’s Children—which is scathing about the Emergency—was released in Indian cinemas in 2013, albeit without the nudity.
Shashi Tharoor, a best-selling author who is also a Congress lawmaker, says the cultural climate has definitely changed since Modi’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power last May. “Our mounting concern is that there is a climate of intolerance that has unfortunately been given free rein,” said Tharoor. “Positions which had always struck the Indian mainstream as being fringe positions have suddenly become acceptable to the powers that lead.”
The former diplomat made his name with The Great Indian Novel, a satire that came out in 1989 and is based on the epic Sanskrit poem Mahabharata. Were it to be published today, Tharoor suspects it would be banned.
Acclaimed Tamil-language author Perumal Murugan quit writing altogether in January following protests by Hindu and caste groups who felt insulted by one of his books.
Pressure from Hindu activist groups was also instrumental in the passing of a ban on beef earlier this month in the western state of Maharashtra, which encompasses the largest city Mumbai. Cows are sacred to Hindus. The move has been interpreted in some corners as another sign of growing intolerance in a country that is overwhelmingly Hindu but also has sizeable Muslim, Christian and Buddhist minorities.
But Pavan Verma, who has written extensively about cultural and religious history in India, said a certain amount of censorship was understandable in order to avoid causing offence in such a diverse country. “India is a country of wide social discrepancies… that try to coexist with each other and it’s not an easy job to keep everyone happy all the time,” said Verma, a former head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
There was widespread condemnation in India of January’s murderous attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which had printed cartoons of Islam’s Prophet. But when the editor of a Mumbai-based Urdu magazine reprinted one of the cartoons as a gesture of solidarity, she was arrested under laws against insulting religion.
Tanmay Bhat, one of the AIB comedy team at the center of the obscenity row, said the wave of bans made little logical sense but did reflect a general intolerance. “We [Indians] tend to have… an ostrich kind of mentality,” he said at a New Delhi event last week. “We want to put our heads into the ground and be like, ‘if I don’t like something then it’s got to go away’.”