Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do Indians Have Less Freedom Than Americans?

Another piece of feel-bad journalism  came our way on 11 December from The New York Times blog on India.

Business Standard columnist Nilanjana Roy made the case that Indians have less freedom of expression than Americans. “The framers of the United States Constitution so highly valued free speech that they enshrined it in the document’s very first amendment” she wrote. “India, the world’s other mammoth democracy, has a first amendment too, but its intent and meaning are quite the opposite.”

 She quoted from a “sharp” analysis by one Lawrence Liang, a “legal expert” who had noted the “irony” that in the United States the phrase “the First Amendment” refers to the “almost absolute” right to free speech, while in India, it is a reference “to the attempt to ‘strengthen state regulation over free speech’.”

While allowing that India had a freer Press “than countries like Iraq, Malaysia, Afghanistan, China and North Korea,” Ms. Roy noted that New York-based Freedom House placed India 77th in its national ranking, “along with Bulgaria and East Timor, behind South Africa, South Korea and Lithuania.” Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres put it even lower, 122nd, “below Congo, Indonesia and Nepal. Ms. Roy seemed unaware that both organizations are essentially purveyors of propaganda.

 Recalling that New Delhi had first constrained the Indian Constitution’s pledge of the fundamental right to free speech and expression in 1951, she said it reflected “not just political expediency, but perhaps a larger and very Indian discomfort with the idea of untrammeled freedom of expression.” From that ignorant tarring of a culture that has for three millennia encouraged an uninhibited examination of every topic under the sun, Ms. Roy then descended to the minutiae of book banning in independent India.

“The 1955 ban on Aubrey Menen’s “Rama Retold” revealed a discomfort with religious parody and inquiries into faith. A ban in 1959 on Alexander Campbell’s “Heart of India” was an early indicator of a very Indian prickliness about “outsider” histories that show the country in a bad light.”

She did not mention the political background to those developments, namely, the communal bloodshed the British masterminded to create their proxy, Pakistan. It killed a million Indians and left a huge raw wound in our political system that has only partially healed. Since independence, Britain has continued a relentless campaign to subvert India, using religion to manipulate people.

Meanwhile, British "historians" have generated a ceaseless flow of propaganda to mislead and confuse Indians. Censorship is the least desirable way to try and prevent such manipulation, but that seems to be the best our inept politicians today can do. It is regrettable but necessary.

Ms. Roy also avoided any mention of book banning by American authorities, federal, state and local. The list of texts that have come under challenge is not short. It includes books ranging from Candide, The Decameron and Tropic of Cancer to Grapes of Wrath, Catch 22 and the Pentagon Papers. These and a multitude of other bans have been overturned, but only after much legal wrangling. Fanny Hill, written in 1749, was not cleared of obscenity charges until 1966.

During the McCarthy period (1950s), the Committee on Un-American Activities of the United States Congress effectively banned not only books but writers, actors and other film personalities, driving many to penury and some to suicide.

 Those were, of course, the bad old days of the Cold War, but can we say that such atrocities will never be repeated when 13 media organizations in New York felt it necessary a few days ago to complain jointly that city police were preventing them from covering the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters?

As a writer for the online media report Fishbowl reported, “there were many journalists barred from covering the eviction, and some were even dealt with physically. Josh Harkinson, a writer for the website Mother Jones, said he was 'violently shoved', another reported that it ‘was getting scary’ and a New York Post journalist was allegedly ‘in a choke-hold,’ according to NY1′s Lindsey Christ. Animal New York added that last night it witnessed a NBC reporter having his press credentials taken away by police, and The New York Daily News just had a reporter arrested.”

In conclusion, it is necessary to note that comparing India and the United States is a fruitless task. The two countries are completely different in culture and circumstance, and decisions such as curtailing free speech cannot be subjected to a common measure. Having said that, I must add that despite the sobering constraints on my own blog, India is doing pretty well.

No comments: