Censorship in India: An Interview with Anuradha Raman

On April 28th, CGCS Media Policy Fellow Alexandra Esenler sat down with Anuradha Raman, a Senior Associate Editor with the Political Bureau of Outlook magazine, to discuss Raman’s research on censorship in India. Raman is a Spring 2014 Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India.

In 1988 India became the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses, a novel by Salman Rushdie. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the book’s ban inspired Anuradha Raman, a Senior Associate Editor at Outlook magazine, to investigate the process behind book bans in India. Using the 2005 Right to Information Act,[1] Raman started framing questions about the legitimacy of banning books and whether banned books are ever unbanned. Expanding the scope of her research, Raman began approaching the topic of censorship in a more holistic manner, turning her focus to the censorship of music and poetry as well.

According to Raman, since the drafting of the 1951 constitution, there has been a deep unease in India regarding free speech.  This unease originates from the government’s fear of misinformation during a time when a newly partitioned nation was trying to navigate around developing social revolutions. Thus, Raman describes how drafters of the constitution chose to frame free speech within the context of constraint rather than in the context of rights. Pulling from her experience as a journalist and her research on the topic, Raman states that censorship and defamation suits are the rule rather than the exception. But what does censorship actually entail in the India context?  What is censored and what are the consequences?

While the terms ban and censorship are often equated with one another, Raman articulated that there are distinct differences between the two. A ban has an official implication and is state endorsed; however, censorship is more of a grey area and can include solely the involvement of non-state actors. In India, states, corporations, social groups, and individuals all can call for censorship. For example, in 2012 a cartoon showing Jawahar Lal Nehru (the country’s first prime minister) with a whip in his hand standing over BR Ambedkar (the Constitution of India’s principle architect) on snail with the word Constitution written on the snail’s back was reproduced in school textbooks.  Dalit[2] groups saw this as an insult to Ambedkar and demanded its removal from the textbooks. This non-state group successfully removed the cartoon from the textbook; however, an official state ban was not put in place. As a ban is official, Indian citizens are provided constitutional remedies they can use to contest a ban if one is placed. The same recourse does not exist for more informal censorship suits. For example, if the Central Board of Film Certification, a government entity, cuts a scene from a film, a filmmaker has the legal recourse to contest that the scene should be included. If, however, a group of men demand that a book of poetry written by women should be completely censored, and a publisher complies, it is more difficult to negotiate around the censorship as there are much more limited, if any, constitutional remedies.

Defamation suits, common against journalists, are a prominent example of this non-state censorship. Private companies or parties with substantial financial resources hand out such defamation suits. However, as these suits are very common, every media house has a group of lawyers ready to protect its journalists. When brought to court, such cases can extend for lengthy periods of time as prosecutors argue that journalists had malicious intent and journalists in turn argue that they published what they did for the public good. Despite being tedious and long running, defamation suits are frequently resolved whether through out of court settlements or one party backing off.

In her own experience as a journalist, Raman and Outlook magazine were slapped with defamation suits numerous times. She states that such suits are expected when controversial pieces are published. For example, after publishing an innocuous piece about a chief minister plagiarizing a doctoral student’s thesis, Raman was served a defamation notice. Similarly, when Outlook wrote a critical piece about judiciary, they were served a notice of contempt. While Raman says she has never engaged in pre-censorship, she explained that as “good practice,” when releasing a controversial piece, Outlook has the content vetted by its lawyers, conducts extensive cross checking, and ensures that its facts are unimpeachable so it is prepared to fight back.

In addition to the proliferation of defamation suits, more formal media bans do exist in India. For example, news is banned on private radio channels as the government fears that they will not be able to control news content on this medium. This is especially troublesome as radio is a very pervasive, cheap, and popular medium in India that reaches both the country’s literate and illiterate citizens. Additionally, legislation looking to curb free speech has been proposed, but not passed, in parliament. The 2005 Broadcast Bill, for example, would make investigative journalism practically impossible. The bill includes a proviso mandating the Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India to, as Raman states, sift proper news from improper news that offends public tastes and impacts the security of the state. It would also lay down conditions for investigative and sting journalism by forcing journalists to obtain permission form the parties they are investigating. Though the Broadcast Bill has not yet passed in parliament as it is on the backburner because of trenchant criticism from the media, it would especially impact television channels and make it difficult for channels to have anyone with a contrary or controversial view on their shows. Raman emphasized that this would particularly be an issue for areas such as Kashmir[3] where channels might especially worry about hosting people from groups with different views on government policies.

In addition to print journalism, radio, and television, online content, music, poetry, books, plays, and films also undergo censorship and bans.  Raman highlighted that online content is coming under increased scrutiny as the internet makes inroads and gives more and more people the ability to be writers, editors, and publishers. The backlash for internet content is much sharper as online news is more instant and filters are far fewer.  Raman notes that in these cases,  women bear the brunt of informal censorship and harassment on social media. On Twitter, for example, if a woman takes a radical position, internet trolls are likely to gang up and comment on her posts sayings things such as “Let’s rape her.”

Raman indicated that gender plays a further role in censorship, especially in regards to songs and poetry produced by women. Raman cites two key examples: the ban of women from singing thumries, a genre of semi-classical Indian music, and the censorship of women writing poetry in the state of Tamil Nadu. Regarding singing, one of the first bans in India focused on the broadcasting of women singing thumries. Though semi-classical, thumries were often erotic and passionate, and therefore scandalous for women to sing publicly . While the radio refused to broadcast women singing these songs, it was still respectable for men to do so and be heard publicly. In the case of poetry in Tamil Nadu, Raman states that women were able to write “pretty poetry,” however when women entered unchartered territory and started exploring sexuality it became problematic for men. These female poets faced threats from men who demanded the books and the poets be burnt.

In India, the consequences for breaking censorship are both inconsistent and unclear, as it largely depends on infringement situation. Even in cases in which non-government entities censor, consequences can exist in the form of fines. For example, in defamation suits, journalists are often fined 100-300 crores, whereas online laws are more draconian and include a 36 hour takedown request which could result in 3 years of jail if not obliged. A more serious threat that individuals face is a sedition change, which comes from holding a very critical view of the government and could result in life imprisonment. Television and radio stations are often fined or lose their broadcasting licenses. Punishments can also often be subtler, yet just as harmful. For example, newspapers and broadcasters under the fire of censorship, or in violation of bans, risk the government denying them advertisements and diminishing their organization’s revenue. In such cases, the government often colludes with corporations to deny advertising and thus keep the media in check.

Censorship is to an extent embedded in the Indian media environment, and Raman stressed that the ingrained nature of censorship in India results in some key consequences. Content producers, especially journalists, fearing a possible ban frequently pre-censor their work according to Raman. This could contribute to the sanitization of content published, which would lead to the slow death of free speech in India. When content producers no longer write from alternative viewpoints, stop publishing expository pieces, and fear investigating of corruption and scams, a hegemonic group can begin manufacturing and publishing what they deem the “correct” and “proper” view of history and current events. This eliminates any balance and variety of perspectives in the country and could produce more sterilized historical narratives that ignore important, yet ugly, parts of Indian history. However, groups thus far have pushed back when severe limits have been established.

Despite India’s unease with free speech, Raman believes that it is unfair to say that the media experiences absolute censorship from the government. Members of the content producing community are constantly pushing back and challenging censors. Journalists run critical pieces and succeed in creating their own space in the information world. The media is constantly pushing the envelope and writing what they can with their lawyers ready to defend them. As Raman asserts, “It is part of the job [for journalists] to fight… As long as we know that what we put out is right, and it has served a particular good, which is what free speech is all about, I think we are doing fine.”

 


[1] The Right to Information Act (RTI) is a 2005 Act of the Indian Parliament that seeks to, “provide for setting out the practical regime  of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions.” The RTI extends to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir. It replaced the Freedom of Information Act of 2002.

[2] Dalit is a designation for untouchable members of the lowest class in India.

[3] Kashmir is a disputed territory currently administered by India, Pakistan, and China.

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