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The Censor Raj

25 January 2012 By Jeff Glekin

There are many things about China that India would love to emulate. Attitudes to freedom of expression should not be one of them. India’s slower growth is often defended as a price worth paying for freedom and democracy. But censoring Salman Rushdie and censuring Jay Leno doesn’t say much for India’s tolerance levels. And efforts to filter content on the Internet suggest India may be following China down the wrong path.

Governing the world’s largest, and arguably most diverse, democracy is no easy task. The politics of caste and religion still play a huge role in determining who rules Mother India. Protests, fuelled by any perceived slight, offer politicians an opportunity to show the voters whose side they are on.

But the banning of books and artists is unbecoming of a country which prides itself on tolerance and constitutional democracy. Salman Rushdie was hounded away from Jaipur’s literary festival this week. He cancelled a video-link just minutes before it was scheduled to begin after the organisers received death threats. His novel The Satanic Verses is banned in India and a group of writers now face prosecution for staging a reading of the text at the festival. In the same week, India officially complained to the United States over talk-show host Jay Leno’s satirical suggestion that Sikhism’s holiest shrine was Mitt Romney’s vacation home.

Such protests have come and gone before, but efforts to control the Internet are new and dangerous. Google and Facebook are among 21 companies which have been asked to develop a mechanism to block objectionable material, after a private petitioner took the websites to court over images deemed offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Civil rights groups oppose the new laws but the government appears to be backing the censors.

This intention may be nanny-state, but the consequences could be more like big brother. Any kind of filter on the Internet can have both political and economic consequence. Though India’s vibrant democracy continues to look robust, increasing state encroachment on freedom of expression would not be good for India’s economy – nor for its soul.


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