Pulp friction threatens India's free speech

India is weeks away from national elections that will again display the miracle of democracy and free debate in a heterogenous nation of more than a billion people.

Yet its well-deserved reputation for openness is being damaged by surrenders to vociferous defenders of a proclaimed religious orthodoxy on one hand, and powerful commercial and political individuals and corporations on another.

Penguin Books India recently got into trouble when it tried to bring out a book by an American academic, Wendy Doniger, called The Hindus: An Alternative History which looks in part at the erotic elements of Indian theology.

A certain Dina Nath Batra, of a Hindu nationalist outfit called Shiksha Bacho Andolan, decided that this was an insult to the feelings of a religious group, and launched a civil action to have it suppressed under the Indian Penal Code's Section 295A - a provision that allows police to head off incitement to inter-religious and other forms of communal violence.

Penguin is part of the mighty publishing force Penguin Random House, controlled by Germany's Bertelsmann and Britain's Pearson, and not therefore without resources for a legal defence.

Presumably Mr Batra's funding for litigation would not be unlimited.


But instead of testing in court whether the hundreds of millions of Hindus might reasonably feel insulted and inspired to violence by an academic book, Penguin decided to pulp its edition.

Many in the Hindu nationalist side of politics sneered at Rajiv Gandhi's Congress government when it banned the importation of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in the 1980s. This was ''appeasing'' an over-sensitive minority, they said. Now they are in the business of book-banning too.

Religious bullying has been worse than this. The painter M.F. Husain, who also liked to portray Hindu deities in erotic ways, was hounded out of Mumbai in the 1990s and forced to spend his final years exiled in Dubai and London. It will only be encouraged when threats force surrender without a legal fight.

The second attack on free opinion and comment comes from big money.

This writer has the dubious distinction of being first to suffer in what is now a well-established trend. My book The Polyester Prince, about the controversial founder of the Reliance Industries group, Dhirubhai Ambani, was to be published in 1998 by HarperCollins India.

Reliance obtained a copy of the printed pages ''from a well-wisher'' and threatened HarperCollins with applications in every one of some 22 high courts across India for injunctions against publication on grounds of anticipated defamation.

The publisher wilted and had the edition pulped. An injunction, obtained without contest from a junior beak in a Delhi courthouse, was a superfluous coup de grace. When Roli Books came out with an updated version, Ambani & Sons, some years after Ambani's death, his sons made no attempt to block it. But a precedent had been set, and other tycoons have not hesitated to prevent publication of critical books through the courts.

Subrata Roy is another colourful figure in the ranks of India's newly risen capitalists, having built his Sahara group from a start in money-lending to a large conglomerate including printing and media (and a major domestic airline for a while). Recently he obtained a stay order in the Calcutta High Court against Tamal Bandyopadhyay's Regulators Vs Sahara: The Untold Story, again on grounds of anticipated defamation. The author, in retrospect, had made the mistake of sending Mr Roy an advance copy.

In a second recent case, former civil aviation minister Praful Patel launched an action to have a book about his handling of Air India, by the airline's former executive director Jitender Bhargava, withdrawn from circulation.

Before even trying to take the case up from the Mumbai metropolitan magistrate's court, and argue the defamation issues, Bloomsbury India issued an abject apology and agreed to withdraw all copies from sale.

Now a third new case is emerging. Penguin India was also preparing to publish a biography of the businessman Shiv Nadar, the founder of the highly successful info-tech firm HCL, but is reported to have dropped the project.

India is not the only place where big money brings legal firepower to intimidate authors and publishers. London has long been notorious for ''defamation shopping''.

A single copy of a book sold or downloaded will establish jurisdiction for a defensive Russian oligarch or Saudi oil sheikh. Even to start a defence will require about £200,000 ($368,000) in ready money.

Indian lawyers are not as expensive as London QCs, but court proceedings can be exquisitely drawn out and mounted in all corners of a vast land.

In the Olympian heights of the Supreme Court of India, the constitution's guarantee of free speech under its Article 19 is recognised. But it might help India's democracy − and the public accountability of its politicians and capitalists - if the highest court ruled that actions for defamation should follow publication.

Senior journalist Hamish McDonald is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's college of Asia and the Pacific, and is currently in Washington as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.