Don’t Look Away From India’s Attacks on Freedom of Speech in the Media

Don’t Look Away From India’s Attacks on Freedom of Speech in the Media

On Jan. 17, 2023, the BBC aired the first episode of a two-part documentary titled “India: The Modi Question,” which investigated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relationship to the Muslim minority in India. The first part of the documentary looked at the 2002 riots in the Indian state of Gujarat. At the time, Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister, and was widely criticized for his inaction while riots raged on and hundreds of Muslims were killed. Predictably, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership and government labeled the documentary as “propaganda” reflecting a “colonial mindset.”

Modi’s government has always been sensitive to criticism from outside the country, often pointing to other countries’ problems and claiming sovereignty as a shield from anyone else commenting on its policies. The allegation of a “colonial mindset” is a distraction, disguising suppression of criticism as challenging colonial views.

Specifically, this suppression — ranging from ridiculous manufactured controversies to attacks that endanger people’s lives — has been focused on Muslim journalists and celebrities.

“Pathaan,” Bollywood’s most recent box office hit, has been at the center of a particularly ridiculous controversy since the video for its soundtrack’s single “Besharam Rand” released, all because of an orange bikini.

The orange bikini in question was one of a number of outfits that star Deepika Padukone  wears in the video as she dances. In the film, Padukone’s character, Rubai, is seducing Pathaan, and dances accordingly. This song caused quite an uproar as several members of the BJP claimed that, because orange is a sacred color in Hinduism, the film was disrespecting the religion. Trolls also directed their criticism to Indian Muslim superstar Shah Rukh Khan for being a part of the film. 

In response to the controversies, Indian audiences showed up in huge numbers at theaters for the film and it became one of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters. My own family members urged each other to watch the film as a sign of solidarity with Khan (although, being Bollywood’s biggest star, he probably didn’t need it). 

While the controversy around “Pathaan” was one of the more ridiculous ones, other comedians and artists have also been targeted for their expression of dissent. On Jan. 1, 2021, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian, was arrested for a joke he had allegedly prepared, but not told, in a set he was about to perform in the city of Indore. The joke was, according to the disruptor who appeared in his set, intended to hurt Hindu religious sentiments. Faruqui has been critical of the current government in the past. He was arrested and forced to spend 37 days in jail, despite there being no basis for the allegations leveled against him.

Faruqui was charged under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which allows imprisonment for up to three years of anyone who promotes “enmity between ​ different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” The Indian Penal Code is a colonial construct from when the British still had control over India, but it still is used in India today, and some of its sections are frequently used by the government to suppress dissent of any kind. Another section, 124A, is a sedition law which allows for imprisonment for life in cases of individuals or groups promoting disaffection towards the government. This section has been used in numerous cases, not only against high-profile activists, but also in response to actions such as liking a Facebook post saying “I like Pakistan.”

While celebrities like Khan and Faruqui are only two of the ever-increasing list of targets of Hindu nationalists, their treatment creates a chilling effect on any form of protest in the country. People are becoming more and more afraid of speaking out against the government and ruling party’s policies. 

My family, which is spread all around the world, can only sit and scroll, retweeting and expressing our outrage online at what is happening in our home country. We watch from afar in positions of incredible privilege as people like us are hurt, harassed and suffocated by fear every day. We have gotten so used to seeing yet another name of a victim of lynching or senseless violence on our timelines that we rarely express our shock anymore. All that is left is a sense of resigned hopelessness.

The few sparks of energy and hope that do come often fizzle out quickly. The most hopeful we have been about India in a long time was during the protests in December 2019, as we witnessed a resounding challenge to the government’s exclusionary policies. Being so far away, it is easy to give in to helplessness, so it was almost a relief to be able to do something as inconsequential as supporting a movie in theaters that we probably would not have watched otherwise. We all went to support “Pathaan” my parents and sisters in New York and I in Copenhagen, Denmark, while I was visiting my aunt and cousin on spring break. The film itself is not political, but the act of supporting it was.

The easiest thing would be to give up and look away because we do not live in India anymore, and we don’t have to worry about our lives being threatened just by being who we are. What the Indian government wants most is for us to hold our tongues in fear — or, at best, in ignorance — of the violence being committed against people like us and members of our families. Nothing will change if we give up and decide nothing can be done. Supporting celebrities and projects targeted by Modi supporters and Hindu nationalists is a small victory, but it feels better to have some agency when we have always felt like we have none. 

What makes supporting these projects a small victory is the seemingly insurmountable challenge in front of us. It seems like no one else is paying enough attention. All we can do is go and watch a movie, hoping that small action can bring attention to what the real problem is: a more and more authoritarian government in the world’s largest democracy. The world cannot and should not look away.

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