The award-winning Indian novelist and activist speaks to Manav Bhushan about the limits to free speech in India, including government censorship through the media and “goon squads”.
MB: Do you think there should be any restrictions on the freedom of speech, justified on the grounds of national security, public order or morality?
AR: No. I am completely against any restrictions. Once you have restrictions, they lend themselves to interpretation and the interpretations will always favour the state or the powers that be. So I am completely against any restrictions.
MB: Examples in India and previously in Europe show that fascism begins with speeches, which breed hatred and appeal to the baser instincts of society. Do you think we need to control hate speech by members of the majority against minorities?
AR: I don’t think it would be fair to say that fascism begins with speeches. There were a lot of factors which led to fascism in different countries. Speech was just a form of expression. I don’t think that if there had been limits to free speech there would have been no fascism. To shut it out would be counter-productive. Certainly, I think in India the problem doesn’t lie with hate speech. The problem lies with the fact that when acts of communal violence are committed, when states are happily sponsoring pogroms and murders then nothing happens.
It’s not the speech which is a problem, it’s the action. So if you say that you live in a society with laws regarding murder, mass murder, burning people to death and rape, and you don’t take any action on that, and you want to control hate speech through a law, then that law will simply be misused. If you look at India today, I think a lot of people who don’t do hate speech are charged with hate speech. For example, if I say that having 700,000 soldiers patrolling Kashmir is unacceptable, someone says that’s hate speech. So I don’t think that great politics or history come from the expression of people through speech. It comes from what you allow people to do to one another in a country or in a society.
MB: You mentioned your statements regarding Kashmir and the reactions from parties like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and others. Do you think that India is moving towards more freedom of expression or less?
AR: The reactions to the things that I say about Kashmir don’t come only from the BJP. They come from the congress as well. It immediately coagulates into some kind of nationalist agenda with these parties trying to out-do each other to prove their mettle as the leaders of a nation without morality, without ethics. But when it comes to silencing us, the first card they pull out is moral or ethical. But no, actually I think in India a few things are happening.
One is that there is a huge amount of noise. Perhaps it’s because we have more television channels than any other country in the world. All are increasingly falling into the hands of major corporations, which have a major conflict of interest because those are the same corporations, which are making a lot of money in the privatisation of resources, in telecommunications etc. And now they are able to control the media entirely, either directly, or through advertising. So that’s one form of control that is happening.
The second form of control is when the state itself goes after people for speaking about things that it does not wish them to speak about. And the third is that there has been a great outsourcing of censorship. So political parties outsource their ire to goon squads, who beat people in their homes or trash them, and create an atmosphere where you begin to have to think twice. It’s important to think twice or three times before you speak on important things but you begin to think twice before saying things which ought to be said because of fear.
So this outsourcing allows the government to continue to pretend that it’s democratic and that it allows free speech, but in fact in all these ways control is being exerted, from the corporates, from the goons, and also from the courts. Even the judiciary is misused hugely by political parties. For instance I have numerous cases filed against me wherever I speak so that you are just hunted down by these people in these little ways so that eventually they can just frighten you or tire you into keeping quiet. So, it isn’t like a dictatorship where everyone knows what’s going on and nobody is allowed to say anything; it’s done in a far more sophisticated way. And now of course they are planning to control the internet.
MB: What do you think is the way out of this corporatisation of the media and the control by private parties which is witnessed not just in India, but also in countries such as the USA. And do you think that the internet provides a way out because it lowers the bar to entry?
AR: Well, I’m sure that the reason that the government is considering clamping down on the internet is because major players are worried about the fact that while they are managing to control TV and newspapers, etc, the internet still provides a space for people to tell things which need to be told. But eventually the way out, I mean ideally the way out – not just regarding the media, but regarding so many things – is that the cross-ownership of businesses really has to stop. You cannot allow major corporations, which are slowly getting a grip on everything, from water to electricity to minerals to telecommunications to control the media in the way that it is. I mean that kind of conflict of interests has to stop. So, eventually there ought to be some kind of legislation that ensures that the media cannot be controlled in this way.
MB: Do you think that the BBC model, or the kind of model that they have in Germany where you have a statutory body controlling the media, which is answerable to a parliamentary committee, would offer a more neutral medium which would allow people to get at the facts?
AR: Well, I think compared to what is going on it would be comparatively better, but I don’t think that the BBC is entirely neutral. I mean if you look at the scenario of world politics, you still have to ask why media channels are extremely concerned about deaths in some places but when there is three years of continuous uprising in Kashmir, it’s not covered. So why do they cherry pick and what is the politics behind it? But certainly I think it’s a starting point. I don’t think it’s that difficult to come up with a model where there is a way of making the media more independent. Obviously it’s never going to be perfect. But right now they are talking about moving in the direction of independence or moving in the direction of, not just complete control, but almost brainwashing which goes on in India certainly in many of the TV channels. You find a situation where they have so much power and they are misusing it to such a great extent that it becomes very very dangerous.
In some of my essays I talk about how the superintendent of police in Chhattisgarh told me that, “Look, there is no point in sending the police and the army out to clear the land…” He didn’t say “for the mining companies” but it was understood that that’s what he meant. He said, “All you have to do is put a TV in every tribal person’s house. The problem with these people is that they don’t understand greed.” So it’s not such a superficial game, it’s a very deep business. The business of what’s happening on television and what’s being sold. It’s not just potato chips and air-conditioners, it’s a whole philosophy. It’s a whole way of thinking that is utterly destructive, which has already destroyed so many people, and the idea is to destroy more and more.
MB: So you have written extensively about the problems in central eastern India (Chhattisgarh), where mining corporations are trying to take over the lands of the tribals there. You’ve also said Gandhian protests, like the one by Anna Hazare, require an audience, which doesn’t exist for the tribals in Chhattisgarh. In which kind of scenario do you think that violence becomes a necessary, if not legitimate, form of expressing anguish and the need for justice?
AR: I think I might argue with you about the use of the word “violence”, as well as linking the word “violence” to a form of expression. Because if violence is a form of expression, then it would suggest something cultish. It is not that. I think what is happening there is really a desperate form of defence. Of self-defence for their homeland. It’s not like they arbitrarily decided to become violent. And violence is a word that the middle class and particularly the people in these TV studios like to use because it has a very different connotation from the idea of resistance or an armed struggle by a mass of people. Violence also links up with terrorism, and I don’t think you can accuse these people in Chhattisgarh, who are fighting and who are being called terrorists, of violence just because they have refused to come out of the jungle and joined these police camps. So it doesn’t mean that the people who are in the jungle are terrorists and Maoists.
The whole situation is that in the colonial time, the tribal people were pushed under siege by the colonial powers. But when independence came, the Indian constitution actually perpetuated colonial law, and said that the tribal lands belonged to the forest department. So it criminalised these indigenous people and their way of life. And today they have been promoted from the status of common criminals to that of terrorists. So if you don’t come out of the forests, if you plant your seeds, if you live in your village, you are a Maoist terrorist and are liable to be shot on sight. So then you have a situation where a thousand security personnel surround a village, set fire to it, and rape the women, or murder its people. And there is a reaction or a response, which may not be right somewhere else, then it’s called terrorism, it’s called violence.
I mean you have 200,000 security forces in that forest and you have the government of India,which calls itself a superpower now, and you are planning to deploy the army and airforce against the poorest people in the world. So there, it’s no longer about expression, it’s about war. So Gandhian forms of protest in the cities are required. I mean I have nothing against it. I mean just because it’s a Gandhian protest doesn’t mean they are protesting for the right cause or asking for the right things. But it is a very effective theatre, as Gandhiji himself showed. But I think it needs an audience and it needs a middle class, a sympathetic middle class. Otherwise if people go on a hunger fast in the Bhatti mines or some other obscure place, then who cares? You need the media. You need the middle class. And you need an audience.
MB: Many people would argue that the problem which plagues the Indian media is similar to the problem which plagues Indian democracy in general: that it runs after populism, it runs after things which capture the imagination of the middle class and people in general. That’s why there is no sympathy for marginalised people or marginalised causes. And that explains the difference in the kind of attention that Anna Hazare’s fast gets and the kind of attention that Irom Sharmila’s fast received. So what do you think of the comparison between Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila, who were using the same method of expressing themselves?
AR: Here again I think there are some threads, which need to be separated. One is that, the word “populism” is an interesting one. Because populism and the middle class are two separate things. So you have a situation where the rituals of democracy, the rhetoric of democracy, requires you to talk about the poor and lower castes, and so on. But what it delivers, it delivers only to the middle class. And the media, especially the big media, the mass media – because 90% of its revenues come from advertising consumer products – is only geared for that middle class. That middle class is the market; it is the consumer of all these international consumer goods. That’s why all the international financial companies and businesses have their eyes on them. And that middle class exists at the cost of a much larger underclass. I read the other day that we have more poor people in India than the 26 poorest countries of Africa put together. That middle class is the market and so populism only applies to them, not to the whole population.
But the issue with Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila is different. Irom Sharmila is also a middle class person, and there are plenty of middle class people in Manipur who support her. But that’s the nationalism issue. Her stage is a much smaller one and the middle class population (of India as a whole) is very hostile to that. Or at the most it might say, “Oh poor thing”, but we can’t do anything about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is a law that allows even non-commissioned officers in the Army to shoot on suspicion, and which has been abused in Manipur, to rape and kill women, which is why Irom Sharmila is fasting to get the AFSPA repealed. But far from being repealed, this act has been extended to Nagaland, Assam, Kashmir and today the reason that the army has not been deployed in Chhattisgarh yet, is that the army refuses to be deployed unless it has the protection and the impunity that the AFSPA would offer. So, it’s slightly different. The Anna Hazare movement appealed across the board to the middle class of India whereas Manipur is a sort of secessionist, anti-national struggle against the army.
MB: With regard to Manipur and Kashmir, which go against the concept of nationalism, there appears to be a huge divergence in what people regard as facts. For example, there is no consensus on how many people are tortured in Kashmir, or how many women have been raped. And there seems to be this gulf between the people who are there and the people who speak from outside of this concept of nationalism. Do you think this gulf is a result of the restrictions imposed by the Indian state on the freedom of speech or is there some other explanation for this?
AR: Well, obviously, that is one huge explanation for that. But the issue with Kashmir is that we can’t even say it is the “Indian state” because the Indian elite has fused into the Indian state in some ways. That’s the difference between a democracy like ours and a dictatorship – that the sort of upper classes have fused into the state, so they are as nationalist as the state. So I don’t think you need a knock on the door by the Indian state of the editors of the big newspapers, because they are happy to comply with that kind of censorship. And anybody who goes to Kashmir just has to get out of the airport and all of a sudden you know that you are in an occupy zone. And it doesn’t take long to figure out how dense that occupation is and how closely supervised not just the media, but everything that happens there is. And certainly it’s not just the Indian journalists who are reporting out of Kashmir, but even Kashmiri journalists are either threatened, or co-opted. Many of them will not be hired unless they have been approved by the authorities. And to have a 24-hour military occupation for 20 years, it’s like the control has seeped into the groundwater. It comes out of the taps when you put the tap on. It’s so sophisticated the ways in which they control people. So yes, sure that is one of the main things.
What is very interesting is that while there is all this control over the media, if you’re a foreign journalist or a foreign academic then you require security clearance to come into India. If you’re a businessman, you don’t. If you want to buy a mine or sell a mine, it’s fine, but if you’re an academic or a journalist, you need security clearance. And at the same time, there is this rash of literary festivals in India. Ten years ago there was a rash of beauty contests and today there is a rash of literary festivals. Everywhere you go there is a literary festival being sponsored by mining companies, by infrastructure companies, big corporations, and by the government. And you have writers coming and going. I don’t know what kind of visas they get. I don’t think they need any security clearance. And if you wanted to have a literary festival in Kashmir, like the Sri Lankan government is having a literary festival after a war in which 40,000 people were massacred. So there is this kind of false celebration of freedom of expression. So I think we’ve reached a period where we are way beyond the “manufacture of consent”. We now have the manufacture of dissent, you have the manufacture of news itself, and you have a kind of ritualisation of free speech to a point where nothing can be heard. Or then you clamp down. So it’s quite a sophisticated game that goes on.
MB: So, by and large, do you think that we have a sophisticated kind of PR campaign which gives the stamp of appearing to be a democracy, which allows freedom of expression, but at the same time very closely monitors the kind of content that is allowed to come out and the way that it projects the image of India?
AR: In America, for example, you have this sophisticated legislation regarding free speech, where they have auctioned the platforms off to the highest bidders. So it’s too expensive for ordinary people to afford free speech. It isn’t really free. Here too that has happened, but what we do have, on the positive side in India, is firstly that you have this large population that is outside the newspaper, but they are showing about in TV. But there is this kind of anarchy, where these people can’t control the entire population that easily yet. You have a lot of pamphlets and little newspapers and magazines and maverick things that are going on, which I think are wonderful. And you do have a lot of activity on the internet, Facebook and other social media, which the government is trying to clamp down on.
See, while it takes a lot of energy out of us to try and decode what is going on, it also takes a lot of energy out of them to have to keep pretending to be this great democracy and dealing with it in ways which would be different from say China, which would just clamp down. And the silencing of the media in China or in other openly dictatorial countries is different from what is happening here. Here, I think it is a battle of wit and it is Brahmanical in its cunningness. But it’s moved beyond the Manusmrti, where you poured lead into a Dalit’s ear if he overheard something. It’s moved beyond that, but the sentiments are not that different. And the profits to be made out of appearing to be a democracy and having all this wonderful media and all that also have to be put into the balance sheets. India does gain a lot of brownie points from appearing to be a democracy, which is why nobody says half as much about Kashmir as they will about Tibet or about the uprising in the Middle East. So when major media start reporting very enthusiastically about one uprising, and keeps very quiet about another, you have to work it out – why is it happening? What’s the story here?
This is the lightly edited transcript of an interview conducted by Manav Bushan for Free Speech Debate in January 2012