CRF Blog

Letter From Mumbai

by Bill Hayes

In Letter From Mumbai, an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in American Scholar, author Murzban F. Shroff argues that India should be more open to freedom of expression.

I fear, Mr. Prime Minister, that India is falling prey to a kind of fascism far worse than we have seen before in the course of our tumultuous history. Repression of the arts springs from our own loins, attacks us on our own soil, mocks our constitution, ties up our courts, subverts our police, and silences the means by which we claim to be a democracy. Practiced with increasing fervor, it generates fear and denies free speech and free thought their God-given sanctity.

As you must know, the most celebrated case occurred this year when Penguin India, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, ordered unsold copies of the work to be withdrawn and pulped after a member of a right-wing organization brought civil and criminal lawsuits against it. The author, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, contended that Hinduism was a pluralistic religion open to various interpretations; the complainant held that the work had several factual errors that showed Hinduism in a poor light. In support of the author, the American Academy of Religions issued this statement:

To pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished.

The lawsuits were filed in 2010, the year the book was published in India, and after four years of litigation, the publisher conceded that “the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” Here, Mr. Prime Minister, is one example of our national shame.

Now, may I remind you of another case from a decade ago? [more]