The rise of Indian cancel culture

20 November 2021

6:00 PM

20 November 2021

6:00 PM

In 1975, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democracy. The so-called ‘Emergency’ was largely of her own making, giving her the power to rule by decree. Hundreds of prominent writers and journalists, not to mention opposition leaders, were bundled off to jail.

Remarkably, that was all it took for the rest to fall in line. Newspapers stopped printing stories that offended their ruler’s sensibilities. Shivarama Karanth, one of the doyens of the modern Indian novel, took off to ‘compose ballets with lilting music’ in the Canarese countryside. The Illustrated Weekly of India, meanwhile, began running acrostic love letters spelling the name of the premier’s balding, bovine son.

How did the representative of organised media react? The secretary general of the National Union of Journalists said: ‘It is not for us to question the government’s sincerity’. Very early on, it became clear that Mrs Gandhi’s massive army of censors was surplus to requirements. The odd heroic dissident apart, the press and the intelligentsia effectively did the dictatorship’s job for it. The opposition leader L. K. Advani’s admonished the fourth estate succinctly: ‘When you were merely asked to bend, you chose to crawl’.

History has a way of repeating itself. Once again, free speech is under threat: books are banned, sedition and anti-terror laws are deployed to bang up critics of the state. As in Britain, events are cancelled and speakers disinvited from universities on account of protests by staff and students — many of them members of the ABVP, the thuggish student union attached to Narendra Modi’s ruling party, itself given to intimidating and beating up dissenters.

Indeed, cancel culture in India is of an altogether different magnitude. Modi and his minions have withheld scholarships and prescribed ‘suitable topics’ for doctoral theses, denied academics research visas and placed lecturers under surveillance. They’ve prohibited staff from writing for the popular press, fired the government’s detractors and hired unqualified but conforming nobodies to vice-chancelleries and directorships.

As dispiriting as all this is, what is infinitely more so is that the press and publishing world have, in the main, fatalistically concluded that it is profitless to challenge Modi. Self-censorship can, after a fashion, be a lot worse than state censorship. Here the problem is not so much Big Brother as his cojonesless cousin.

Over the last few years, this state of affairs has gone from bad to worse. During the hustings season in 2014 — the election that brought Modi to power — Penguin decided to pulp the 700-page doorstopper history, The Hindus, when religious nationalists claimed hurt. Not long after, Orient BlackSwan pre-emptively set about bowdlerising an Oxford historian’s account of Hindu sexual violence against Muslim women, before pulling out altogether. ‘Will academic books be vetted by lawyers now instead of scholars?’, its author, Megha Kumar, wondered in the press.

No sooner said than done. The juridification of the publishing business has surely been one of the uglier developments of recent years, no doubt aided by the country’s blasphemy laws, so vague and expansive as to pander to every offended fanatic in the land. Having your book vetted by a circumspection of lawyers is now par for the course.

The ‘legal read’, as those subjected to it know only too well, is a ghastly ordeal that typically entails having your manuscript returned to you with three or four dozen truly extraordinary objections. To the overzealous suits bent on reducing every passage of expository prose to legal waffle, even topic sentences and evaluative inferences — the stock-in-trade of academics — are verboten. Take, for example, the novel development that it is now possible to defame the dead in India, who, it transpires, are even more prone to offence-taking than their living peers.

Publishers aren’t alone in this landscape of supererogatory self-censorship. The prominent Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan decided to give up writing altogether in 2015 after he was panned by Hindu nationalists for depicting extramarital sex in One Part Woman. Two years later the Times of India, the newspaper of record, without any prodding, killed a story on the trebling of the ruling BJP party president’s assets. Readers of the Economic and Political Weekly, expecting to find a piece on how a company, headed by a prominent party donor, amassed £50 million in rebates after the BJP tweaked customs rules, were likewise confronted with an Error 404 message. The piece had been removed from the website. Meanwhile, India’s answer to ITV, Star Plus, refused to air a comic skit sending up the prime minister’s halting, nasal whine.

One mild-mannered French academic wearily wrote to me last year complaining he was having trouble with his book: ‘No major Indian publisher will have the guts to publish Modi’s India’. None did. Hard on their heels come foreign publishers operating in India, equally ‘alive to the need for self-censorship, and active cooperation, to prosper in this lucrative market’, according to a pair of academics in To Kill a Democracy. Their assessment was closer to home than they might have imagined. Not long after the Hindu nationalist weekly Organiser criticised the book, the sales team at Oxford University Press belatedly concluded that it was perhaps too ‘provocative’. The book was sent off for a second review — ‘standard policy’ apparently. In the event, OUP decided against publishing an Indian edition earlier this month.

Courageous editors, it is true, have resigned over self-censorship. The smaller presses, moreover, have emerged as redoubts of free speech. The Hindus was eventually picked up by Speaking Tiger, Modi’s India by Westland earlier this month. But will individual acts of resistance cut it? Ultimately the dictatorship of the mid-1970s came to end not on account of popular resistance but because a delusional leadership convinced of its popularity announced a snap election. They were was defeated. Could India be second time lucky? Time will tell. One thing is certain, though. Deliverance scarcely ever comes from on high.

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