What the Statesman’s 2009 ‘error of judgement’ says about Indian media’s free speech tightrope

In treading the fragile turf of social contracts that undergird the modern the media should take note of cultural relativism.

ByAnand Vardhan
What the Statesman’s 2009 ‘error of judgement’ says about Indian media’s free speech tightrope
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In recent weeks, several people associated with film and stage have been booked or arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. While the delicate issue of exercising free speech with consideration for sociocultural sensibilities has animated public discourse in India for long, its implications for the news media also creep in intermittently.

A more specific aspect is how news publications should handle collaborative content or international syndicate feeds that might originate from a place with a different sociocultural milieu and response system.

Something that happened in Kolkata 12 years ago provides a glimpse of the risks a news publication might face when it momentarily loses sight of the tightrope walking.

In February 2009, the editor and the publisher of the Statesman, one of India’s oldest newspapers, were arrested for hurting the religious feelings of Muslims after the newspaper reproduced an article critical of Islam from the British daily Independent. Ironically, as a BBC report noted, Johann Hari’s piece, besides making critical remarks about some Islamic beliefs, was concerned with the “erosion of the right to criticise all religions”. As is the practice at many newspapers, the Statesman had a deal with the Independent to republish some of its content. It’s highly unlikely the Indian daily would have come up with such a piece on its own or approved it as a contribution from one of its columnists. Indeed, in an editor’s note clarifying the purpose of republishing the article, the publication regretted the unintended hurt caused. “The publication of Johann Hari’s opinion was not intended to cause hurt, or defame any community or religion. Nor was it intended to provoke societal tension. If unwittingly we have aggrieved any section of society, we deeply regret it,” the note stated.

The apology wasn’t enough as protesters demanded the arrest of editor Ravindra Kumar and publisher Anand Sinha as well as Hari. As a report in the Independent noted, “The Statesman..reprinted the article on 5 February, causing a major backlash among a small group of Muslims who felt that the piece slighted the Prophet Mohamed and insulted their religion. Angry crowds began blocking roads, attacking police and calling for the arrest of the article’s author and the newspaper’s publisher and editor...Staff at the Statesman were forced to barricade the front entrance to their building and were escorted into their offices through a side door by police.”

At the same time, a police complaint was filed against the newspaper. The Independent quotes Kumar as saying that he cooperated with the police to calm tensions, yet “he was arrested and later released on bail”.

Most striking was what Kumar told the BBC, “Not anticipating the reaction to the story was an error of judgement and we have regretted that.”

Such oversight stemmed from the underestimation of the differences in the sociocultural settings that shaped the reception of the same piece in the UK and in India.

Nearly two decades before the Statesman was compelled to grapple with this difficult choice and subsequent tension in Kolkata, had the Indian government erred on the side of caution by becoming the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses? The notification banning the novel, issued on October 5, 1988 by the finance ministry under the Indian Customs Act, concluded by stating that “the ban didn’t detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”.

In an open letter to the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, published in the New York Times, Rushdie mocked the last sentence by thanking the Indian government for the “ good review”. The “review” dig surfaced in the Indian press too, used against former diplomat Syed Shahabuddin, who along with political leader Khurshid Alam Khan, had emerged as the leading advocate for the ban. Since Shahabuddin had admitted that he hadn’t read the book, the joke went that he was the most influential literary critic as he could get a book banned without actually reading it.

Be that as it may, the Indian government’s import ban was guided by its assessment that Rushdie’s book could cause communal disharmony. In an article occasioned by the 30th year of the ban, journalist Vir Sanghvi recalled Rajiv Gandhi telling him that the decision to ban the book was guided by the simple reasoning that “nothing should be allowed to cause riots”. In London, Rushdie had told Sunday, “It is a funny view of the world to think that a book can cause riots.”

Even Khushwant Singh, then consulting editor with Penguin India, the Indian operation of the publisher which released the novel, was against its publication.

In such assessment the significance of cultural response and social sensibilities of a region clearly preceded the claim for absolute free speech. The few people advocating for the novel’s publication, such as Aveek Sarkar, head of the ABP group which owned some of Penguin’s Indian operations, were obviously discounting such factors. Historian Mushirul Hasan, who wasn’t in favour of banning the novel in spite of finding it offensive, was beaten up by his students.

The peril of volatile reactions waiting to be unleashed wasn’t lost on many. Even if capitulation to fundamentalist threats or thuggery was not the best advertisement for a modern state, the primacy of the sociocultural milieu, and by extension the political context, also made its appearance.

In treading the fragile turf of numerous social contracts that undergird the visible edifice of the modern state, the disseminators of information and ideas – from the news media to the publishing world – should take note of cultural relativism. International content collaboration, with all its virtues, can’t lose sight of it either.

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