First Rushdie, then the cancellation of a seminar and film screening on Kashmir at a Pune college, now Taslima Nasreen. It seems there is no end to India's capacity for easy surrender when it comes to the freedom of expression. In each instance, religious extremists of one kind or another have got away with intimidating the organisers of the particular event while the government and its law enforcing arm all too quickly abdicate responsibility for protecting a constitutionally guaranteed right, on the excuse that the event threatened the maintenance of public order. In cancelling the release of Taslima Nasreen's autobiographical book Nirbasan, the Kolkata Book Fair was advised by the local police that a group called the Milli Ittehad Parishad had complained about the event. Although the publishers of the book went ahead with a scaled down launch at a different venue, the incident has once again, within a space of three weeks, underlined a collective failure to stand up to bullying by religious fundamentalists. In Pune, it was both Hindu extremists and the local police who forced first the cancellation of the documentary on Kashmir, Jashn-e-Azadi, and then the entire seminar where it was to be screened. In another incident, even a seminar that was to be held in Hyderabad on the Rushdie episode and its implications for freedom of expression was cancelled under pressure from the police who feared it could provoke violence. All this is clearly unheeding of several Supreme Court verdicts, including the landmark Ore Oru Gramathile judgment, that public authorities must protect the freedom of expression, and cannot resort to bans in the name of upholding law and order.
That such pusillanimity has come to the fore during elections in important States where political parties are seeking votes on communal platforms — despite all the evidence that minority voters do not want to be treated in this way — is a sad reflection on the condition of the world's largest democracy and its leaders. Under the benevolent gaze of the state, a disparate but highly effective ‘Thought Police' consisting of religious reactionaries, moral guardians, and hypersensitive prigs have proliferated around the country. They have a diktat on every form of cultural and artistic expression. What is equally worrying, though, is the absence of collective resistance by ‘civil society' to this growing intolerance. While thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the corruption of the political class, the repeated assault on the right to free expression goes almost unchallenged, even though the two are linked in fundamental ways.