Salman’s trouble in India

The best way to avoid getting offended, Salman Rushdie once advised, is "to shut a book". That, or banning the book and preventing its author from talking in public, his critics in India might have replied.

Rushdie was scheduled to be one of the stars of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which took place between 20 and 24 January, but was forced to pull out after "intelligence sources" warned of a threat to his life. (A newspaper subsequently alleged that the death threats had been fabricated.) This followed several weeks of campaigning against his appearance by conservative Muslim groups that object to his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Four authors, including Hari Kunzru, used their appearances at the festival to read out passages from The Satanic Verses and now could face prosecution.

Rushdie spoke at the festival in 2007 with no incident and has made several private trips to India. So what is going on? Elections are coming up in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state with the largest Muslim population, and politicians may be keen to show that they are defending Islam. But the roots of this dispute lie deeper.

Mass outrage and censorship in India have a long history, thanks to Section 295a of the penal code, which outlaws "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs". This creates a situation where anyone can claim that anything is offensive and the government is obliged to act.

Salil Tripathi, the author of Offence: the Hindu Case, identifies a trend known as "competitive intolerance" in India: "Let's say you belong to group A and you are upset about something and get it banned, and I belong to group B. I say, 'If she can do this, I also
want something banned.' This has restricted discourse to what can be called 'safe topics'."

Those safe topics tend to exclude religion - not just Islam - and the most conservative voices often end up setting the benchmark . In 2010, the Hindu fundamentalist group Shiv Sena forced Mumbai University to drop Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey, which was critical of the organisation, from its reading lists. In 2006, Christian groups in several states (including Nagaland, Punjab, Goa and Tamil Nadu)
had the film of The Da Vinci Code banned.

Censor's paradise

These sensitivities provide fertile ground for politicians keen to impose censorship. In December, it emerged that the telecoms minister, Kapil Sibal, had asked Google and Facebook to screen content. He said that inflammatory content posted via social media, such as a cartoon of pigs stampeding through Mecca, could cause communitarian violence.

Clearly, this is not the main concern: Sabil asked Google to remove 358 items from its services in the first six months of 2011; most were critical of the government.

Reform looks unlikely. The state does not defend writers or artists and politicians are reluctant to be seen as anti-religious. Tolerance is a notion with a long history in India but freedom of speech is not.

“We are a religious people before we are a democratic people," the Delhi-based novelist and critic Chandrahas Choudhury tells me. "Some of the stoking of religious tension, whether by governments or religious groups, is no doubt cynical but it is a kind of political theatre that knows it has an audience.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt