Letter From - Autumn 2014

Letter From Mumbai: Intolerance

An open letter to India’s Prime Minister from a persecuted writer

By Murzban F. Shroff | September 9, 2014


Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

My heartiest congratulations on your victory: the nation has voted you into this coveted seat at a time when India is critically ill with corruption. Your election speaks of faith and expectations, and the task that confronts you is mammoth. As you set about fulfilling the wide-ranging promises of your campaign manifesto—fighting poverty, reducing illiteracy, creating jobs, providing health care to the poor, rehabilitating slums, protecting tribal rights, improving sanitation, providing water and electricity where none exist, bringing subsidized food and housing to the poorest of the poor, stabilizing the stock markets, controlling inflation, lowering inflated food prices, preserving natural resources—as you do all that, might I add one more item to your list of priorities: protecting the arts? Freedom of artistic expression is one aspect of India’s democracy that has truly been neglected, and it has brought more humiliation and shame from the world beyond our borders than the corruption within.

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India, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, ordered unsold copies of the work to be withdrawn and pulped after a member of a right-wing organization brought civil and criminal lawsuits against it.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?

On January 5, 2004, activists from a right-wing group called the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the office of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a 97-year-old library and repository of more than 29,000 manuscripts and 125,000 books, 20,000 of them rare. The militants, numbering around 150, destroyed valuable manuscripts and manhandled the staff. They protested the fact that an American author, a professor of religious studies at Macalester College, had conducted research there for his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. They also accosted and assaulted a respected historian whom the author, James Laine, had thanked in his book. The state filed charges not against the vandals but against Laine, accusing him of “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot” and “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, and language.” The publisher withdrew the book, the state banned it, and the author was threatened with arrest if he were to return to India.

Finally, in 2010, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book and lifted the ban. Overlooked in the episode was James Laine’s reputation. He wasn’t just another foreign writer exploring and exploiting Indian history: his knowledge is deeply rooted in Sanskrit and Marathi texts, and he, by his own admission, is a devoted champion of Indian culture. For that he was treated as a criminal.

A similar atrocity took place in 2008, when Hindu militants, protesting the inclusion of A. K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in the syllabus of Delhi University, stormed the university’s history department and vandalized it. They contended that Ramanujan’s explanation that there are numerous versions of the Ramayana would create an impression of the epic that was different from the original. In fact, the Ramayana is available in at least 22 languages, and in Sanskrit alone there are 25 versions. Moreover, it has given itself to various creative endeavors, from dance and drama to folklore and songs. Yet, showing little thought or courage, the university withdrew Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus. If you, sir, had been in power then, you would not have allowed this to happen. The matter went to the Supreme Court, where the judges advised the appointment of a panel of experts to decide the contentious issues. Although the panel ruled against the militants, the essay has never been restored to the syllabus. Once again, fear won the day; worse, it darkened the portals of education.

From then on, abrupt violence and intimidation became the dominant method of protest, and fear and cowardice its direct offspring. Notably, in 2010, a university vice chancellor afraid of upsetting protesters withdrew Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from Mumbai University’s literature syllabus. The 20-year-old scion of a regional party helmed the protest on the grounds that the book had words that insulted the party’s founder.

And just prior to that, Mr. Prime Minister, were my own experiences as an author. For more than two years, my work was misrepresented, my family was put under threat, and my life and career were derailed.

This dark chapter began in April 2009, when a reporter from a Mumbai newspaper asked me to comment about a criminal complaint against my short story collection, Breathless in Bombay, published 14 months previously in the United States and India. I knew nothing about the complaint and told the reporter so, but she insisted that the matter was serious: I had been accused of “promoting disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred, and ill will.” The complainant said that my use of the word ghatti in a story titled “This House of Mine” had lowered the image and reputation of Maharashtrians, an ethnic group in western India, in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians. (Ghatti is derived from ghat, meaning uplands, and is used colloquially for Maharashtrians.)

A metropolitan court had admitted the complaint and directed the police to investigate. The accuser asked the police to determine who had financed the work and whether there was a mastermind behind the conspiracy. He also asked the state government to confiscate unsold copies of the book. The section of the Indian penal code under which the complaint was filed deals with assertions and imputations prejudicial to national integration. It is a no-bail offense, punishable by a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.

The charges surprised me because the story is about class bias, and the character who utters the word ghatti is an out-of-work alcoholic pulled up by the protagonist and by his own wife. The point of the story is unity in diversity, and I devoted two pages to bringing that out. Moreover, the reason I had written all of the Breathless in Bombay stories was to sensitize people to the needs of Mumbai’s have-nots. To my distress, I realized that neither the journalist nor the magistrate who had admitted the complaint had bothered to read what was self-evident in the work.

The following day, the newspaper published the article, and on the advice of my attorneys I went underground. It was a time of national assembly elections, and the lawyers reasoned that publicity of this kind would provoke right-wing parties to attack me. In an interview posted on the newspaper’s website, the complainant alleged that I was “after” Maharashtrians. I received a lot of hate mail, and most of it advocated violence against me. A police van was stationed near my residence for two days, after which my family continued to live under fear of attack.

In late April, I received a summons from the police station where the complaint had been filed. My lawyers told me not to go. Unsure what turn the investigation might take, they advised me to go into hiding, but I refused on principle.

At the police station, I discerned that none of the officers had read “This House of Mine,” let alone the rest of the book. So I explained to them that the story was pretty much like a film with a hero and a villain, where you use dramatic conflict as a device to show the triumph of right over wrong. Other Indian writers had used ghatti in their works, I pointed out. Besides, I said, I did not intend it to be derogatory. The police recorded my statement.

In June, I traveled to the United States for a book tour. While I was away, threats of attacks were made in nighttime calls taken by my aged father and my wife.

In September, my lawyers moved a petition in the Bombay High Court to get the charges against me dismissed. The court declared that I was not a troublemaker and that no action was to be taken against me. A few days later, the police certified that they had investigated the case, found the story to have a unifying message, and recommended that the charges be dropped.

New troubles involving another story arrived on November 21 of that year in the form of a summons from the judicial magistrate of a court in a hill town 900 miles from Mumbai in the south of India. I was asked to arrive in Kodaikanal on November 30 to face charges of obscenity and promoting obscenity among youth under the age of 20. In my story titled “Traffic,” the complainant had found objectionable statements, like “she’d moan and groan away” and “she allowed him to curl up night after night in her arms, in the folds of her body.” By using such words, he said, I had shown the Indian woman in a poor light. Also, in an effort to reinforce his charge of obscenity—an attempt that in other circumstances might seem comic—he misconstrued my use of the word wily to mean willy, or penis.

I took a flight to Madurai and traveled four hours by car into the hills. In Kodaikanal, I was told that the magistrate was on leave and that I would have to wait two days for his return and for the hearing. Meanwhile my case came up for hearing in the Mumbai Metropolitan Court. There, the magistrate (the same one who had admitted the case in the first place) noted that the complainant was absent, instigated a heated exchange with my lawyer’s representative, declared that the next hearing would be in chambers, and walked out of the courtroom. The police were confused at this development because the case summary report clearly testified to my innocence. The case remained unresolved.

At this point, International PEN came to my support, drafting an appeal to your predecessor as prime minister, requesting that he uphold the constitution and the international treaties to which India was a signatory by ensuring that all criminal charges against me be dropped. Its plea was met with silence.

In January 2010, at a hearing in the Bombay High Court regarding the first complaint against me, the judge noted that the police had not found me culpable and ruled, therefore, that the case be closed. But when the matter came before the Mumbai Metropolitan Court, the complainant’s advocate argued that the police had relied exclusively on my testimony and had not recorded statements by other witnesses. The magistrate consented to further investigation by another branch of the police.

I was shattered. I had borne the indignity of having to explain my work and motives, tolls on my work and my family members, the trauma of being branded as antinational, and the harassment of delays, adjournments, and distant travel. I wondered why unsubstantiated allegations against me were given more weight than a police investigation.

Once again I had to return to the Bombay High Court and file another quash petition. I waited hours and then days while the complainant kept seeking adjournments. Meanwhile, I went through another police investigation, this time with the social service branch of the Criminal Investigation Department. International PEN supported me throughout, submitting another letter of appeal to your predecessor’s office. Once, again, sir, there was no response. Not even an acknowledgment of receipt.

Finally, late in April 2010, the complainant’s counsel argued vehemently that it was fine for a Maharashtrian to use the word ghatti within his own community, but if used by someone else, it could cause a riot. But the judge, himself a Maharashtrian, observed that ghatti is slang but not derogatory. There are such terms for every community in India, he said.

Two months later, the court’s judgment was pronounced. Justice V. M. Kanade ruled: “The learned magistrate clearly committed an error of law which is apparent on the face of the record. I am of the view that the police in their report have rightly summarized that if the story is read as a whole then there is no substance in the complaint.” In his ruling, he quoted a Supreme Court precedent:

While construing the intention of the author, the “effect of words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm, and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view.”

The complainant requested a stay of the judgment in order to appeal it, but the judge declined his request.

My struggles in South India took another year to resolve. There, too, I had to move to the High Court and hire lawyers in Madurai and Kodaikanal. The complainant made a preliminary appearance in Kodaikanal but never showed up thereafter, which made me wonder what the whole point was. Charges brought against me in the two trials were similar: both employed selective presentation of half facts to portray the author as a villain.

Mr. Prime Minister, I hope you will understand the point of my argument: that writers are not criminals. We work within the law and use society as a canvas on which to paint our stories and illustrate our messages. Often, we make huge sacrifices. We place our family lives and financial security at stake just so that we can capture some important and less visible aspects of our culture and deliver insights that—however momentary—make a difference to our readers. Those who accuse us often have their own insecurities, their own agendas. In the Doniger case, for instance, the accuser essentially stated, We are not against modernization but against Westernization, which is an effort to enslave our country.

Is this not precisely what the Supreme Court judgment cautions us against when referring to “those who scent danger in every hostile point of view”?

To rest my case, I will say only this, sir: if truth be a religion, as it should be in the land of Gandhi, then freedom of speech and expression is no less sacred a right than the right to choose and practice your own religion. It was this essential freedom that led Swami Vivekananda across the ocean, to introduce Hinduism to the world, and that awoke the world to the strengths and miracles of Hinduism.

I hope that under your leadership the arts will survive and flourish as they are meant to: with pride, with dignity, and with an all-encompassing sense of tolerance that shows the true strengths and generosity of our culture.

Yours sincerely,

Murzban F. Shroff

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