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Culture

India's artists struggle to safeguard free speech

A string of bans and fatwas has reignited a debate about the freedom of artistic expression in the world’s largest democracy. Artists are calling on the government to exercise more control over growing fundamentalism.

An all-girls rock band in Indian-administered Kashmir was forced to break up after a fatwa was issued against them. In Tamil Nadu, actor-director Kamal Haasan's movie "Vishwaroopam," a spy thriller film, was initially banned and then only released after it had been censored. Protests prevented Salman Rushdie, the acclaimed author of "Midnight's Children," from participating in the Kolkata Literature Festival in January to promote a recent film based on his book.

"Freedom of expression in India is conditional and the constitution is very vague over what actually constitutes acceptable expression and what doesn't, such as is it in the interest of public decency, in the interest of safety," Rahul Bose, a famous Bollywood actor and activist who plays the role of General Zulfikar in the film adaptation of Rushdie's novel told DW. "Any kind of repression can be invoked in these so called interests."

Actor and film-maker Kamal Haasan speaks with the media. REUTERS/Babu

Kamal Haasan's film was initially banned

Intimidated into silence

The members of the girl band Pragaash, which means "from darkness to light," were subjected to online abuse in the form of hate mails and threats and eventually intimidated into giving up.

The band's initial decision was to stop public performances. This prompted Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to tweet in their support: "I hope these talented young girls will not let a handful of morons silence them."

The police in Jammu and Kashmir registered cases against some of the identified online abusers.

However, despite the chief minister's support, the band finally gave in and quit after a fatwa was issued by , a state-sponsored senior cleric, who termed their music "un-Islamic."

"Society cannot be built or developed by doing un-Islamic acts like singing. I have advised these girls, and other Muslims as well, to stay within the limits of modesty as prescribed for them," he said in a press statement.

A member of the band apologized on Times Now Television earlier this week: "Muftisaab has said our music is un-Islamic. We respect him and the people of Kashmir and their opinion. That is why we have quit."

Cover Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses

A fatwa was issued after "The Satanic Verses" was published

India's microblogging community has exploded with rage. "Very sad to see how talent gets ambushed by communal agendas. Pragaash girl band deserve a stage to perform & not a fatwa," filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar tweeted. While Shivani Mohan, a media enthusiast, posted the following tweet: "Music & dance is deeply entrenched in the culture of all Muslim countries right from Afghanistan to Malaysia. Take a crash course."

However, the federal government remains tight-lipped on the issue of the fatwa and seems unable to take control of growing religious fundamentalism in Kashmir and other parts of India.

"As long as religious fundamentalism exists in this world, the governments will also remain afraid," Harsha Dutta, a well-known author and editor in Kolkata, told DW.

"We have to look at the root of the problem. We have to find out how to curb religious fundamentalism in its origin. If a religion cannot create the space for tolerance then these things will go on."

Advised to stay away

Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" stirred outrage through much of the Muslim world in 1988. Some 14 years later, angry protesters and death threats by extremists ensured that he stayed away from a literature festival.

Salman Rushdie speaks at a function to promote the film (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Salman Rushdie was advised against promoting his film in West Bengal

The news of his imminent arrival in Kolkata at the end of January was met with protests by minority groups and he was advised to change his travel plans.

Rahul Bose, who was in Kolkata at the time to promote the film based on Rushdie's novel about children born at the stroke of midnight when India gained freedom on August 17 1947, was very disappointed.

"In India, everybody has a right to protest, though most of the protests are biased, exploitative or seek publicity," he said. "But there are some genuine protests. I am not so concerned with the lunacy of the protests. It is the conferring of validity by governments which actually should act as a gatekeeper and filter. Unfortunately, even irrational protests gain currency out of a fear of losing vote banks."

"In the absence of a sharper definition, the fight for all various freedoms of expression has to be much stronger because you are not safeguarded by any kind of laws. Whether it is Salman Rushdie not being allowed into Kolkata on the pretext of a law and order situation or ‘Vishwaroopam' being banned initially because of the inability of the state government to police all theaters, the needlepoint of the battle is to force, shame and vocalize governments into exercising better judgment so that the validity of the protests is examined," Bose said.

"Our political leaders have lost guts, courage and vision," Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre of Study for Developing Society in New Delhi told DW. "Our ruling class is losing its nerves when it comes to issues of freedom of expression. I believe that they are misreading public opinion on that score."

However, he is certain that artists, activists and concerned citizens will refuse to give up. "There is no quick formula. But democracies have ways of telling their rulers how to correct themselves. Sometimes the judiciary steps in but it is public opinion and public pressure which pave the path for liberal laws. It will happen slowly, in a very torturous manner and it will be very messy."

However, he and many others in India say it is a necessary journey to safeguard their freedom of expression.

DW.DE