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Headlines on day one of the Jaipur literature festival last week were hardly auspicious for those worried about creeping threats to free expression in India. Leftwing journalist Siddharth Varadarajan had been “held hostage” the previous day by a Hindu nationalist group, The Times of India reported, having tried to speak at a university in the northern city of Allahabad. Varadarajan took shelter in an administrator’s office following protests by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group closely linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, which accused him of “anti-national” views.
It might seem like a minor example but for many worried liberals, such skirmishes now form part of a pattern of thuggery and legal intimidation that is threatening India’s traditions of democracy and pluralism — a sense that is often linked in turn to the return to power of Modi’s BJP in 2014.
Last September, a series of novelists and poets began to return literary honours in protest at what some described as a rising tide of intolerance. Their move was prompted initially by the murder of Malleshappa Kalburgi, an elderly writer and rationalist, and the third secular thinker to be killed in recent years. Some also faulted Modi for not speaking out directly against incidents of extremism, notably the lynching later that month of a Muslim man on suspicion of eating beef, which is forbidden in Hinduism. Other examples have affected the publishing industry more directly, including Penguin India’s decision two years ago to pulp copies of a book by US academic Wendy Doniger, following a court case brought by Hindu nationalist activists.
On the face of it, Jaipur’s annual gathering acts as a rejoinder to such concerns. The world’s largest free book festival, it draws tens of thousands to Rajasthan, one of India’s most conservative states. Bathed in wintry sunshine, the lawns of the historic Diggi Palace this year featured talks by celebrated novelists Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín and Marlon James, in what seemed like a model of Indian openness and multiculturalism. The event, now in its ninth year, passed off without trouble too, further helping to shed a reputation for controversy it gained most obviously in 2012, when Salman Rushdie pulled out at the last minute following protests by Muslim clerics and warnings of a terrorist assassination attempt.
The idea that it is now hardline Hindu nationalists who are on the march is given short thrift by Modi’s allies. India, they say, has long been a disputatious place. Tensions bubble up, then subside. Only when a BJP government arrives in New Delhi does the secular left mistake isolated incidents for a sinister trend. “If you can freely complain about an absence of freedom, without repercussions, then you must be living in a free country,” says MJ Akbar, a journalist-turned-BJP parliamentarian, who spoke at Jaipur last week.
For all that, gloom over intolerance did form an unmistakable part of the backdrop to this year’s festival. One session on the topic, chaired by author and opposition politician Shashi Tharoor, descended quickly into a slanging match. In another, Karan Johar, an irreverent Bollywood screenwriter, won applause for describing free expression in India as “the biggest joke in the world”.
Those who share Johar’s worries tend to point to Hindu nationalists such as the ABVP, which do appear to have become more forceful since Modi’s victory, often inciting angry responses from liberal groups in return. Behind this lies the deeper problem of an Indian penal code riddled with poorly drafted laws on everything from sedition to obscenity, giving the easily offended ample chance to pursue their grievances.
All that is not to say that India is slipping irreversibly into illiberality. Statistical evidence of rising intolerance is hard to pin down, as Modi’s supporters often note, while individual examples are often reversed. Doniger’s book was reprinted without much fuss by a different publisher last year, for example, and is now widely available. India’s situation is also self-evidently better than that of neighbouring Bangladesh, where many writers live in fear following a string of murders by radical Islamists.
Even so, recent events have left many in the literary world worried. “My writers and I do feel this sense of being oppressed, that we have to be careful not to offend,” says one publisher. Atwood hinted at something similar during her opening speech in Jaipur. “In an age that persecutes deviants, you can yet lose your life for being the possessor of a dangerous or unacceptable story. Words are powerful, which means that words can also be fatal,” she said, before pausing and adding with a smile: “Sounds a little dark for this occasion.” Sadly, for many in the audience, it felt only too appropriate.
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent