Wilderness of Voices: Freedom of Expression in India


For several decades, India has been a spectacle as the world’s largest democracy. That it has achieved this epithet is the result of the country’s overwhelming population—at a staggering 1.2 billion, it is second only to China—and the existence of democracy’s basic tenets in the country’s system of universal adult suffrage, elections and its Constitution. However, in order to assess how India behaves as a democracy, it is crucial to move away from these peripheral components and examine the nation’s faculties for democracy – whom it allows to participate, and the systemic mechanisms through which the state creates and perpetuates inequality. Here, Langston Hughes’ poem “The Black Man Speaks” resonates:

I swear to the Lord
I still can’t see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.

Article 19[1] of the Indian Constitution grants all citizens the freedom of expression. Clause 2 of Article 19 sanctions the legislature to impose “reasonable restrictions” upon free expression if any of the following are compromised: security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement to an offence, and sovereignty and integrity of India. This barrage of exceptions lends itself to an extremely mutable interpretation both by the State and citizens to define parameters of freedom, undermining the very foundations of democracy.

India has 22 official languages, 21 recognized languages of 212 tribal groups, varying food and customs from state to state, a deep-rooted system of caste, and demographics comprising of several religions: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Jews, and Zoroastrians. In this sort of rampant diversity, everybody has an opinion, and chaos is inevitable. A pervasive and high standard of Indian morality is culled from different sources – popularized imaginations of Hindu mythology disjointed from actual texts, and aunties and uncles whose sense of decency is derived from and passed through generations. This cultural rhetoric of morality manifests as self-censorship and repression. Last year, undercover Tehelka journalists spoke to over 30 policemen in the Delhi-National Capital Region about rape. The prevalent police response to rape was the complicity of the woman – how she was dressed, where she was, whom she was with, or why she was out late. In this whirlwind of moral policing, the consent of the woman, and her unconditional rights to her own body are absent from the conversation. This moral policing of women leads to self-censorship in public spaces. Self-imposed curfews, wearing modest clothing, and drinking alcohol in secrecy become women’s bargains for safety – necessary compromises where threats to her ability to “move freely” are systemically condoned.[2]

Despite the ambivalence around what the ideal Indian morality constitutes, its overarching power yields space in the Constitution to regulate decency and morality. When the State, religious groups, and citizens at large prop themselves against the allowances of Article 19 and certain sections of the Penal Code to determine what is offensive, the constitutional protection of people’s sentiments verges on a dangerous suppression of differences. Concerns of security are utilized to defend military occupations and weed out the poor. Class stratifications have become increasingly rigid in a newly capitalist economy, and dissenters are deemed a threat to the nation. Rather than protecting freedom for all, the elastic constitution of Rights creates a tug of war between majority and minority groups in various realms — the elite vs. the poor, Hindu vs. Muslim, corporate vs. local economies — all warped in their respective desires for an absolute State.

India’s Colonial Past

India gained Independence from the British in 1947. Facing the task of any newly independent nation, it was positioned to re-evaluate the systems in place during British rule. A prolonged complacency was born out of this new independence – backs turned against laws and cultures instated by the colonizers, and much was allowed to remain intact. During British rule, the tribal peoples of India were under siege. After independence, the Indian government continued this by establishing tribal land government property – peoples’ homes now the ‘Forest Department’. This claiming and re-distribution of land criminalizes the very existence of tribal people on their homeland, and infringes upon their basic right to live on and off their land and resources, to “reside and settle” at will.[3] In the case of tribals, free expression becomes moot in the midst of a fight against the state for their most primal needs.

Similarly, British Protestant sexual conservatism passed seamlessly into the hands of elite, conservative Hindu prudence – counter to India’s vast foundation of eroticism and sexual liberties. The Kamasutra recognizes a third gender and Vedic scriptures include transgender, androgynous and hermaphroditic gods and goddesses. During British rule, this long-standing space for queer identitieswas replaced by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which reprimands any sex “against the order of nature”, and declares sodomy a punishable offense. The British also criminalized a complex and historically grounded subculture of hijras (eunuchs), under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Identities that challenge heteronormativity and a binary definition of gender were coded as ‘other’ by legislation. In the wake of independence, these laws intermingled easily with the rigid sense of Indian morality. The Constitution retained British policing of sexuality in its jurisdiction over “decency and morality”.

With the ideal Indian woman chaste and expected not to bare skin, a demoralizing of non-marital sex, and the absence of adequate sex-education, the interaction between men and women becomes increasingly strained. A vague yet overbearing notion of morality assumes control, wherein men and women grow unaccustomed even to making eye contact, gradually morphing into dynamics of predator and prey. Women succumb to these standards of morality in exchange for safety and seek solace in avoidance and gender segregation, tumbling down the length of a Delhi Metro to reach the singular compartment reserved for women. While against an omnipresent backdrop of sexual liberties such as nude sculptures in temples and mythology, a culture of raised eyebrows thrives. The same nudity of gods and goddesses, when portrayed in a contemporary context in M.F. Hussain’s paintings, was charged with “hurting sentiments of people” in 2006. In the margins of these confrontations between past and present configurations of gender and sexuality, queer identities remain visible. In Tamil Nadu, in 2008, ‘T’ for ‘Third Gender’ was introduced as an option in official documents. Hijras were decriminalized in 1952, and Section 377 was repealed on 2 July 2009, strengthening the LGBT movement in India.


The British codification of hijras as ‘other’, or sodomy as “against the order of nature” is an instance where Western lens and language fails in the Indian context. Democratic freedom is no longer curbed by colonial occupation, but through globalization and discourse. India is constantly fighting for self-representation against imposed definitions – ‘third-world’, ‘developing’, ‘marginalized’, ‘post-colonial’, etc. Amid these labels is a struggle against language altogether, for the rubric upon which these terms are based runs along capitalist parameters of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. When statistics revel in the glory of India‘s new status quo as a ‘developing nation’, it is the corporations of the world that are dancing. ‘Developing’, in progressive tense, refers to a feudal society in the process of transforming, on the brink of total capitalism, i.e. developing into a member of The World Market.

International agencies such as the U.N. and NGOs, while protected by an umbrella of philanthropy, further institutionalize this capitalist sense of development and progress. India becomes the face of progress despite hunger and poverty. Whether it is the dirty-faced, mal-nourished child with a slight smile on the covers of NGO pamphlets, the hyperbolized slum child diving into shit to retrieve a photo of Amitabh Bachchan in Slumdog Millionaire, or the exoticising of India in films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Little Princess, and The Darjeeling Limited – there is little representation of plurality, for it is a nation of hungry children, vast spirituality, or monkey-brains for dinner. In all of these instances, the subject is used as an affective prop to reproduce and reinforce the hegemonic image of India for the benefit of the companies themselves; even NGOs only exist if and because impoverished nations remain impoverished. Off-screen slum children, it turns out, are a bit more nuanced than one sees in Slumdog Millionaire, and seldom grow up to have British-accented, flawless English.

Bell Hooks writes, “We fear those who speak about us who do not speak to us and with us”.[5] A place constantly spoken about and spoken for, there is a struggle against these looming projections for self-identity and representation. The art and literature that emerges in the international canon as voices of India – such as Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, and Suketu Mehta – are often those of the elite, English-speaking, and even foreign. In a nation of 22 official languages and far more dialects, this is problematic, raising important questions of privilege and representation: Who is entitled to a voice? How accurately do they represent? Whom do they deem the Indian subject? Finally and most importantly, the art itself suffers a rigorous categorization, chained by the term ‘post-colonial’, rather than simply being itself.

While the credibility of ‘intellectual’ is often reserved for elite English-speakers, one encounters rampant self-expression on the streets and in the lower classes, unafraid of their aunties and uncles’ standards of morality. Hooks reminds us, “margin…is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance”.[6] An instance of this resistance is Slum Gods, a Delhi-based b-boy collective initiated by Tiny Drops. He-Ra Singh first founded Tiny Drops, a hip-hop community centre, in the Dharavi slums of Bombay, and brought it to Khirki gaon (village), Delhi, in 2010. Made up of rappers, break-dancers, graffiti artists, and thinkers, adolescent boys from low-income neighbourhoods participate in a forum that for once encourages an empowered expression that does not simply reinforce pity towards destitution. Their very name defies the hegemonic representation of poverty, re-claims and re-defines their identity, as a cheeky response to the recent cultural catch phrase ‘Slum Dog’.

Capitalism and Class Warfare

In the rise of capitalism, a violent, undeniably class related warfare is at hand. New desires of distant lands arise, disproportionate to the sustainability of local economies. The government has formed memorandums of understanding with corporations, with an influx of brand names, malls and multi-national corporations in the past two decades. Alongside, informal and local economies are dislodged, and a dependency on the Market emerges. Marx puts forth that “they [the ruling classes] supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress”.[7] In quoting Marx, one risks being quaint, projecting a Western-centric analysis, or being anachronistic, for such theorizing of the impact of industrialization was useful a century back. However, India is freshly on this economic cusp, so these concerns remain pertinent.

The feudal management of people, land, and resources, not tied to Industry, are newly regarded ‘uncivilized’. Water supply, electricity, land, education, agriculture, transportation, and mining have become increasingly privatized. In the past few decades, rivers have been redirected by dams, euphemized as “Multi-Purpose Projects”, like they were a brand of toilet-cleaner. The displaced people of dam projects, such as in the villages surrounding the Narmada River, have yet to be compensated and rehabilitated. To protest, villagers have remained standing as the water slowly fills their homes and lands. Inexorably, the water leaves people drowned, dispossessed, and alone to fend. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), since 1997, well over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide due to increased debts resulting from droughts and the corporatization of agriculture through companies such as Monsanto. The 2010 Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi, further demonstrates the government’s cooperation with capitalism in determining who is free. Informal labourers were swept off sidewalks surrounding the stadium, and money was swindled by the organizers. These details and deaths fall in the cracks of ‘development’.

Globalization and progress have become the new colonizers — flagless, but dressed in shiny logos and saffron — backed by politicians such as Narendra Modi, in his campaign of ‘development’. Chief Minister of Gujarat, and fervent member of the RSS and BJP, there are strong allegations against Modi for his complicity in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. In 1992, Babri masjid, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was demolished by Hindus who claimed there was previously a Ram temple in the same location. Ten years later, in 2002, Hindu pilgrims on a train returning from Ayodhya were attacked, leading to gruesome riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, killing 790 Muslims, and 254 Hindus, according to Times of India (11 May 2005). While these acts directly breach Sections 153A[8] and 295A[9] of the Indian Penal Code as well as Article 19, there is no individual to hold accountable, and the only place to point is the inchoate manifold of the mob. When justice can in no way be exacted, it falls again to the mob to seek recompense through further violence. While court cases regarding Modi’s involvement in state-endorsed genocide are still unresolved, his popularity remains unwavering. Modi has been re-elected for a 3rd consecutive term as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and with the largest mandate yet. He has grown to be the face of the new, developing India.

The State’s Hand

With a newly flourishing capitalism, inequality is blaring, and civil liberties snatched. The poor are pitted against corporations and political parties – a people’s war considered insurgency. The line between business owners and politicians blurs. ‘Free’ refers more to the Market than the citizen – now only useful in so far as a labourer and consumer. To maintain the inequalities necessary for ‘development’ and ‘progress’ (again, for the elite), the state must simultaneously maintain a facade of democracy and ensure that the oppressed do not dissent. The Naxalite-Maoist uprising, comprising Adivasis and the poorest of the nation, is labelled terrorism. In “The Mass Psychology of Fascism”, Wilhelm Reich aptly points out: “what is to be explained is not why the starving individual steals or why the exploited individual strikes, but why the majority of starving individuals do not steal and the majority of exploited individuals do not strike.”[10] The suppression of dissent is most efficient if dissenters are criminalized altogether. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared Naxalites “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” In 2007, Binayak Sen, a doctor, activist, and Vice President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), was arrested for aiding Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal in prison. In charging Sen with sedition, the state establishes dissent a “threat to national security” (Article 19). It flexes its muscles against other larger, more amalgamated voices of dissent – organizations such as the PUCL, which fight against human rights violations by the State. Sen was released on bail in April of 2011.

In the name of fighting ‘anti-state terror’, the government has injected security forces in Jharkhand, Odisha, and the forests of Chhattisgarh. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in effect since 1958, sanctions non-commissioned army officers to ‘shoot on suspicion’. The elasticity of interpreting ‘suspicion’ means that in the past several decades, the state has been responsible for the indiscriminate killings of the poorest of the nation, in areas deemed ‘disturbed’, such as Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, and Mizoram. The AFSPA has extended its operations to Kashmir since 1990.

This criminalizing and suppressing of contention is abetted by State-manufactured dissent. A convincing Big Brother must give people an impression of participatory and representative democracy. Jantar Mantar, a designated space in Delhi for protests, embodies this sense of the State as puppeteer – containing and managing dissent via boundaries and arrests, to maintain “public order” (Article 19). In the weeks following the recent gang rape of a 23-year-old female Delhi resident, the police used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators. Faced with mass grief, and an urgent call to examine culture and laws, authorities exerted greater force.

Irom Sharmila, an activist and poet from Manipur, has been on hunger strike since 2000 for the repeal of AFSPA. She is currently on trial for charges by the State for attempting suicide. Contrary to Irom Sharmila, activist Anna Hazare has become an icon of a Gandhian fight against corruption since his fast in April 2011. He proposed a more stringent anti-corruption bill in the Parliament – the Jan Lokpal Bill – which authorizes a bureaucratic body to scrutinize the highest government officials, including the Prime Minister and the judiciary body, while protecting corporations, media, and NGOs. The bill excludes the very institutions that play the largest role in privatising natural and public resources and infrastructures. Backed by multi-national corporate sponsors and the media, Anna Hazare’s initiative has been heavily televised, and support for him has coalesced with a broad nationalism and anger about corruption. The state reveals its allegiances by which dissent it chooses to criminalise, and which it sensationalises.

Historical Caution

In 1975, in the aftermath of war against Pakistan and a growing economic crisis, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency under Article 352, granting herself the power to rule by decree. For the purpose of national security, elections were suspended and civil liberties diminished. During the 21 months of Emergency, the elasticity of maintaining order and security accommodated forced sterilisations, unlawful detentions, drastic industrialisation, and violence against dissenters. Emergency, a dark period of absolute rule and systemic repression, was a result of the ambiguous parameters of free expression defined in Article 19.

Despite Indira Gandhi’s exercise of tyrannical power, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been in political control since independence. This dynastic rule resembles British systems of monarchy, and the concentration of power deems India more an oligarchy than a democracy. Today, India lingers in a post-colonial frenzy, still reeling with the repercussions of a partition that was based on religious demographics from the outset: displaced people sorted into new political boundaries of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. In the aftermath of independence, India became responsible for these repercussions, for partition did not operate as a singular event after which everybody rejoiced within their designated boundaries. Rather, it caused bloodshed, homelessness and a lasting enmity between once-neighbours. Kashmir, still a contested land, has been the nexus of this mutual discontent and continued attempts to eradicate plurality toward a homogenous, monolithic State.

The political climate of Maharashtra further illustrates this historical struggle of separatism. Late Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena, has openly praised Hitler, expressed his desire for “a Hindustan for Hindus” and to “bring Islam in this country down to its knees”.[11] This sense of a Hindu Hindustan reeks of classic fascist campaigns — a Puritanism which validates the threat of the ‘other’, and incites “hurt sentiments”[12] among the Hindu majority. The impudence of power was most apparent in the aftermath of Bal Thackeray’s death, when a 21-year old girl was arrested for a Facebook status questioning the proportion of a citywide bandh for his funeral. In being charged with hurting religious sentiments, politics is overtly conflated with religion. Today, months after his death, the city is still plastered in hundreds of posters of Bal Thackeray adorned in an orange robe and sunglasses, as though aware of and disdaining the obscenity. The touchy politics of Maharashtra, Emergency, and the struggle constantly brimming in Kashmir, all encompass similar notions of an absolute state, counter to a true democracy for all citizens as equals.

Today, the same concerns of security are utilized to suppress even the slightest voices of dissent. Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition for speaking against the military occupation of Kashmir, and Aseem Trivedi was arrested for his ‘seditious’ cartoons. If not the State, religious groups and citizens act as moral police and effectively censor and ban art across mediums: Wendy Doniger’s book, Hindus: An Alternative History; A.K Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’; the Kamal Haasan film, Vishwaroopam; The Da Vinci Code (both the book and the film); Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues, the film War and Peace by Anand Patwardhan, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; a Kashmiri girl rock band named Pragaash; The Polyester Prince, a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani; and the list goes on…

Power in Pluralism?

Amid the bans, fatwas and self/state censorship, alongside poverty, communal violence, and the ongoing battle between local and capitalist economies, widespread plurality persists. In a nation where language, religion and customs lack uniformity, bans and politics are more or less localized. The fragile co-existence of an extremely heterogeneous population remains in tact. Conversation seems loud, and an atmosphere of dissent permeates, with frequent hartaals (strikes) and an overarching cultural distrust for the government. So long as at least everybody’s offended, it is unlikely to become a monolithic State. However, Hooks’ empowerment of margins as spaces for resistance is stifled by the diversity and chaos within those margins. Multiple, competing ‘We’s’ amount to an extremely fragmented voice of the people: crickets of the night merged into silence, juxtaposed against the elite and the State, the most cohesive, and thus dominant determiners of how democracy functions.

[1] Indian Constitution, Article 19, truncated somewhat for expediency:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc

(1) All citizens shall have the right

(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;

(c) to form associations or unions;

(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;

(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India;

(f) omitted

(g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business

[2] Ibid, 1.d

[3] Ibid, 1.e

[4] Article 19, Clause 2

[5] Hooks, Bell (1990), “Marginality as a Site of Resistance”, in R. Ferguson et al. (eds) Out there: Marginalization and contemporary cultures, pp. 341-343, New York: The New Museum of Modern Art.

[6] Ibid

[7] Marx, Karl and Engles, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1 “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, 1848.

[8] Indian Penal Code, Section 153A, inter alia:

“Whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, . . . shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

[9] Indian Penal Code, Section 295A:

“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.”

[10] Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, English translation by Theodore P. Wolfe, Orgone Institue Press, New York, 1946. (pp. 20)

[11] Indian Express, 29 January 2007

[12] Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code