Mumbai university book ban sparks free speech fears in India

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The Independent Culture

Writers, filmmakers and social commentators have expressed fears about freedom of speech in India after hardline Hindu activists forced an award-winning book to be taken off a university syllabus.

The University of Mumbai withdrew Rohinton Mistry's novel "Such A Long Journey" from its undergraduate arts degree course because of complaints that it contained "foul and derogatory references" to the Shiv Sena party.

Members of the party's youth wing, led by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray burned copies of the Mumbai-born author's novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991.

The tactics are nothing new for the Shiv Sena, which pushed through the change in name of the city of Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, but the strength of the condemnation of those involved is unusual.

"The Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar, tediously predictable script of threats and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organisation's founding in 1966," said Mistry, who is based in Canada.

He also criticised the university for coming "perilously close to institutionalising the ugly notion of self-censorship", accusing them of bowing to political pressure.

Bloggers and those involved in the arts scene in Mumbai and beyond have voiced their concerns.

"We are headed towards a fascist ethos where someone decides what others think," influential filmmaker Anand Patwardhan was quoted as saying by the Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday.

The Shiv Sena pushes a regionalist, often anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan agenda, championing the rights of people from Maharashtra state over "outsiders" and often backing up threats with violence.

In February, some Mumbai cinemas scaled back the release of top Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan's film "My Name Is Khan" after party activists threatened to disrupt screenings because of allegedly "unpatriotic" remarks by the actor.

In July, party members protested against the lifting of a ban on a book by a US-based academic about the revered Maratha king Shivaji, also because of its alleged defamatory comments.

Earlier this month, police in Maharashstra detained 25 activists who were protesting against the appearance of two Pakistani nationals on the Indian version of the reality television show "Big Brother".

Previous incidents have included attacks on migrant workers and shops for selling "un-Indian" Valentine's Day cards and gifts.

A judicial inquiry also pointed the finger at Bal Thackeray for directly inciting anti-Muslim violence that left more than 1,000 people dead in communal riots in the early 1990s.

Political commentator Kumar Ketkar said the Shiv Sena's long-standing approach was a "kind of terrorism" threatening multi-cultural, multi-faith tolerance in the world's largest democracy.

The younger Thackeray was last weekend unveiled as the head of the party's youth wing.

Ketkar, chief editor of the Lok Satta newspaper, said his actions showed he was likely to adopt the same approach.

"If they (the Shiv Sena) can implement a ban on a book without reading it on just one diktat it only emboldens other organisations to take to the streets and terrorise the authorities," he told AFP.

"The institutional framework in which we work and we operate - the government, judiciary, the media and academia - are supposed to protect liberty.

"My fear is that these institutions have surrendered. Individuals are standing up. But individuals can't do much without the support of the institutions."

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