India's Politics of Free Expression

India's Politics of Free Expression

Friday, 31 May 2013 - 11:00am
Venue: 
Nissan Lecture Theatre, St Antony's College
Convenor: 
Dr Faisal Devji
Series: 
Asian Studies Seminar

In the complex arena of Indian politics familiar democratic forms sometimes take on new meanings. The Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester Lectures for 2013 will be focused on the transformation of meaning that free expression, one of the fundamental democratic rights, continues to undergo in modern India. Like many of its neighbours, the Indian state had in the past exercised a fairly conventional form of censorship over the press and electronic media, one defined by the requirement to maintain public order and protect the nation’s sovereignty as well as the security of its citizens. Since the liberalization of the country’s economy and its rapid globalization from the 1990s, however, such traditional forms of censorship have become increasingly tenuous. The gradual withdrawal of state control from parts of social life, the proliferation of new political parties and the shift of power from the centre to the provinces, all facilitated by the new economy and new media, have altered both the context of censorship and the possibilities of free expression in India.

 

Today debates and conflict over free expression constitute among the most important ways in which Indian democratic practices are shaped, with an ever-increasing number of controversies over books, films, paintings and electronic communication coming before Indian courts and calling for government action. Some of these disputes have to do with forms of expression that the state considers seditious and wants to ban, but many more concern forms of expression associated with one group of citizens that cause offence to some others, often with the possibility of violence breaking out between the castes, religions or ethnicities inhabiting India’s still unequal society. Whether such controversies are fomented for political ends, or simply take on a life of their own in the context of a competitive democracy, crucial is the fact that they emerge from a pre-existing tradition of disputes over expression, while at the same time moving it in new directions.