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Indian historian: Freedom of expression key to vibrant democracy

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Indian historian Ramachandra Guha speaks to an audience of nearly 100 faculty, students and community members about freedom of expression in contemporary India, Oksenberg Conference Room, April 5, 2017.
Photo credit: 
Debbie Warren

Protecting freedom of expression is essential to vibrant democracies and to meet the needs of people now and into the future, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha said at a Stanford event seeking to draw people together for policy-relevant discussions about India’s growth following 25 years of reforms.

Guha’s remarks were part of a colloquium titled “Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India,” and one in a series, co-hosted by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and Center for South Asia.

The colloquia, which continue this spring, are motivated by an opportunity to garner reflections and expertise from Kathleen Stephens, the William J. Perry Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute, who served as chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy New Delhi in 2014.

“As I was preparing to go to India, I read Ram’s extraordinary book India after Gandhi, which provided much-needed historical, cultural and political context,” Stephens said. “When I visited Bangalore, we met and instantly clicked as we talked about U.S.-India relations. It’s a pleasure to welcome him back to Stanford.”

Guha, a renowned author and scholar, has written numerous critically acclaimed books about India’s history and culture as well as social ecology, and is a frequent commentary contributor to publications such as The Telegraph and Hindustan Times. In 2000, Guha was a visiting professor at Stanford, where he taught courses on the politics and culture of South Asia and cross-cultural perspectives on the global environmental debate.

India is often referred to as the world’s largest democracy for its population size of 1.3 billion and system of governance since partition and independence in 1947. Guha said that, while India is “solidly and certifiably democratic,” there are serious flaws, including growing threats to freedom of expression of Indian artists, filmmakers and writers.

Indian society, Guha said, has become too sensitive to criticism, wherein “somebody will take objection” to any message. This kind of environment has encouraged newspaper editors to self-censor, for example, and led public figures to, at times, neglect to protect artists, filmmakers and writers.

In total, Guha detailed eight threats to freedom of expression in contemporary India: 1) archaic colonial laws affecting the first amendment, 2) imperfections in the judicial system, 3) rising importance of identity politics, 4) complicity of the police force, 5) pusillanimity of politicians, 6) dependence of media on government-sponsored advertisements, 7) dependence of media on commercially-sponsored advertisements and 8) ideologically–driven writers.

Would an absence of those threats imply freedom of expression? Responding to the question from the audience, Guha lamented that the answer wasn’t simple. His task was to offer a diagnosis of the challenges, he said, and not provide instruction on how to solve them, but in general, focused efforts bear change.

“Building democracies is about quiet persistent work,” Guha said of next steps in the process to extinguish threats to freedom of expression. “I think quiet persistent work in repairing our institutions, modernizing our laws and improving civil society institutions can still mitigate some of the threats.”

Guha expressed optimism about India’s civil society, noting an expansion in the supply of non-governmental organizations working on social issues and private philanthropists funding projects in that sector. But he tempered: “we could do more.”

Stephens ended the event by thanking Guha for leading the discussion, and referenced America’s first president George Washington, who at the end of his term in office, called upon citizens to be “‘anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.’”

“And, I see that today in Ram and in the many people here – very jealous, anxious and passionate guardians of our democracy – who we can learn a lot from,” she said.

Listen to an audio recording of the colloquium.