Ten Years



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Offence: The Hindu Case was launched ten years ago today, at Theosophy Hall in Bombay. Jerry Pinto did the honours, talking about the book, asking me questions about what drove me to write it. At that time, the Hindu right seemed like a fringe trying to disrupt the consensus in India. Indeed, Babri Masjid had already been destroyed; the massacres after the Godhra incident had already killed many in Gujarat – but many who are now seen as visibly bigoted concealed those inner thoughts. It was not the norm to ask people to demonstrate their patriotism, nor force people to stand up when the national anthem was played, nor lynch, kill, or maim someone suspected of transporting, consuming, or trading beef, young couples were not hounded by young men asking the couple if they belonged to the same faith, judges did not give lessons in Indian history, and the state did not try to get a woman who had embraced another faith because she loved a man from that faith, to give up the faith and the husband. M F Husain could not return to India, but Gobind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, Dr Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh were alive.

The book was well-received – reviews in the few newspapers in India that did write about it were positive. An American critic, writing in Far Eastern Economic Review where I used to work once, thought I was being alarmist when I said that the forces of Hindutva would make India look like Nazi Germany or Talibanist Afghanistan. It gives me no joy to say that the saffron brigade is doing its best to prove me right, bringing  India closer to such a reality than I would have ever wished.

Here’s how I ended the book (emphasis mine):


After ‘establishing’ that India was always a Hindu civilization, their next target is Islamic invasion. Blaming historians affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi for understating the horrors of Muslim rule in India, the revisionists quote Persian scholar Al-Biruni, and Gulbadan, Babar’s daughter, talking about Islamic rulers taking Hindu slaves and killing Hindu women and children, and of how Mahmud Ghazni became one of the richest men in the world in AD 1000 because of the number of Hindu slaves he commanded.

Islam, they then assert, is not a religion of peace. Writers sympathetic to the RSS, Sita Ram Goel for instance, have extensively documented how Islamic invaders destroyed Hindu temples and killed thousands. To set these historical wrongs right, the Hindu activists say they don’t want to reclaim all the temples that were destroyed, they only want Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. Perhaps they should reflect on an incident from the life of Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda, who looked disconsolate when he learned of temples destroyed by Muslim invaders in mediaeval India. The Goddess is supposed to have spoken to him at that time, and asked: ‘Do you need my protection, or do I need yours?’ Divinities, if they exist, are presumably strong enough to survive criticism: it is us lesser mortals who are fundamentally incapable of handling criticism.

Temple destruction, the major basis of Hindu complaints, needs to be seen in context. In Kashmir, (Romila) Thapar has shown, whenever the Hindu kings faced a financial crisis, they sent their troops to loot the temple and, if necessary, destroy it. The eleventh-century King Harshadeva appointed officers in a category known as deva utpatana nayaka (officer in charge of uprooting temples). As Thapar demonstrates, the destruction of Hindu temples was by no means a Muslim monopoly. Indeed, the Parmar rulers of Malva went to war against the Chalukyas, which led to the destruction of Jain temples in Saurashtra. The king also destroyed a mosque the Chalukyas had built for Arab traders in Cambay: ‘By destroying their temples and their mosque, he was demonstrating to the local people of Gujarat that he was capable of destroying those who were the backbone of the economy of Gujarat. It is more than just religious iconoclasm’. There are other examples—of a Rashtrakuta king fighting the Pratiharas and his elephants uprooting a temple’s courtyard.

But that’s not the conversation the Hindu nationalists want. They assert that India has failed to come to grips with its past because its mind has been colonized. The Congress leaders who led India’s freedom movement—Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Nehru—were all educated in the UK. They were Anglicized and original Macaulayites, a reference to Thomas Macaulay, whose 1835 Minute on Indian Education led to the spread of English education in India.

Today, Macaulay is known for two statements: that ‘a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’; and that imperial Britain should create ‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ The Hindu nationalists say that Macaulay’s ‘children’, or India’s English-educated elite—in which they bracket everyone they disagree with—could scarcely understand the reality of India, and must be blamed for all that has gone wrong with  the country in its first 50 years of freedom.

The final target is Gandhi. While no BJP leader has openly questioned Gandhi, in the mood Hindutva has allowed, questioning of the orthodoxy around Gandhi has become permissible. Plays and films that show Gandhi in less hagiographic ways than in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film have become popular. No more than any divinity should Gandhi be immune from criticism—he would be the first to deny any halo around his head. Indeed, one of the better effects of Attenborough’s film is that other directors have taken complex personalities from the same period—Subhas Chandra Bose, Ambedkar, Patel and others—and made biographical films about their lives, enriching India’s understanding of its past.

It is the political project behind Hindutva—the undermining of other faiths—that Thapar challenges. Speaking at a history conference in Thiruvananthapuram in 2000, she said: “To comprehend the present and move towards the future requires an understanding of the past: an understanding that is sensitive, analytical and open to critical enquiry. Indian historians’ writing in the last 50 years . . . were not only fine examples of historical enquiry but were also pointers to new ways of extending historical methods. They widened and sharpened the intellectual foundations of the discipline of history and enriched the understanding of the Indian nation. These studies have now come under attack . . . It is because of this assault on history that some of us have to speak in defence of the discipline of history.”

By championing Hindutva, the BJP is making Indians identify with a narrower definition of the state. Its goal is not to win only the next election, but also the next generation. The rewriting of history and the erasure of the past are not to cast fresh light on the past, but to make particular readings of history fit prevailing political requirements. The Hindutva movement is not concerned with what India was like; it wants to shape what India will be like and wants its version of Hinduism to play the defining role. It means hiding inconvenient truths, denigrating complex heroes that muddle the narrative, simplifying the heritage, and destroying or discrediting all those who stand in the way.

This stems from deep-rooted insecurity, not pride. India’s greatest strength has been its openness to external influences. Foreigners who come to India get assimilated. India welcomes alien influences. It honours its artists—it does not hound them. It celebrates its diversity and does not feel threatened by people who think or feel differently. And while these are virtues of the modern Indian nation, they are rooted in that inclusive ethos, which at least coincides with Hinduism’s liberal philosophy, even if not a product of it or influenced by it.

Gandhi talked of inclusive nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who wrote the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, shunned the idea of borders; for him, the world was his nation. Gandhi admitted he could not be as broadminded as the poet; nonetheless, he said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

Not for him the cowardly way out of censoring ideas he found challenging. As for Tagore, he taught us something else. In a poem that could well be the anthem for free thought, he wrote:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead


Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Whenever Hindu nationalists attack an art gallery, or tear down posters they consider obscene, or demand bans on books they don’t want others to read, or vandalize a research institute, or destroy the home of an editor, or threaten an academic, or run a campaign against a historian they disagree with, or force film studios to change scripts, alter lyrics, or extract apologies from artists, or hurl eggs at scholars, or destroy mosques, rape Muslim women or kill Muslim men and children, they take India into a deeper abyss; they push Hinduism into a darker age. They look and act like the Nazis and the Taliban. They plunge their country into an area of darkness, are untrue to the meaning of their faith and are disloyal to their nation’s constitution. They shame a great nation and belittle how Salman Rushdie saw India: ‘The dream we had all agreed to dream.’


Penguin Books and Wendy Doniger

My book deals with the sustained campaign against scholars, artists, historians, and writers who have challenged the orthodox view of Hinduism. These campaigners had one of their biggest victories last week when Penguin Books India decided to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, because the critics did not like her interpretation of Hinduism, as you can see here in a piece by Rajiv Malhotra, here Aditi Banerjee writes in Outlook, and here again, and in this petition itself.

As Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about offence famously said, it is very easy not to be offended by a book.

Wendy Doniger Rick Friedman/Corbis

Here are three of my pieces and a TV appearance defending Doniger’s right to write, regardless of it being “right” or “wrong”.

In Mint on the day it happened.

In Mint again, the following day.

And in the Wall Street Journal: 

My TV appearance on NDTV is here.

Full Text of the pieces:


1. Penguin’s Disappointing Surrender  (Mint)

A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’

Salil Tripathi

This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it. Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel and agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s award-winning, scholarly, entertaining, and authoritative book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to destroy remaining copies within six months.

Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Penguin’s decision is unlikely to be based on literary merit—the book has been on sale in India since 2009 and those who wanted to, have already bought it. Now more will try to buy it through fair means or foul. And Penguin’s decision is possibly made out of expediency—perhaps to cut costs, perhaps to avoid trouble, or perhaps out of concern for the safety of its staff. None of this reflects well on Penguin or on India.

Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a suit in 2011, seeking the withdrawal of the book, saying the book was written with “a Christian missionary’s zeal” to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light. For the record, Doniger is not a Christian, and even if she were that would be irrelevant—and yet in any case, Hindu nationalists have rarely let facts get in the way of their theories.

Also for the record, when the book came out in 2009, I had asked Doniger about the rise of the more militant brand of Hinduism, which has led to attacks on the works of overseas scholars, including Michael Witzel of Harvard, James Laine who wrote a book on Shivaji, and Paul Courtright who wrote one on Ganesha, and homegrown ones, like D.N. Jha, who wrote that Hindus do eat beef and there’s no religious stricture against it.

Doniger told me then that she had written her book to clear some misunderstandings about Hinduism, and “to counteract the Hindutva misinterpretations of the Ramayana.”

Last night I asked Doniger what she thought about her publisher’s decision. Deeply concerned, she told me: “Penguin has indeed given up the lawsuit, and will no longer publish the book. Of course, anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it’s probably cheaper, too. It is simply no longer possible to ban books in the age of the Internet. For that, and for all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful.”

I also asked Penguin for its response. At the time of writing, Chiki Sarkar, Penguin’s publisher, had not replied.

A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Recalling that episode, Penguin’s chief executive in London, Peter Mayer, wrote in 2009: “When we decided to continue publishing the novel, extraordinary pressures were focused on our company, based on fears for the author’s life and for the lives of everyone at Penguin around the world… The elimination of divergent points of view is incompatible with the basic tenets of free societies. We chose to frame the argument as one not only respecting the central importance of free speech, but transcending the case of this one book. The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”

In my 2009 interview with Doniger which appeared in Tehelka, she traced her interest in Hinduism to her study of ancient languages, Latin and Greek, when she also discovered Sanskrit; and later she saw rubbings from Angkor Wat in Cambodia that her mother had. “I loved Indian painting and sculpture, and architecture and clothing—you could wear purple and orange together, which no one would let me do when I dressed in western clothing—and music (she learnt sarod from Ali Akbar Khan in Calcutta),” she told me.

What had she learnt from Hinduism? Doniger had told me: “I have learnt so much, where to begin! I’ve learnt so much about dealing with the darker side of life, with death, with violence, which I think Hindu mythology and theology deals with in a manner infinitely more realistic and profound than the Western monotheisms do. I’ve learnt a lot about animals, about ways of thinking about them and living with them. I’ve learnt to appreciate chaos and the unexpected, in ways that were hard for me to deal with when I was younger.”

Those who disagreed with Doniger had options—to protest, to argue, to publish their own book as response, and if they had a copy, to shut it. Nobody is being forced to read it. Now, go to your electronic readers, buy it, download it, read it; if you go abroad, get copies—there’s no ban on its import; and reinforce the idea that a pluralistic India does not have singular views. India thrives in its diversity and plurality—its culture and its opinions.

As freedom of expression itself is under threat, and India undergoes its own period of darkness and chaos, Doniger’s philosophical equanimity offers hope, that this, too, shall pass. It must, otherwise it is another country.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.


A Book Censor’s Paradise (Mint)

The number of books withdrawn from circulation has grown disturbingly large. This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind

Salil Tripathi

Two of the biggest impacts of the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses 25 years ago this Friday were the chill it cast on authors who might wish to take on controversial subjects in future, and the disease of competitive intolerance that it spread among people belonging to other religions and interest groups—why couldn’t they get something banned, or disappear, from the public space? And that phenomenon manifested in all its glory earlier this week, when Penguin India, ironically the publisher of Rushdie at that time, decided to withdraw and pulp the remaining copies of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

When Rushdie was launching his memoir Joseph Anton at a bookstore in downtown New York in 2011, someone from the audience asked him—knowing what he knew now about the reaction that the publication of The Satanic Verses had evoked, would he still write the novel today? Rushdie reflected momentarily over the question, and said it wasn’t an easy question to answer. He had written the novel at a particular time, not knowing what was to follow. He did not choose to live the life that followed. Knowing Rushdie’s work and commitment to free expression, I wasn’t surprised when he told me, when I asked him about it earlier this week, that he hoped and believed he would write the same book today.

So would Doniger, who developed an abiding interest in Hinduism decades ago. But in the next edition of her book, she might scrutinize more what happened to some followers of Hinduism that they abandoned the faith’s proclaimed tenets of tolerance, and embraced the intolerant strains of other faiths, compared to which their own faith, they claimed, was superior. Or at least different from the monotheistic religions where notions like blasphemy were tossed around to silence opponents. That is a political question, and the ease with which the Indian state acquiesced to the loud mobs that shout “we are offended!” has only made it easier for obscure groups to turn to courts. And these courts, all too willingly, admit petitions drawn from Victorian-era sections of the penal code, such as 153A and 295A, which give a licence to anyone to complain that his or her feelings are hurt, that communal harmony may get disrupted, that hatred is being incited.

But no book razed a mosque; no books entered a railway station or five-star hotels and killed people; no book blew up crowded bazaars; no book looked the other way when crowds extracted revenge on other communities over real or imagined wrongs. People did that; and those people have rarely been brought to courts to face charges. Instead, the author is asked to narrow her imagination, or to swallow his words. This is the infantilization of India.

Rushdie may indeed write the same novel today, and continue to stir our imagination and provoke our minds with inspiring fiction, and Doniger may reflect more deeply on Hindu myths, traditions, customs, and philosophy, and reward her readers with her profound thinking. It is difficult to know if publishers will stand up to the test that the mob represents. In the past few years, under the threat of litigation, violence from vigilantes, or perceived insults, the number of books withdrawn from circulation, or not distributed in India at all, has grown disturbingly large.

Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned was published without one chapter; my Mint colleague Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book on the Sahara group faces a stay order and a lawsuit; Bloomsbury has withdrawn Jitender Bhargava’s book on Air India; the former Left front government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasrin’s Dwikhandito; Narendra Modi’s administration banned Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (a court later lifted the ban) and Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi; and Sonia Gandhi’s lawyers have threatened to sue if Javier Moro’s novelized version of her life, The Red Saree, is released in India. This is only a small sample, but shows that no political party is immune from the charge of being hostile to books it doesn’t like, and none is committed to unbridled freedom of expression.

This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind. We are clearly not there yet, but the dystopian scenario is not far when we live in a society where books become the objects of the décor of an apartment, chosen because of their spines match the colour scheme on the wall; where books are designed to fit the size of a modern coffee table; where they contain recipes to feed the body; where the stock tips in the book promise to make us rich; where the hagiographies of powerful men and women tell fairytales, and create new icons for a mercantilist, unthinking nation; where textbooks narrate the version of history that the ruler approves. Into that arid hell, as Tagore would rue, India has woken.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-


3. India and the Penguin Problem (The Wall Street Journal)

The publisher’s withdrawal of a book bespeaks broader threats to free speech


Feb. 17, 2014 1:04 p.m. ET

As the world’s most populous democracy, India by rights should be a beacon of free speech. Yet there the country was last week, at the center of yet another embarrassing controversy over a book.

Penguin Books’ Indian unit announced it was withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s massive 2009 tome “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” which was published in India in 2011. Ms. Doniger, a professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, is a world-renowned academic authority on Hinduism. Her book offers a light-toned personal interpretation of the faith, its myths, and its use of symbols—admittedly not always in line with orthodox Hindu interpretation.

The book was controversial from the start. Some offended Hindus wrote spirited rebuttals. Others signed petitions criticizing the book. One aggrieved group, the Committee to Campaign to Protect Education, sent Penguin a legal notice, saying the book should be withdrawn because it offended Hindu sentiments, particularly in the way in which Ms. Doniger allegedly offered a sex-based interpretation of certain texts.

Penguin fought the case for four years, but capitulated in the end in a settlement before any court ruling. Penguin has not shied away from controversy in the past. The publisher kept Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in print world-wide even after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa in 1989 against it, and in an earlier generation stood trial under British obscenity laws for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” But in this case, executives apparently decided they couldn’t risk running against Indian law “however intolerant and restrictive” it may be, as the company said in its statement.

That statement singled out S.295A, a colonial-era provision in the penal law that makes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious believes” punishable with imprisonment or fines or both, making it “increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” The company also noted it was morally responsible for the safety of its staff, a telling remark about which more later.

Illustrating the bind in which many publishers in India find themselves, Penguin’s concession to opponents of free speech was greeted by outrage among proponents of free speech. Two other authors on the publisher’s list, Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan, publicly asked Penguin to pulp their books and instead revert the rights back to them so they could find alternative publishers.

Both have reason to worry they could be censorship targets too. Mr. Sharma has written books critical of Hindu nationalism and Mr. Varadarajan has written a book that criticizes the handling of 2002 Gujarat massacres by Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister and now a leading contender to be the next prime minister at the helm of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Publishers are left to navigate these shoals as best they can, and it’s more art than science. In 2011, Oxford University Press withdrew editions which carried the late poet A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” after Hindu nationalist groups objected to the essay being part of a reading list at Delhi University. Following an outcry, OUP said it would republish the essay and other works of Ramanujan.

But the real problem, as hinted at by Penguin’s remark about the safety of its staff, is that publishers too often don’t enjoy sufficient legal protections for their work. Not only is the law as it stands too friendly to groups of any stripe that want to gin up dudgeon over controversial works (and also too friendly to businesses or individuals who want to claim that any unflattering coverage is defamatory). But the authorities too often fail miserably at the basic policing that would ensure protests over books remain peaceful.

Penguin surely had in mind the fact that Hindu nationalist groups’ protests have not always been non-violent. Over the past two decades, they have vandalized art galleries that show the works of Indian artists like the late M.F. Husain, and more recently, Pakistani artists. They’ve threatened cinema halls showing films they disapprove of. And the list of incidents goes on. Any publisher courting controversy must bear in mind the physical risks of doing so.

While the police and other authorities are so often derelict in their basic responsibility to maintain public order, Indian law tries to shift the blame for these protests onto the protestees, even though a Supreme Court judgment from 1989 explicitly asks the authorities to protect free speech. Another colonial-era law, S. 153A, empowers the state to prosecute anyone committing an act prejudicial to maintaining harmony—which can be construed to include publishing books that stir up violent protests and not merely those who directly incite others to violence.

Given this background, Penguin’s pragmatism is understandable—indeed, Ms. Doniger, in her statement, doesn’t blame her publisher, but the law. Not only would the publisher have good reason to worry about the safety of its staff if protests were to escalate and the police to demonstrate their customary lack of interest. Publishers also must balance their desire to challenge unjust laws on the one hand with their responsibility to their shareholders to act lawfully in the places where they do business on the other.

Hindu nationalists have every right to voice objections to works they find offensive, and even to do so by gathering peacefully in the streets if they want. But the state fails when it can’t ensure basic security during such protests, and even more so when it tilts the legal balance against free speech.

Indian laws serve Indian democracy poorly—stifling debate, preventing inquiry, smothering imagination, and closing the Indian mind. If there’s one lesson from the latest Penguin affair, it’s that it’s time for New Delhi to stop treating a nation of a billion people as infants who should be protected from controversial thoughts.

Mr. Tripathi, a former board member of English PEN, is the author of “Offence: The Hindu Case” (Seagull 2009).

Free Speech in Asia: At Asia House, London – May 16

If you are in London, come to the Festival of Asian Literature on May 16 where I will join Julia Farrington, Frances Harrison, and John Kampfner, in a discussion moderated by Mishal Husain, about “What We Don’t Say: Censorship and Freedom of Expression”.

Details here:  

16 May 2013


Tickets £10, Concessions £8, Friends £7

Salil Tripathi – Offence: The Hindu Case
Frances Harrison – Still Counting the Dead
Julia Farrington – Index on Censorship
John Kampfner – Freedom for Sale
with moderator Mishal Husain

What are we free to read and how do we know it is the whole story?  Our panel looks at freedom of speech and censorship in China, India, Sri Lanka and across Asia, examining how governments attempt to control what we think.

Salil Tripathi is a writer, editor and journalist. He is a board member of English PEN and co-chairs their Writers-at-Risk Committee. In 2011, he won a Bastiat Award for Journalism about free societies.  He has been a senior visiting fellow for business and human rights at the Kennedy School, Harvard University, and is also an adviser to several global initiatives involving business and human rights.  Offence: The Hindu Case, about the rise of Hindu nationalism and its implications on free expression, is his first book.

Frances Harrison was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, at SOAS and Imperial College in London. For many years she worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC posted in South Asia, South East Asia and Iran. From 2000-4 she was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka. She has worked at Amnesty International as Head of News and was a visiting research fellow at Oxford University. Still Counting the Dead is the story of the survivors of Sri Lanka’s hidden war and the government censorship that prevented reporting of the conflict.

John Kampfner is Adviser to Google on freedom of expression and culture. He is former Chief Executive of Index on Censorship and was editor of the New Statesman. He is an author, broadcaster and commentator specialising in UK politics, international affairs, media and human rights issues.

Julia Farrington is head of arts at Index on Censorship. In 2012, she led a major conference, Taking the Offensive, focused on defending artistic freedom of expression and the constraints faced.

They will be speaking with Mishal Husain, broadcast journalist and presenter of BBC World News, Impact and Newsnight.

Produced in partnership with AGI Magazine  

Ten Commandments on Offence

This morning I had engaging discussions on Twitter with people, many of whom I don’t know, about giving and taking offence, hate speech and free speech. 

Here, I recapture my thoughts, in what I’d presumptuously like to call Ten Commandments Regarding Offence, meant for people who feel offended: 

1. An artist/writer/person can say whatever s/he wants, even if it is offensive.

2. If it is offensive to you, don’t read it. 

3. If you feel strongly against it, argue against it. 

4. But don’t threaten violence against that writer or artist, nor should one be violent. 

5. If what offends you is about your faith, remember that your gods are strong enough to take “insults” that you think are grave or obscene. They are meant to protect you, not the other way round.

6. If a writer criticises one god, s/he doesn’t have to criticise all gods. They don’t have equal opportunity obligations. 

7. Nor is it obligatory that writers (or artists) must offend.

8. And nor is it obligatory for writers (or artists) to love all faiths, or to respect each (or any) faith, or to love your god and your faith because those are important to you.

9. Keep your faith to yourself. You will value it far more than others might. 

10. Life is short, so look elsewhere; something better will turn up, and you will forget about having felt offended.

A proud moment

During a visit to Naypyitaw in Burma, I had the privilege of giving Aung San Suu Kyi a copy of Offence: The Hindu Case.

A privilege, giving Daw Suu Kyi a copy of my book on free speech – July 10, 2012.

Later, Daw Suu Kyi said “free speech matters everywhere.”

Event in New York, Nov 3

The South Asian Journalists’ Association Student Chapter


The South Asia Association Presents

“Hindu fundamentalism:

Consequences for the press and beyond”

Please join us for a conversation with London-based writer Salil Tripathi who will talk about his book, “Offence: The Hindu Case” and explain how Hindu fundamentalists are succeeding in intimidating artists, journalists, and historians, seeking bans on art, cinema, cultural works, and in academia. Nina Paley, filmmaker and creator of the animated movie, “Sita Sings the Blues,” will join Salil, and discuss her film that has experienced the intimidation Salil has written about. Books will be available for sale.

Salil Tripathi is an Indian-born writer based in London. His books include “Offence: The Hindu Case” (Seagull, 2009), about attacks on free speech by Hindu nationalists, and a forthcoming collection of travel essays (Tranquebar). He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, among others. In India, he is a columnist at Mint and contributing editor at Caravan magazine.

Nina Paley is the creator of the animated musical feature film “Sita Sings the Blues,” which has screened in over 150 film festivals and won over 35 international awards. Prior to becoming an animator Nina was a syndicated cartoonist. A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Nina is currently producing a series of animated shorts about intellectual freedom called Minute Memes, and a new daily comic strip, Mimi & Eunice.

Date: Thursday, November 3, 2011
Time: 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Location: Journalism Building, Stabile Student Center, Columbia University, New York

Refreshments will be served.

For more information, please contact: Sabrina Buckwalter at
sb2997@columbia.edu or at (646) 247-8306

The Indian Exile – Newsweek Pakistan

I wrote this piece for Newsweek Pakistan.

The Indian Exile

M.F. Husain was one of India’s most important – and persecuted – artists

Salil Tripathi

Newsweek Pakistan

On a cool December evening in 1996, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall in downtown Mumbai was lit up. On the terrace you could meet many of India’s fine painters, erudite art critics and trendy socialites, mingling with art collectors and the state’s governor, at the opening of the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The inaugural show was dedicated to the Progressive Artists Group, a remarkable movement that began in 1948 when six painters and sculptors – Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza, Hari Ambadas Gade, Krishna Howalji Ara, Sadanand Bakre, and Maqbul Fida Husain (who died last week in London) –created a new Indian artistic idiom – blending Indian traditions with Western modernity, celebrating a secular, liberal, urbane, and modern India.

Mid-1990s was a difficult time for Mumbai. The chauvinist political party, Shiv Sena, had succeeded in getting the city’s name changed from the more inclusive and cosmopolitan Bombay to the insular and narrower Mumbai. The city was recovering from the series of bomb blasts in 1993, which had killed 257 people, following the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya the previous December.

The opening of the new museum was to provide some healing touch. But Husain had stayed away, fearing arrest. That sounds bizarre, because that part of Mumbai was Husain’s natural habitat, where he was most at home. The National Gallery is opposite the city’s museum, and near the old galleries Chemould and Pundole, which had shown Husain’s paintings for years: of those athletic horses, the series of paintings about Indian ragas, the stark Sufi images, among others. Seeing Husain striding barefoot on the footpath along those streets, stepping into Samovar, a restaurant at the Jehangir Art Gallery, or towards the Gateway of India, was hardly unusual. He walked barefoot not as a publicity ploy, as many thought, but because he said it gave him energy and kept him close to the ground.

But that soil became inhospitable for him. In 1995, a magazine had unearthed an old sketch Husain had made, which depicted Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in the nude. Since then, dozens of people claiming their religious feelings were hurt, had filed cases against him – at one time, he had hundreds of cases pending against him in remote parts of India. While the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it places restrictions on grounds of national security, decency, morality, and so on.

That evening, at the opening of the National Gallery, I remember a group of young artists had unfurled a banner, saying: “Husain, we miss you.” Husain was wise in staying away. The Hindu nationalist witch-hunt against artists, writers and historians that began in the late 1980s, was sustained and serious, and Husain was the principal target. They forced some artists to apologise, some film-makers to change scripts and titles of films, and some of those who refused to budge were physically assaulted. The turning point for Hindus was the banning of Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” (India was the first country in the world to do so). Christian groups campaigned against the film “The Sixth Wound of Christ.” In this race to the bottom that competitive intolerance encourages, Hindus felt left out: Husain, being a Muslim, became the symbol of their hatred.

Besides the cases against him, art galleries that showed his works were picketed, threatened, and sometimes damaged; police instituted cases against him, and lower courts summoned him. Higher courts subsequently exonerated him, but there was no guarantee he’d be able to focus on his work. He left India, and lived most of the past two decades abroad.

I first met him in 1982. I was a young reporter and had barely turned 20; he was in his mid-60s. I was to interview him for the magazine Celebrity, edited by Shobhaa De, Husain’s friend who had known him for nearly four decades. Instead of doing a conventional interview, we suggested to Husain that he sketch his life for us in a series of paintings. He wanted to hear more, so I hung out with him, spending time with him and his family at his home, trying to keep pace with him as he strode swiftly through Mumbai’s streets, and talking with him about his life.

On the day before he was to fly, he gave me ten magnificent paintings. And instead of writing an interview, I wrote a long poem about his life. Looking at the magazine again over the weekend, with his sketches and my poem, I saw vibrancy and energy, rejoicing the land of his, and my, birth, whose culture he shaped and enriched through his art.

That he could not breathe his last in Mumbai, surrounded by the familiar scent of wet earth and howling winds of the city’s monsoon, is the ultimate tragedy, for which the blame must lie with the vigilantes who drove him out of his home.


Tripathi, a writer in London, is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009) about Hindu nationalist attacks on writers, historians, and artists, including Husain.