TIME India

Dark Moment for Indian Free Speech After Prominent Journalist Gets Threatened

Siddharth Varadarajan
Siddharth Varadarajan, speaking at a literature festival in Janipur, India, Jan. 20 2012. Ramesh Sharma—India Today/Getty Images

A recent attack on an employee of journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, a critic of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, highlights the proscription of free speech in the country

Late on Feb. 23, the caretaker of the South Delhi apartment occupied by Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist, and Varadarajan’s wife, Nandini Sundar, a sociologist, was on his way back from nearby shops when he was accosted by a group of four men. They wanted to know if he worked for Varadarajan. When he answered in the affirmative, they began assaulting him, pulling him by his belt, kicking him in the stomach and punching him in the face. The men left the caretaker with a message: Tell your boss to watch what he says on television. They also mouthed vague threats connected to Sundar’s attempts to challenge alleged human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. They did not identify themselves, nor, Varadarajan told TIME, did they indicate who sent them.

It’s impossible, from what we know, to assign blame. India is weeks away from national polls and accounts of the evening assault outside Varadarajan’s apartment have highlighted his reputation as a critic of Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate and self-described Hindu nationalist. Since 2001, Modi has been the Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where rioting along religious lines in 2002 led to the death of least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Varadarajan has written about the riots at length. He has been critical of Modi. But he has also been critical of the BJP’s chief political foe, the Congress.

Whatever the affiliations of the caretaker’s assailants, the events of Feb. 23 feel different from the assault on Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History—withdrawn by Penguin India in the face of a lawsuit by a small Hindu outfit—or the numerous other attacks on free expression in India in recent times. The physical violence—and the implied threat of more to come if Varadarajan doesn’t change his tune (though to what exactly was not made clear)—seems to mark out this particular attempt to pummel free speech. But here’s the truly depressing part: they share the same, illiberal context.

Consider, for instance, the choices facing the electorate as India gears up for what will be the largest democratic ballot in human history. If, as opinion polls suggest, Modi were to become Prime Minister, liberals in the country fear that voices that deviate from the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist hymn sheet might be silenced. And it true’s that, during his tenure in Gujarat, state authorities banned at least two books and one play. Among them was Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld’s book on the father of the nation, banned, it’s widely thought, because of reports suggesting that it portrayed Gandhi as bisexual. (The author insisted otherwise.) “The abnormal analysis about Mahatma Gandhi made by Joseph Lelyveld has hurt the feelings of not only Gujaratis but of everyone in India who possess modesty and wisdom,” Modi wrote on his blog in 2011, insisting that “our anger and rebuke are natural.” The book hadn’t even been released in India the time.

But let’s say the pre-election surveys have it wrong; that the BJP isn’t in the ascendant; and that, come polling day, the incumbent Congress-led coalition isn’t booted out of office. Were this to happen, the Congress would likely name Rahul Gandhi—the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Prime Ministers—as the nation’s chief executive. In a recent speech, he said his party wasn’t in the business of “subverting democratic institutions.” No: it sought solutions to the nation’s problems via “peaceful, democratic and constitutional means.” A banner that popped up when you clicked through to the party’s website earlier this month pushed a related message: “Don’t let others threaten our freedom of speech and individual liberty. Vote Congress.” Which sounds encouraging, until you consider the historical evidence.

The proscription of free speech has a depressingly long history in independent India but perhaps the best-known instance was the decision in 1988 by India’s Finance Ministry to ban The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Fearful of offending the country’s Muslims, the government of Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, moved against the book well before Iran’s theocratic leadership bared its fangs—and 25 years on, The Satanic Verses is still not legally available in India. More recently, in 2010, lawyers for Rahul’s mother and the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, threatened legal action over a Spanish author’s fictionalized account of her life. And in January, a defamation case filed by a former Civil Aviation Minister in the Congress-led government resulted in a settlement that saw Bloomsbury India pull copies of a book about the country’s struggling state-owned airline.

There are other examples, involving other political parties, other states and private individuals. They don’t always agree; in fact, they’re often strident in their opposition to one another’s views. But, sadly, they seem united in their belief that the way to deal with differing, critical or otherwise uncomfortable views is by attempting to muzzle those who have the temerity to voice them.

TIME Ukraine

Kiev Rocked by Violence

Ukraine Protests
Protesters reinforce barricades near the Dynamo Kiev soccer stadium by lighting fires as an additional line of defense. Ross McDonnell

Ukraine's capital is shaken by confrontations as the government seeks to steer the former Soviet nation away from Europe and deeper into Russia's shadow

After bubbling for two months, mass demonstrations in Ukraine against President Viktor Yanukovych came to a boil on Jan. 22, when three protesters were killed in clashes with security forces. Behind the violence was a set of antiprotest laws rushed through parliament. Yanukovych had sought to clamp down on popular discontent over his decision to deepen the former Soviet state’s ties with Russia. But the legislation had the opposite effect, triggering fiery confrontations between protesters and phalanxes of riot police that left parts of Kiev, the capital, looking like a war zone.

The latest skirmishes reveal long-standing tensions among Ukraine’s 45 million people over how to orient their country’s economic, foreign-affairs and security policies. Should they look west, forging closer relations with European democracies, or should they embrace their former masters in Moscow? The tensions are reinforced by history, geography and language: Russian is the dominant tongue in the country’s eastern regions, whereas most in the western half speak Ukrainian. They remain unresolved 22 years after Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union.

The previous government in Kiev, led by President Viktor Yushchenko, had sought to bring the country out of Moscow’s shadow. But that course was reversed after the 2010 elections by Yanukovych, whose power base lies in the eastern regions.

In November, Yanukovych spurned an agreement, years in the making, that would have led to closer trade and political ties with the European Union. Instead, he seized a financial lifeline from Russian President Vladimir Putin: a $15 billion economic package, agreed to in December, that saved Kiev’s cash-strapped government from default. Taking Moscow’s money was also a statement of intent, one that enraged the pro-Europe demonstrators who had already begun to appear in the capital’s streets.

While Yanukovych is standing by his decision to embrace Russia, the recent violence forced him to make some overtures to the protesters, including an offer to install opposition lawmaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. The proposals were rejected, with opposition leaders–including former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko–reiterating demands for early elections and a closer relationship with the E.U.

A second set of concessions, which included repealing much of the antiprotest legislation and accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, followed on Jan. 28, but these steps are not likely to appease the protesters, especially members of radical right-wing groups.

Photographer Ross McDonnell, who arrived in Kiev on Jan. 23, says the mood on the streets–captured in these searing images–is one of stubborn defiance. “You get the sense that the people won’t be satisfied until the government is toppled,” he says. The escalation in violence has bred a “sense of collectiveness” in the protest camps. “There is a feeling that the movement has come too far at this point to not claim victory.”

–NIKHIL KUMAR

TO SEE MORE PHOTOS BY ROSS MCDONNELL, GO TO lightbox.time.com

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