Freedom of Speech in India: One Writer Breaks Down Barriers

After years of resistance, Javier Moro's fictional biography of India's most powerful woman was finally published. Here he discusses book banning and freedom of press abroad.

Freedom of Speech in India: One Writer Breaks Down Barriers

The Red Sari, a fictional biography of Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful woman in India, was recently published in India after years of resistance and suppression by authorities. Bestselling Spanish writer Javier Moro discusses what it’s like to write about India and to have his books challenged in the world’s largest democracy.

What is your opinion on the media coverage of your book being published in India? Can you provide a comment on the New York Times article about your work?

There has been quite a change in media coverage, compared with 2011, when I wanted to publish the book in India. Congress party members surrounding Sonia Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi herself, launched a ferocious campaign against The Red Sari—without even reading it, as it was not available in English yet!

At that time, most of the media went along with the defamation campaign against the book, except for a few journalists who stood for freedom of expression, and others who had managed to read the book and could not understand such a violent reaction. There were demonstrations in front of the Spanish embassy in Delhi, and also in Bombay, against the book, where they burned an effigy of me, pictures of me, and my books. It was a disproportionate reaction.

In such an atmosphere, both my Indian publisher, Roli Books, and I decided it was better not to go ahead with the book in India, and wait for a better time—which has now come, after a massive defeat of the Congress Party in the last elections. The media reaction is now totally different, with journalists wondering why this book had been ‘unofficially banned’ in the first place. Even ministers from the previous government have asked to meet me, and find the book a great read!

What is your opinion on the social and political changes in India over the last four years that have allowed for your book to finally be published?

As I said, the change of government cleared the path. Sonia Gandhi is not in power, and she probably has decided it was better not to fuel more publicity for the book by condemning it. This does not mean that things have changed in India: book banning still is a favorite among Indian politicians. Recently, the banning of two books provided an example of how fragile freedom of expression is in India.

Was the defeat of the Indian National Congress Party in 2014 a crucial factor in the decision to publish your novel in India?

Yes—and the fact that time had passed since the first try. News of the success of the book in other languages must have reached the book’s opponents, so I expected things would mellow a bit. What I did not expect was this sudden change of attitude—the realization that the campaign against the book had been futile, useless, and counterproductive.

Would you have preferred to publish The Red Sari when the Indian National Congress Party was still in power? Would it have had a different impact?

Sure, my publisher Pramod Kapoor and I would have preferred to publish it then. The impact would have been far greater.

What are the social ramifications of a book like yours now being widely available in India?

Now Indian readers can know the woman who indirectly ruled over their destiny for years. Where does she come from, how did she spend her childhood, who were her parents, how did she meet Rajiv, etc.? Everything was shrouded in mystery: the Congress PR people decided to hide her Italian origins, which have always been her Achilles heel in the political arena. By doing that, they created a Goddess—an unreachable person, a statue made of marble. While Modi takes pride in his humble origins as a tea seller boy, Sonia and her cronies are ashamed of her equally humble origins as the daughter of a peasant in the Veneto region of Italy—a peasant who became a mason, and ultimately a successful entrepreneur. But Congress has always wanted to associate her with royalty—with the Gandhis, the family into which she married.

What are your thoughts on the current government in power in India?

I don’t want to give an opinion, as I am not an Indian. I just hope that the government is going to watch out for its own extremist militants who might be tempted to provoke communities of different religions. It could put India close to the precipice.

Why do you think books like yours have been challenged in the world’s largest democracy? What needs to happen in India in the future so that books don’t get challenged like yours did?

Book banning gives a terrible image abroad—as if India was not a full-fledged democracy. Allowing books to be banned fuels extremist behavior in people who believe they can away with it. What needs to happen in India is an open debate over the limits of freedom of speech that society can take.

Are there any other governments that are notoriously restrictive in this manner?

All dictatorships.

Can you comment on the Spanish government in relation to freedom of speech?

There is total freedom of speech in Spain. In India, also, there is a free press, very vivid and pugnacious. But book banning is an old tradition that goes back to Nehru’s time. It’s in the DNA of Indian democracy, which is contradictory in a way.

You decided to include “A Dramatized Biography of Sonia Gandhi” as a subtitle of The Red Sari. How has the Indian readership reacted to the label “dramatized biography”?

They have understood the ‘genre.’ When I tell them ‘read this as you would read a book on the Kennedys, or a TV serial on another political dynasty,’ they get the point.

Your other novel about India, The Dancer and the Raja, based in the love story of Anita Delgado and maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, also created controversy when it was first published. Can you please comment on the resistance it got from the descendants of Jagatjit Singh?

Not all the descendants were against it—only the grandson. Anyway, by making a fuss about it, he made good publicity for the book. I am grateful to him for the success of The Dancer and the Raja, as I am to the Congress cronies of Sonia Gandhi for the success of The Red Sari.

How has The Red Sari benefited from its controversy in India?

It was number one on the Asian Age bestseller list last week, and number one in the Amazon India bookstore. In 10 days, four reprints have been released.

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