Bombing over show about jewelry is just latest blow to free speech in India

Story highlights

  • Indian broadcaster Puthiya Thalaimurai drew protests for a show about traditional necklaces worn by married women
  • This comes after India banned a film featuring a man imprisoned for a gang rape in South Delhi
  • "There's a growing intolerance towards different shades of opinion," a broadcasting company CEO says

New Delhi (CNN)Thankfully, no one was wounded after crude bombs were hurled at a Tamil news station in India on Thursday. But the loud explosions injured a vital part of the world's largest democracy: free speech.

Last week, when India's government and a British documentarian faced off over a film featuring a man imprisoned for a 2012 gang rape in South Delhi, a little-known channel hundreds of miles away in southern India was waging its own battle. Hardline Hindu groups were angry with broadcaster Puthiya Thalaimurai for filming a show about the relevance of a traditional necklace -- called mangalsutra in Hindi and thaali in Tamil -- worn by married Indian women. For them, the contents, as shown in the promos, were offensive to Hindu culture.
The station planned to release the program Sunday, International Women's Day. But it canceled the telecast after demonstrations took place outside its office. Protesters allegedly attacked one of its cameramen.
    Four days later, the channel came under fire again, when four men on two motorbikes threw bombs into its compound in a predawn attack, authorities say. Six people involved in the bombing have been arrested, said S. George, the commissioner of the southern Indian city of Chennai. Their leader turned himself in separately, claiming responsibility for the attack, police said.
    "The show wanted to give women a platform. We welcome all opinions and thoughts. But you cannot strangle freedom of free expression by violent means and threats," said Shyam Kumar, the CEO of New Generation Media Corp., which runs Puthiya Thalaimurai. "We condemn the attack in the strongest possible terms," he told CNN.
    But India is no stranger to censorship imposed legally or forced by rowdy protesters.
    The country's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but not without restrictions. Communities or people claiming their religious sentiments were hurt by anyone else's opinion can file a lawsuit.
    Authorities can seek restraining orders from local courts -- as they did to ban the recent BBC documentary "India's Daughter" -- by citing potential disorder.
    Earlier last year, Penguin India withdrew "The Hindus: An Alternative History," a book by American academic Wendy Doniger, after a local advocacy group accused the writer of denigrating Hinduism.
    In December, a Bollywood movie, "PK," came under attack over similar accusations when mobs tore apart its posters in parts of India. A satire on religious rituals, "PK" became a roaring success by being one of the country's highest-grossing movies.
    But India, home to one of the world's largest film industries, has blocked several movies from screening.
    At least two films were not allowed last year. One of them featured the lives of the Sikh assassins of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the other centered on the violence in Sri Lanka in the closing months of its civil war.
    Hounded by protests over his novel, Perumal Murugan, a Tamil author, announced quitting writing in a dramatic post on Facebook in January.
    "Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone," he said on Facebook two months ago. Religious and caste-based organizations had slammed his novel "Madhorubhagan," which depicted a childless wife taking part in an ancient festival allowing consensual sex between strangers.
    Just last week, India blocked the BBC from airing "India's Daughter" because it included comments from one of the men convicted of raping a young student in a moving bus in New Delhi in 2012. The reason: The inmate's views could create unrest.
    "There's a growing intolerance towards different shades of opinion. It's a medieval mindset. What India needs is a concerted effort to move beyond it and embrace free expression in totality," said Kumar, the New Generation Media chief executive.