The concept of blasphemy doesn’t exist in Hinduism, the faith followed by about 80% of Indians. Until the late 1980s, India’s minority Muslim community—or, at any rate, the clerics who claimed to lead it—was mostly responsible for policing the boundaries of allegedly offensive speech. In 1988 India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie ’s “The Satanic Verses” following street protests. At about the same time, Hindu chauvinists started stoking grievances among the Hindu majority by highlighting the government’s kowtowing to fundamentalist Muslim sentiment.
Since then, Hindu activists have used a combination of legal harassment and rowdy protests to shrink the space for allegedly offensive works on Hinduism, too. Last month mobs tore down posters and smashed ticket counters at theaters showing “PK,” a Bollywood send-up of Hindu god men. (The movie ended up being the highest-grossing movie in India.)
Last year, an activist associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the Hindu nationalist group that provides the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with much of its ideology and top leadership—filed a lawsuit that led the publisher Penguin India to pulp “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” a scholarly work by American academic Wendy Doniger that some believers found offensive. Hardly a week goes by in India without someone’s “religious feelings” being outraged or insulted.