(I wrote this in an email response to an American colleague who had his doubts on India’s “free speech” credentials given our eternal insecurity about how maps display our borders. Copy+pasting here. Sorry if you lose the context somewhere in the middle.)
America is blessed with submissive neighbors, an isolated geographical location from its rivals former USSR/China, and a history not marked by border disputes. India is not as lucky as America on this count. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were born as three nations (well, initially two; East Pakistan became Bangladesh much later) in the dead of night when Indians slept due to political opportunism of our erstwhile British rulers and politicians. The bloody birth of these nations killed a million of people in the next months and left tens of millions as destitute refugees — it’s the most gruesome human tragedy ever the West knows little about.
The diversity of people in India can be mindboggling. Each state speaks its own language (they are languages on their own merit; not just dialects of a mother language). While Hindus are majority religion, India has substantial religious minorities not seen in other countries including USA and China. The ethnicity/race of people is equally broad.
The sole reason the modern Indian nation still exists as one today (and not gone the way of disintegration resembling modern Europe) is that our constitution celebrates diversity, democracy, and guess what … “free speech”. It’s inconceivable that India would not have broken up by now had this diverse set of people were not allowed space to protest, use media, form political parties, and take on the popular government of the day.
Yes, we as a nation are sensitive about foreign countries and international organizations inaccurately portraying our borders, perhaps more so than, say, USA had Mexico released maps showing Texas outside USA. Why? Because such portrayals go at the heart of our very viability as a nation (in a way taking Texas away from America would not contest the viability of the rest of America to remain as a nation).
Pakistan claims Kashmir “solely” on religious lines, while China claims Arunachal Pradesh “solely” on ethnic lines. If you extrapolate these claims for a country with diverse religions and ethnicity, losing Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh will strike a blow to the constitutional safeguard of secularism: that your religion and ethnicity does not come in the way of being an Indian citizen. Very soon, you can imagine each minority or ethnicity claiming its own nation, and India as we know today disappears. We’ll have no nation to defend free speech for.
For all of India’s flaws, India is a viable democracy that guarantees freedom of expression, vibrant media, democracy, and protection of minorities, whether religious or sexual or ethnic. We’ve seen several nations in India’s immediate neighborhood (with similar economic conditions) that don’t guarantee any of these rights — look no further than China, Pakistan, Russia, Arab countries. India offers a welcome, refreshing exception to the rule that “third world” countries cannot be viable democracies.
India is insecure about maps in the same way America is insecure about, say, terrorism. Using this example alone to doubt India’s commitment to free speech is not holistic IMO.