Lenin’s Statue in Belonia

Of all the statues torn down last week in various parts of India, tearing down of Lenin’s statue, in Belonia, Tripura, which triggered a series of reactions across India where mobs brought down statues of icons –was the most significant one.  The differing ideologies that the icons represented notwithstanding all of them had something in common – they were all Indians. Lenin was the only one of foreign origin.  India is not the only place in the world to host statues of icons of foreign origin.

You will find statues of foreign icons with global stature in all countries. For example, there are several countries in the West that have statues of Mahatma Gandhi. But there is a difference even between these globally celebrated icons and Lenin.

They largely represent an apolitical message of universal humanism; Lenin represents a specific political ideology, which many people across the world associate with severest form of authoritarianism, disregard for human liberties, lack of economic opportunities and its attendant problems and so on.

There is no denying that destroying the statues was an act of vandalism but to the extent that it was an effort to wipe out the remnants of a political ideology opposed to yours, it is not something that the Left is not guilty of, only their methods are more gentlemanly and sophisticated.

There is almost no party that can equal Left’s hostility  towards icons (both political and otherwise) who represent a different strain of political belief or have a towering stature in the states Left rule. While the Left ruled Bengal, Subhash Chandra Bose and Tagore were always fair games.

But an outrage towards a political belief which represents hegemony was only one component of the anger which led to bringing down the Lenin statue in Belonia. The other was a sense of despair and helplessness lack of opportunities create in a Left-ruled state among the youth.

And Tripura has all the hallmarks of a Left-ruled state. Most people are employed with the state government and there are no private sector employment opportunities – which means majority of the youth population is jobless. This is not a new problem in Tripura; it has coexisted with Left rule for several years, in fact, decades. Left has ruled the state for roughly 20 years, which means for most of its time in power it has sat on the problem and let it grow.

It’s not as if the next government will be able to change everything overnight but at least a beginning has been made. One of the emotions that swayed the delirious mob which exhorted as the statue of the Russian revolutionary was bulldozed to ground was hope.

Lies That Help Us Live

Taken from Pixabay

Many of us look down upon fiction. You will hear many people say smugly: Fiction is not for me. What is there to learn? They are stories after all. But those of us who do that don’t understand that fiction serves a vital need of our lives: it gives us the lies we need to live. It’s not that only those who read fiction resort to living in lies. All of us need our  fantasies.

Either we get them from the novels we read or movies we watch or we manufacture them ourselves. Remember the guy at the school whose uncle brought him things from around the world, or never stopped travelling to beyond-the-horizon locations, or did more incredible things, or the college friend or office colleague with a friend who partook in sexual escapades with wives of rich men and celebrities?

There are two things that characterize these lies. One is they are always about things we aspire to at a social or individual level and the other one is platforms used to set the lies on – it’s always an uncle or aunt, people who have floating presence in our lives, our lack of accountability for their actions making them perfect figures to build stories around or a distant friend who no one has seen and will never see because the person doesn’t exist just like the uncle.

The aspirational part is worth exploring. These lies or fantasies may come from unfulfilled (and in some cases unfulfillable) aspirations, but they also come from a yearning for social/economic equity. It can sometimes be targeted at an individual but that individual is a representative of a social class or is someone who aspires to a higher social class (pretention in fact is more enraging – because it adds an extra thing to the mixture – pseudo-ism).

These sentiments cut across age. With age, in some cases, the stories become more grounded.

However, it’s not that people who don’t wage their proxy wars through fantastical lies – and most of us don’t – don’t need lies. They also have their own lies – the only way their lies differ from those of their more colourful counterparts (like the ones told by the imaginative school or college friend) is that they are subtler.

Unlike their more colorful and incredulous counterparts which stem from iconoclastic convictions, the subtler lies enjoy greater social acceptability, questioning them can be frowned upon collectively.

Infallibility of community beliefs, glorification of simplicity (which can be anything from low brow-ness, general ignorance to earthiness), an extremely pious concept of honesty, dishonesty (which comes from an ‘ends being more important than means’ conviction – people subscribing to this belief generally look down upon honesty but they will support a govt on social media which claims to stand for it).

In fact, these sentiments are so universal that they sustain industries and careers. People idolize public figures – mainly film stars and cricketers – who they believe embody these attributes and take any criticism against them personally.

These lies are not eternal beliefs. They change or lose their hold on us but it mostly takes a generation. The subsequent generation looks back upon the follies and foibles of the prior generation with a critical approach. But then the subsequent generation falls prey to its own lies depending on the needs and aspirations of the times. And the cycle continues.

Lee Kuan Yew: a Dictator or Visionary or Both

I had written this blog two years ago when Lee Kuan Yew the premier of Singapore had passed away. The world press was divided on the leadership of Lee Yuan Yew, some calling him dictatorial and sadistically capitalistic, others hailing him for building Singapore from scratch and making it what it is today. I will have you read the blog and decide which side was true or whether truth lay somewhere in the middle.

However, my main reason for sharing this blog now is Lee Kuan Yew ‘s leadership style was very similar to some of the top world leaders of today who have come up in last few years – Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Edip Erdogan – tough, dictatorial, unapologetically capitalistic, retaliatory, no nonsense and nationalistic. And the international press today is as divided on their style of leadership and policies as they were on Lee’s leadership legacy after his death.

The blog takes you through the historical circumstances Singapore went through, the policies Lee adopted, the countries he befriended and those he offended, and the mortal blow he dealt the local media with for being critical of him. Enjoy. 

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Formerly published on another blog platform on April 15, 2015

Recently, Lee Kuan Yew, the person responsible for making Singapore what it is today, died. We in India, particularly those with scant awareness about foreign affairs, were familiar with Singapore as a place of prosperity and aspiration, lights and glitz, long before we woke up to the global significance of China and the vulnerability of America as a super power.

In India, various political leaders at different times have told us they would be making our cities like Singapore if brought to power but none have.

But the bigger question is why Asian countries aspire to be like Singapore? It is not just Singapore’s economic success but the fact that it combines all the virtues of a desirable place: cleanliness, discipline and great law and order.  Even the great Western democracies fall foul on some of these counts.

Law and order may be different and even cleanliness is achievable in many places but discipline , as many of us know, may not be easy to bring about in a democratic society, which is by nature chaotic. In fact, the existence of such societies depends on absence of discipline. There is little doubt that Singaporeans had to pay a price for the kind of economic success Singapore achieved, for which you have to both thank Lee Kuan Yew and call him lucky.

Thank Lee for Singapore’s success because after its independence from Britain and following its ouster from Malaysia in 1963, he steered his nation in the direction which was unique in those days, the 60s, and also frowned upon by others. Among the countries that won freedom at the time Singapore did, Singapore was the only one to embrace market-economy, in its most unapologetic form.

Call Lee lucky because even with Lee’s sure-handed capitalism, Singapore would not be possible without Singapore’s advantages – a largely homogeneous society, a city state, etc – quite unique to Singapore.

But many of these attributes were disadvantages to start with. When Singapore had been dispelled by Malaysia because of racial tensions (Lee its premier was in his early 40s then), it didn’t have any army to defend its borders; it didn’t have any economy to speak of. Its small size – and therefore less significance – would have made it vulnerable to a takeover – or at least an invasion – by a bigger power, particularly one from the Soviet bloc. Fearing it, Lee befriended the US.

To make Singapore militarily strong, Lee sought the help of Israel. He created a police-judiciary to eliminate corruption. To the same end, he raised the salaries of officials to the level of those in high positions in private sector – and said, “If you pay pee nuts, you attract monkeys.” He removed political opposition by reducing Singapore to a single-party polity.

He made spitting on road, littering chewing gums on road etc. punishable offenses.

(Remember, we heard, in our growing up years, that in Singapore you would be punished for throwing chewing gum on road?) He told Singaporeans to speak good English and develop clean habits.

He completely muzzled the press. Singapore Herald’s license was seized because of a critical article it had carried about Lee’s government and three years later the government amended its constitution to make it mandatory for media houses publishing out of Singapore to renew their license yearly. And publications of foreign media houses critical of the Singapore government but without any production base in Singapore were simply banned.

Although Singapore never saw the likes of Tienanmen Square or Capture Wall Street, winds of change are blowing in the island nation. Living costs are very high in Singapore and the gap between poor and rich has grown over the years.

There is a groundswell for more inclusive policies. It led to a slump in Lee’s party’s (People’s Action Party of Singapore) popular vote, following which Lee stepped down making way for his son. Any nation, however successful, yearns for change in a passage of 40 to 50 years. Singapore, however different it may be from the rest, should not be an exception. But Singapore will always consider itself lucky to have had Lee in its formative years and not the other way around.

Short Reads: Ops – It’s Someone Else’s

Taken from Pixabay

Have you ever worn a stranger’s trouser? I have – and have even attended an interview wearing it roughly seven years ago.

I had two formal trousers and a pair of jeans back then to take me through a week.

For my vacation in Calcutta my home town, I had carried all three of them with me. The three trousers together with the few trousers I had at home would be enough to take me through the two-week long vacation. It proved to be a little more than sufficient.

I went through the vacation, with one day to go, without even having to touch the brown corduroy trouser I had carried with me from Bangalore.  It was my costliest one which I wore only if I felt the occasion warranted it.  On my last day in Calcutta, an occasion rose which made the cut.

At that time, I was searching for a job in Calcutta so that I could finally return home ending my stay away from home for several years.  I am still trying. On my third day in Calcutta I got a job interview. It was a test I had to go through to qualify for further rounds of selection.

I fared alright and felt I would get a call for an interview but when even after a week or so I didn’t hear from them I dropped the hope and then forgot about it. The call arrived on my last day in Calcutta, later that day I was to fly back to Bangalore.

I asked for a telephonic interview later but the caller insisted it wouldn’t take very long and that they would arrange for my drop at the airport, the office being not very far from there. I was flattered. It was not the convenience but the honor. It must be the test, I felt.

As I was putting on the brown corduroy trouser, my legs zipped through it to the other side with an unusual pace and ease. After putting on the waist button I realized it didn’t quite fit me – it was a little too loose. I tied my belt tighter – and the trouser looked like a tent. It was originally a comfort fit – and I was at a loss how it had metamorphosed into a lungi.  Was it magic?

When the interview was over, quite happy with my performance, I swaggered to the reception having been asked to wait there. My performance in the interview had put me in such a buoyant mood that when I spotted the receptionist seeing the strange thing I was wearing, it didn’t make me uneasy.

After sometime when no one approached me about the promised drop to the airport, I felt reluctant to check with the receptionist and decided to leave – later I could call up and check the status. The company contacted me later but it didn’t materialize.

The next morning, in Bangalore, when I went to the laundry to give my clothes for wash, the laundry man said what I had remotely suspected: that when I had collected my clothes from him before I went to Calcutta, he had mistakenly given me someone else’s trouser. “The colour and texture of the other trouser were exactly the same as yours, sir.”

TOI Lit Fest and the Rally

I have been visiting the TOI literature festival in Bangalore every year since it started but this time the experience was a little different. Frankly speaking, there is another lit fest that happens in Bangalore end of every year – Bangalore Literature Festival – and I have always found that to be a little better than the TOI one in terms of quality of discussions, but this time a coincidence made the TOI lit fest special.

The TOI fest happened at Jayamahal Palace on 3rd and 4th Jan the last day coinciding with a BJP rally to be addressed by none other than the PM himself at Palace Grounds. And how can the two mutually opposed worlds come close to each other without producing some fireworks?

Chidanand Rajghatta, a US correspondent of Times of India, was discussing his upcoming book – Illiberal India – on Gauri Lankesh, his former wife – on his times with Gauri and erosion of liberal values in India.

When the floor was opened for questions someone from the audience asked Rajghatta if by Illiberal India he meant India has become illiberal already or it is on the way of becoming so, eliciting a long response from Rajghatta saying the society may still be liberal but the attacks on liberalism are too obvious to be overlooked.

On day two, Kiran Nagarkar the Cuckold, Eddie writer, while wrapping up his session, found himself at the receiving end of ire from someone in the audience apparently upset with nothing in particular but Nagarkar’s general potshots at the government several times.

The drones and planes flying overhead were constantly disrupting the ongoing discussions bringing them to a halt each time they flew over our head.

Towards the end of the festival, William Dalrymple and Vidya Shah’s brilliant histro-musical performance on Deccan poets based on his White Mughals theme was disrupted by rolling of drums. After sometime, Dalrymple raised his hand and shouted: Let’s shut out the noise.

On Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing has an indescribable quality. By now I have read a few of her books – Low Lands and Unaccustomed Earth – and have started developing an understanding of her style. Until I read her I used to see her as a high brow author, but Low Land changed my opinion about her.

The sentences are utterly simple – they are not necessarily short and mechanical but fluid and what some would say casual. There is very little formality about how she describes things and even when it comes to the technical aspects of her language. She doesn’t use the semi colon (in fact, nowadays many authors have done away with it); two complete clauses are separated by a comma instead. (I still use it.) I have even found the first letter of a proper noun not capitalized on an occasion. (Was it she or her proof reader?)

It is how one would write a diary, personal recordings not meant to be shared with the larger world. But I think this languid and casual style endears her to her readers – and she has a huge fan following particularly among women readers.

But it’s not just the sentences which read fluid; her narrative also moves in a free-flowing manner. It takes her narrative lot of time, events (some creating a coherent form, some random) to shape up. You will not find any narrative trick employed to make her stories unique. She has an old fashioned and simple storytelling style.

Another thing with Lahiri is her books are promoted as Indo American affairs dealing with the lives of second generation Bengali migrants to the US, but they are more American and less Indian.  Her characters’ lives in India is mostly the backstory and their lives in America form the frontal narrative.

A recurring subtheme of her stories is how the first generation migrants hold on to their native values and try to bring up their children based on them but as the families move into the second generation, particularly after the children grow up a little, the native values slowly make way for American values.

Lahiri has talked at length on this in her Clothing of Books about how when she was a child growing up in the US her mother used to force Indian clothes and ways on her but when she grew up she just shoke off the cloak to fully embrace the culture of the land her parents had adopted a generation back, America.

A Chance Encounter with a Kashmiri Pandit

I was at a Reliance departmental store picking vegetables and tossing them into my trolley when the elderly person standing next to me suddenly started a conversation. “How do these guys manage to sell things so cheap?” “I think because they sell well – economies of scale,” I responded. “But there are other chains that are not doing poorly, yet they sell their stuff much costlier,” the old man rebutted. I had not expected a rebuttal. “Omm…maybe because they source their vegies directly from the farmer, uncle.” “But I think others are doing it too, beta.”

The elderly person was apparently from north India. He was speaking smooth English but throwing in a word or two of Hindi in his sentences. He was soft spoken, wore a Sherlock Homes cap, thick black frame and was too fair complexioned.

His patient probing had exhausted my stock of glib answers. I had no more answer. I kept quiet and concentrated on choosing the vegies. A brief silence followed. Then came the obvious from the old man. “Where are you from? “I am from Calcutta but I have been in Bangalore for last 12 years.”

“And you, sir?”

“Where do you think I am from, beta?”

The mischief in his question and the twinkle in his eye revealed something fleeting and deeper than the sum of physical attributes and words. “You are a Kashmiri Pandit, uncle.”

Surprised, he immediately extended his hand for a handshake: “How did you figure out?”

“Gut feeling,” I replied smiling.

Then a desultory conversation followed until our discussion settled into a specific trajectory.

“The Left finished Bengal and even the current person is not doing well,” he said.

I hesitantly brought up the contentious issue.

“Uncle, is the situation in Kashmir normal now?”

“No, it’s not. And it won’t ever unless…”

“Where do you stay now? In Jammu?”

“Yes, we have been there for roughly 30 years now.”

“Have you been to Kashmir since you left?”

“Yes, I have a few times.”

I steered the conversation into the forbidden territory. “In what circumstances you had to leave Kashmir? Was there genuine threat to you and your family?”

“Yes, there was. On 20th January 1990 almost one lakh Hindus left, beta, after terrorism broke out,” he said with a sense of loss he has learnt to live with. “We had to leave with whatever we could carry with us. We left everything else behind.”

To cheer him up, I said: “But things are changing. Your cause is very dear to the current government in center.”

To gather his thoughts, he looked away for a second and then looked at me. “I don’t think my generation will be able to return to Kashmir for good, but if they succeed to do something my grandson will be able to see what once belonged to his forebears.”

Gene – Part Autobiography Part History Part Scientific Enquiry

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s two uncles were afflicted with schizophrenia which manifested itself, within a few years of each other, when they were in their late teens wreaking havoc in their lives. One left home and never returned; the other ended up in a mental asylum.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s mother and his aunt were identical twins. Mukherjee’s aunt got married to a lawyer in Calcutta coming from a wealthy background and his mother to an average job doer in Delhi.

It was the 60s, and within a few years of the marriage, Calcutta, a city beset by social and political disturbances and creaking under a migrant population from Bangladesh, sank into chaos and lawlessness, becoming a city where people cared very less for hiring a lawyer.

On the other hand, Delhi, the capital of a newly independent India, saw wide spread prosperity providing even an average job doer enough opportunities for professional growth, raising the living standards of Siddhartha’s family while the financial condition of his maternal aunt, in Calcutta, steadily plummeted.

These two incidents reveal several characteristics of genealogy, one suggesting the impact of gene on lives and the other, impact of fate superseding that of gene. They form one pillar of The Gene: An Intimate History’s narrative which Siddhartha keeps returning to, to illustrate and enrich the other pillar of the narrative, which deals with how human knowledge about gene has evolved and people who have contributed to it.

There are many early exponents of genetics but those who laid out the basic understanding of purpose and functions of gene are Gregory Mendel a monk, of all people, and Charles Darwin. Darwin said genes carry information from one generation to another, Mendel said the posterity carrying this genetic information are not always uniform in their physical features but varied.

Advance in knowledge of genes has been accompanied by a yearning to manipulate genes to create perfect humans. This quest for perfection started in the US in the 1920s, where, with the collusion of the judiciary, social misfits (which could be anything from an insane person to a social dissenter) were identified and then sequestered to prevent any interaction with the society at large.

This method of perfection through segregation of undesired elements earned its enthusiasts in subsequent years. Among its greatest and most pernicious enthusiasts was Hitler whose elimination of Jews and other types of ‘social misfits’ was nothing but genetic cleansing or eugenics to create a pure German race.

Post WW2 when the world woke up to the horrors of the Nazi Germany practice, eugenics was banned in several countries including the US marking an end of the first if a little crude attempts to control the future.

Eugenics resumed in the 60s again and this time attempts were made to control the future through gene editing which survives to this day and progresses parallel-ly with improvement in knowledge of genes.

However, following the discovery of Nazi horrors in WW2 and subsequent government interventions, two things about eugenics changed. One is – removed from its former purported purpose of racial purity, it is now practiced to remove possibilities of genetically inherited diseases; and the second is – it is practiced only via gene manipulation and not any other form of experiments performed on or with humans.

And the third if you may is the ‘eugenics’ word has acquired a sinister connotation and is used only in reference to abominable racial practices performed at different times in history; ‘gene editing’ has become a widely accepted, secular variant of eugenics.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘part autobiography part history part scientific enquiry’ narrative is very powerful. He peppers his narrative with literary references, mostly taken from children’s literature (Alice in Wonderland being his favorite), to make a point providing a pleasant relief from the claustrophobia of scientific details and also making a point bigger than the sum of its parts.

Murder on the Orient Express – A Decent Watch

What recieves no credit for a movie’s success is the fact that the commercial success of a movie depends on which other releases it has to compete with. I don’t agree that there is audience for all kinds of movies, so the success of one movie doesn’t come at the expense of another. Movies catering to similar taste buds always snatch audience from each other to succeed commercially. How many viewers a movie is able to snatch may vary from movie to movie.

The only exception to this rule is detective movies, especially those with famous detectives and authors behind them. My belief was confirmed when I watched Murder on the Orient Express based on an Agatha Christie novel by the same name – on a night show and found the hall packed to capacity.

A murder has happened on a train and Hercule Poirot is looking for the killer only to find that all the passengers on the Orient Express have collectively murdered the person, a man who kidnaped and then killed a child some years ago which in various ways affected and altered the lives of all the passengers who have boarded the Orient Express to avenge the murder.

The problem with a literary detective character which has spawned numerous movie adoptions is that you have to convey your interpretation of the character to the audience very clearly without any shread of doubt, so that when the pecularities recur the audiences can immediatly spot them and react collectively unlike with slightly more literary characters which allow wider or open-ended interpretation.

The movie A Murder on the Orient Express does that right away starting with an investigation by Hercule Poirot where he detects the miscreant behind a theft from an ancient synagogue in Jerusalem by spotting on a fresco an imperfection, a cleft made by a pointed shoe. The style of investigation and a few scenes preceding it convey to the audience the personality traits and idiosyncrasies of the sleuth: a maniacal quest for perfection.

Orient has many more gems. The story has a large canvas – with multiple characters – all present together on Orient Express – each one with a backstory. The period – the 1920s – has been created well with the help of political and cultural references, setting and costumes. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot particularly his accent. Johnny Depp has done an awesome cameo. And all the other characters have contributed to the movie. But what I liked particularly are the references to the prejudices and ethos of the times the story is set in…which lift the movie above an average detective story.

Salman Rushdie, Now Padmavati – Free Speech Being Trammeled upon Nothing New

In India freedom of expression coming under attack is neither new nor rare. Each time a book or a movie offends someone, hurts someone’s (or a group’s) religious/community sentiments, things go up in flames. Processions hit the streets, effigies are burnt, threats given, normal life disrupted. The government (regardless of which party is in power or whether it’s a state or central government) observes the situation for a while expecting it to abate…Sometimes the government also asks the two parties to talk and arrive at a settlement.

When after sometime the situation doesn’t show any signs of abetment, the government does what is politically safe to do: bans the movie or insists on its release after putting it through so many cuts as to emasculate it completely, so that it neither insults nor informs.

However, there is an interesting angle to the crisis this time. Padmavati is not a serious film; it’s a commercial film with no serious intent except entertaining people. It’s on a character which never existed. Padmavati is a fictional character created by a poet (Jayasi) in a poem which fictionalized the invasion of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji, who ruled Delhi in the 12th century. The poem says Khilji, who was besotted with Padmavati after hearing about her magical beauty from a Brahamin who had a score to settle with Padmavati’s husband – attacked Chittor to capture Padmavati and take her with him.

However, once Padmavati’s husband died fighting Khilji’s invasion, Padmavati together with all other women in the fort set herself on fire to protect their honor against Khilji. However, historians who accompanied Khilji on his invasion of Chittor don’t mention any such incident in their account. In fact, Padmavati’s name is not available in any record or account contemporaneous to the invasion. Her name is only found in this poem by Jayasi which was written more than two centuries after the invasion.

However, I had written the blog below Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India written in 2012 when a similar frenzy had gripped the country albeit for a shorter period: Salman Rushdie was invited to visit Jaipur Literature Festival – and some Muslim groups felt the author’s visit would hurt their religious sentiments – and the government (it was a Congress government both at the center and state – Rajasthan) armtwisted the Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to drop from their invitee list.

The situation was similar in many more ways. Several state assembly elections are going to take place shortly (Gujrat being the most important one), as the Padmavati row unfolds. At that time, in 2012, UP elections were nearing. UP has a sizable Muslim population. Now, in 2017, in view of the forthcoming assembly elections, hurting majoritarian sentiments (although Padmavati is specific to Rajasthani and Rajut pride, it can easily be drummed up into something bigger and polarizing in election times) may not be a good idea now.

And yet we know it’s nothing new. Freedom of expression has been a casualty of electoral interests in the past and it will continue to happen no matter which party is in power as my blog below will make clear. So what do the public intellectuals, in India, really mean when they blame the current regime for attacks on free speech?

 

Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India

Recently the Indian government armtwisted Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to have Salman Rushdie dropped from their invitee list. The government has justified its decision by saying that Rushdie’s visit will hurt Muslim sentiments thanks to his book Satanic Verses which insulted Islam by caricaturing the Prophet Mohamed.

Rushdie has been coming to the festival since it started, but it’s the first time the government wants us to believe his visit will wound religious sentiments. UP elections are near and UP has a sizeable Muslim population. UP is a place the Cong, the leading party of the ruling coalition, can ill afford to lose because being among the largest states in India, UP has a big impact on general elections.

The Rushdie controversy is not an isolated incident. It’s the recent installment of a series of incidents in India where outfits of all political hues or their affiliates have attacked people or work (books, movies , paintings, etc) opposed to their strain of beliefs.

The reasons for the outbursts are varied. Sometimes it’s a political party desperate to retain its political space, sometimes a political newbie trying to make a mark for himself, sometimes a political party making a desperate bid to woo a community (Hindu or Muslim).

Three incidents related to books will help you understand the pattern. 

Around seven years ago, Taslima Nasreen (the writer of Lajja) had been forced out of Bengal by the Left government and then out of the country by the central government which refused to renew her visa. Why? Because Taslima had expressed blasphemous views in her book Lajja and mobs had taken to the streets demanding her ouster from Bengal when her visa was due for renewal. The Left government justified its decision saying her stay would have led to communal riots.

About a year ago, a political aspirant from the Thackeray clan (a family that founded and heads a regional political right wing outfit which models itself on Hindu nationalism and chauvinism) got together a mob which burnt the copies of Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry alleging the book to have provocative material (not sure to provoke whom) demanding the removal of the book from English honors syllabus. The authorities obliged (apparently to quell the mob).

And then came this Rushdie controversy.

As the instances above demonstrate, it’s not just parties coming from one strain of political or social belief who demand book bans and persecute writers (or creative people guilty of challenging popular beliefs through their work) for their ends, but parties of all political colour (from left to right) partake in them and frame their demand and actions according to their constituency.

If you read the books as against the claims that the ban-seekers make, you will know that they don’t read the books they seek ban on. Lajja has nothing against Islam in it; it’s a story about a Hindu Bengali family in Bangladesh; and Such A Long Journey was published in the 70s (and demanded a withdrawal of in 2011) and is loosely about Congress politics in Bombay, in the 70s, a party which the Thackerays are anyway hysterically opposed to. (I have read Lajja, but not Such a Long Journey.)

This hostility on books or any creative output works on a certain belief. 

Banning of a book or movie doesn’t hit people’s interest in the way, say, closing of a factory does. So whether you are part of the establishment imposing a ban or forcing out an author or you are part of sloganeering mob demanding a ban or an ouster, the belief on either side is since the common man won’t be hurt beyond, say, the denial of a book or a movie, they will move on and the intelligentsia will stop shouting on TV once the media get another story. Elections are won and lost on more immediate and tangible issues, not on books, after all.

And, of course, there is the additional gain for the political party of ingratiating itself with a group/community (whatever) through the emotive route, which has a long-lasting electoral value, where reason is always a casualty.

What the establishment overlooks is each time you yield to a bullying mob, you concede a space that is hard to retrieve. What they also forget is when application of force becomes an accepted means to silence a contrary voice, you lose the ability to tolerate because you don’t need to stress your endurance to tolerate; an easier option is available – force.

It’s one thing to brag about having great values (in this case, freedom of speech and free thought) as a nation; it’s another to be ready to defend them at whatever cost they demand. Great Britain gave knighthood to Rushdie in the teeth of opposition from the Islamic world. France gave political asylum to Taslima Nasreen after she was hounded out from India.