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?
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.