Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the Jaipur Tamasha, India Lost

I began 2012 with a personal resolution that I would try to not write about India for the next few weeks. The reason is simple: my relationship with my country is a dysfunctional, obsessive one. Like an addict, I try to wean myself off it but with the first whiff, I am back neck-deep, flailing, drowning, furiously and hopelessly in love, clinging to it even while it continues to humiliate, abuse and batter me. Yes, India is my first, only and forever abusive lover! No surprises then, the Jaipur Literature Festival tamasha managed to blow my new year's resolution to smithereens even before the first month is out.

Any way, here goes....

There are many aspects to the complete tamasha that has unfolded in Jaipur, and I do mean apply the word with all its colourful, gloriously populist, condescendingly elite connotations.  Like Waiting for Godot, the catalyst for the tamasha has remained off-stage, and for those of us who believe in creative freedom and the rule of law, or love words and stories, Salman Rushdie's absence is a tragedy.

The tamasha  was manufactured primarily by Rajasthan's state government (led by that ever shining bastion of liberal thought, the Congress party), ably abetted by the party machinery and embedded corporate media, and benignly watched over by Her Highness Lady Sphinx and her two heir-lings. Between them, they  manufactured reports of a threat to Rushdie's life: apparently, as the now-discredited story goes, Mumbai underworld had taken out a supari on the writer's life and three gunmen were on their way. Rushdie was thus convinced to cancel his visit.  A point to note here is crucial: at this point, the state government had actually not raised the legal issue of his presence at the festival but merely used security as a barely credible cover for its decision.  The state also managed to compound its idiocy by finally disallowing even a video-conference with the writer, again on 'security' grounds although, in all fairness, they could have kept all those policewallas who had been called to provide security to Oprah around.

Of course, various other parties including the BJP, with eyes on the UP assembly elections prize, jumped on the bandwagon. Not surprisingly, today, with much ipso facto courage, Sheila Dixit, Arun Jaitley and various others are inviting Rushdie to various other parts of India, especially Delhi, presumably to offend cosmopolitan Dilliwalas in ways those rustic Rajasthanis couldn't bear or have tea with HH Lady Sphinx who shall say more nothing!

On to the second act: the festival started and four writers showed the courage of their convictions and read out from The Satanic Verses, only to find themselves muzzled not by the state government but cowardly organisers. And yes, it is necessary to point out that the organisers of the festival could have taken a far stronger stance which would be backed by Indian law: there is nothing as far as I can find, and although I am no lawyer, I have checked with colleagues in the profession, that bars anyone from reading out excerpts from the work, or indeed the entire novel in entirety. The same organisers then expanded their role by issuing a stern press release and making utterly ridiculous statements about how the four writers had read the excerpts without the permission or knowledge of the organisers. Really? Now writers must clear the content of their presentations a priori with literary festivals? So much for freedom of speech then!

On the sidelines, or perhaps it ought to be the chorus line, of the tamasha of course, there has been much hand-wringing by various Indian literati in various media.  The usual faces and names have written blog posts and editorials, done rounds of television studios, and made grandiose statements that can only be distinguished by the degrees of hypocrisy and feigned passion. However, in the clamour, a basic point has been lost: freedom of speech is a cherished quality for any civilised society and even more crucial for a democracy but it is threatened as much by a cowardly state, and an unthinking mob, as it is by the hypocrisy of its apparently loyal defenders. 

For decades, India's liberal elite has tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (yes, had to throw in a hunting analogy, just for my UK readers).  They have selectively chosen their causes and battles on the issue of freedom of speech, rallying behind their own social peers and off-springs and always from the comfort of their plush homes, while silencing those they feel are beneath them.  After all, it was Khushwant Singh who advised Penguin India against publishing Rushdie's novel in the first instance. It was a Congress government, backed by all the diamond-dripping and khadi-wearing socialites who banned the import of the novel into the country. And it is the same elite that has stifled any reasoned, nuanced debate about freedom of speech in the country, choosing to turn even this basic precept into a tool for gaining political advantage!

Much of our media and intelligentsia are so closely tied to the country's political establishment that they have forsaken any ability to take a stance that may be intellectually rigorous and ethically sound (here, the organisers of the festival are a good example: to maintain their position as embedded cultural elite in Delhi, they must bow to their political patrons).

And yes, let me be very clear,  it is critical that we in India discuss freedom of speech in an open and nuanced manner. Since the mainstream media has forsaken its role in the process or at least given up any ambitions of making a complex case, it is up to the citizens ourselves.

Even the most absolutist supporters of freedom of speech realise that there are reasonable limits. There are some clear cut instances that are self-evident: shouting fire in a crowded theatre is one such example. We may even argue that reporting on army's gun positions during a war (as happened during Kargil) is another case for  limiting freedom of speech, although this already takes us towards the slippery slope and national interest alone, and especially determined by the state, cannot be the sole determinant of the issue. Here we go more into the area of ethics and personal responsibility that are matter for another post, although sadly, in current times, much is said of rights and very little of responsibilities.

However, the situation gets very muddy when it comes to art. A point made consistently by various sides has been that Rushdie's novel "offends sentiments" of a particular religious community. Similar cases have been made about Tasleema Nasreen (although I found the quality of writing more offensive than the content in that case!), Rohinton Mistry who apparently offended all of Mumbai, A.K Ramanujam who offended Hindus by studying the many versions of Ramayana and lauding the ancient Indic tradition of multiplicity.  Then of course there is the case of the much lauded MF Hussain who apparently offended Hindus with his paintings to become a martyr of free speech, and yet wilted at the sign of first Muslim protests to cravenly withdraw his film Meenaxi from theatres.  And lest we forget, Bollywood songs have managed to offend shoemakers and paan-sellers as well!

As the cases above demonstrate, there is no dearth of people willing to take offence, and only logical way forward is for the state to first take a clear and principle stand on freedom of speech.  The state must not begin to determine - either in practice or theory - which of the many offended groups must take precedence, although this arbitrary policy has yielded a great deal of political capital all around in the past 60+ years.

However, beyond the state, the onus for taking a clear and principled stand also falls on the nation's intelligentsia, artists and opinionmakers.  This means established writers, artists, critics and scholars need to speak out for the right to free expression for all, based on a principled stance, and not only when they find a convenient situation or in favour of those they agree with.  Unfortunately, at the moment, they function more as collaborators and enablers of the state in stifling freedom of expression!

And finally, there is the citizenry. In general, the discussions and blogs have been frank, intelligent, innovative. Discussions both on and off line have demonstrated that political parties in the country may be in for a big surprise as increasing numbers of citizens are stepping away from the politics of offence.  Again, I have noticed the difference in opinion between the self-avowed representative and leaders of Indian Muslims and Muslim citizenry itself: many leaders are in for a total shock in not too distant future!

At the same time, I must say I have been deeply disappointed by some of the discussions on this topic on-line, even though I am the first to admit that using on-line engagement is a flawed form of sampling a population. There is a mirror reflection of Islamist fringe to be found amongst the fringes of the self-professed Hindutva supporters. I found their ignorance of their own traditions and texts disappointing, but was horrified by their brash refusal to actually bother learning anything about their heritage. If their hubristic "right to remain ignorant" is any indication of those who take offence, then I sincerely hope this post offends them deeply.

But more than anything else, I am terribly saddened that in the tamashaa that unfolded in Jaipur, there was only one loser: India. I hope in these times of competitive offence taking, somebody other than me takes offence at that!

Full disclosure: perhaps some of my critique of the hypocrisy of India's liberal cultural elite may appear harsh but I have had first hand experience of them over the years. My favourite moment however involves a top editor who wrote me an email breaking the publication contract for a novel which she deemed too controversial. Many of the same names who regularly and hysterically defend free speech told me' off the record' - when the book did come out - that they could not review it for the same reasons. To all of them, don't worry, the book has done very well in India and abroad, in spite of you and despite zero controversy.

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