Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Intolerant India

I remember with fondness, a time when I was six years old. I was travelling with my mother in Bihar when she and all the famous fives of them(Five sisters, my mother and her sisters, my Maasis), boarded the wrong train. Those were the times of tight purses, and strict expenses. Thus as we had it, we could understand the blunder which was committed, only after journeying in the direction opposite to the one originally planned for. By the time, trains were swapped and new tickets were bought, the funds touched the bottom lining of the purses they carried.

As we rode back to Munger, the hawkers came into the train compartments with loaded temptations. Ah, those were wonderful times of great snacks selling with lovely sounds inviting you to buy the stuff, against the chugging sound of the diesel trains. One hawker, I remember, was selling eggs, the boiled one. I asked for one, and he stood there. I asked my mother more, then I begged and I do not remember well, but I may have, rolled on the dusty floor of the compartment. Driven to the wooden wall of the train, my mother claimed that I was just throwing tantrum as the saint that I was, I never had eggs. Now, being thrust into sainthood is a bit too much even for an adult, for a child it was totally unbearable. Tears rolled and I muttered, "But I do eat Eggs." I was immediately shut to silence, perforce, lest the hawker continued pestering those ladies with so light their money bag that it would have strolled up in the skies like helium balloons had they not been clutching it so hard in their worried hands. To every one's relief, the hawker passed on, not hearing my plea and the journey could conclude, eventually in the right direction, without an embarrassing intervention of an egg.
That was my first encounter of an affront to my kiddish freedom of expression. Well nothing unique there, we all have had such moments in our lives, especially those who grew up in those days when parenting with friendship towards your kids was considered poor parenting or usually no parenting and constituted utter parental neglect. That my parents, now being grandparents, deny ever having subscribed to muffling the voice  of a child as a part of parenting, when it comes to my little daughter throwing tantrum in front of them, is another matter.
But let us go with the fact that we all have faced such experiences when we questioned our right to speak out, eggs or no eggs. In fact, if I were to think of it rationally, they had valid reason to curtail my right to free speech, at least on this occasion. My freedom of speech, denied them the right to not hear it and required to be funded by them.
We, as a nation, have just passed with the Sixty-fourth republic day last month on twenty-sixth of January. That was the day on which we as a nation gained adulthood setting up our own code of conduct. That venerable tome contained within its being sacred Article 19, sacred for every free thinking individual of the nation. The nation coming out of a long colonial rule, prized this right to free speech close to its heart. All the leadership of the time, had faced the brunt of a heavy-handed state, crushing any dissenting thoughts with swiftness in order to preserve a fledgling colony. Their own experience made them value the significance of varied thoughts and opinions. We only grow through the ideas which challenges our own.
The trajectory towards the emancipation from the burdensome yoke of obedience and subservience, which took flight upwards, wobbled sometime in the late 1970s with first ever imposition of emergency, and thankfully the last.
We came out of the emergency with the dictatorial doctrine humbled, but the Djinns of dictatorial thought never went back into the proverbial lamps from where they came from. The history since then has been peppered with the instances of control over free speech.
Salman Rushdie was probably the first notable in this regard. He came out with a novel, which went on to win him many laurels across the literary world, earning thereby a seat for him among the knights and barons of literature. That was worst moment for Indian democracy. One could have still lived with a suppressive state, which being in full public glare and constant scrutiny by an ever alarmed judiciary was less prone to act arbitrarily, at least not on its own. The sordid saga of banning the Rushdie book, brought forth the mob to call the shots.
A public threat by religious leader was not used by the state  as an occasion to step forward and reaffirm its support to lonely and dissenting voices and put on leash the ferocious animal on non-tolerance which the leader threatened to let loose. The state buckled and banned the book. I have not read the book, The Satanic Verses, till date and have read Rushdie only recently, his memoirs, Joseph Anton. But I was so very disappointed with the state which bowed to the wishes and fancies of the mob.
The book was not to be a part of school or college curriculum. One had to buy it to read it. The right to read or not read was always with the individual. Why should the state intervene and decide for the people, what they ought to read and what not? It set about a very dangerous precedence, the fall outs of which we are watching even today. I do not have much of love for a particular kind of music, but that does not automatically entitles me with a right to put to end that kind of music, only because I could gather some number of like-minded people to come out on street and threaten with numerical power an eventual possibility of violence.
After that we had many of such instances of intolerance, with the paintings of MF Hussain banned, and the highly acclaimed artist being forced to flee from the country and eventually dying in exile. Even his death could not bring about much change in the way we are governed. The logic of my being against the actions against MF Hussain is similar to that about Rushdie. The exhibitions were not held in college campuses, he did not threaten to put those pictures considered offensive, (even, I do consider them offensive to my taste and faith) in your houses and hotels and public places. You were not forced to watch them as you were not being forced to read the Satanic Verses.
As an apology to secular thought, people many times tend to consider the Ramanujam's essays on Ramayana under the same category. But on this I beg to differ. That was a totally different case. This book which many found offensive, being contrary to majority religious beliefs, was being forced into college curricullum. That way it was being thrust in  your face. That is wrong. Not for banning the book, the book should be available in the book stalls, and it should be left to people to decide if you want to read it. There is Arundhati Rai, a perennial rebel, threatening as a columnist put it aptly, to secede from the country and establish a mobile republic of her own, with herself as the government and citizen. I never agreed with her ideas, but I had my keyboard to write about it. I had my own limited vocabulary to counter her exquisite one, to urge people to not read it. But I never subscribe to have a right to get people on streets to burn to book and bring the state to ban the book.
Last couple of years have been a journey in the downward spiral as a nation (as we reached the low ranks of 140 in a list of 170 nations in terms of freedom of expression, so much for being a democracy) at such breakneck speed that it threatened to break the collective collar bone of our national intelligentsia. Our collective heads hang in shame as the nation reels under the draconian Article 66A.
View image detailA common citizen was put behind the bar, last year for having merely as much as asked the details of the wealth of a minister's son, two young girls being put behind the bars questioning a bandh following the death of a leader, A cartoonist was put to jail in the West in the most modern and cosmopolitan city of Mumbai , and another cartoonist in the east, in the land of first liberal reforms in colonial India, was sent behind the bars for lampooning the chief minister of the state.
Noted sociologist made a statement regarding corruption in a particular section of the society in Jaipur Literature Festival this year, and the whole world pounced on him. That he was speaking on the topic of corruption being a social equaliser was largely ignored. An unequal ordinance allowed an enraged Nikhil Wagle to tweet the very next day that most of the corrupt of the people were Brahmans (as you would note, I could also mention his tweet clearly not Nandy's statement), with impunity protected  by unequal law. I do not know what gave birth to it, who probably by bringing out the term Harijan took away the pride of identity from a society already reeling under the historic wrong. I am always of the view that negation of your own roots and your own self never can lead to a resolution. The same lost identity was later stoked by the wily politicians, who used their lost identity and pride to their advantage, building on mobocracy to fill their coffers and build their statues. But this is another subject altogether, what was regrettable in the whole affair with what great alacrity the state moved to act against the poor sociologist. In the extreme south at the same time we had Vishwaroop, to my mind a mediocre movie brought to the fore of national consciousness by the opposition it faced on the released. It was banned by the state on the behest of some fringe religious groups. It is indeed a sad state of a failed State, as the state stands unable to protect the right of a voice threatened with voilence. The same state which baton charges the peaceful protest, once it evaluates the electoral value of protesting masses near to nil, stands helpless in the face of violent mobs.
We would to well to remember, it was the same state which responded to the outrage on the death of gang rape victim in Delhi (In the memory of the one with no name http://www.saketsuryesh.net/2012/12/in-memory-of-one-with-no-name.html; http://www.saketsuryesh.net/2012/12/spring-in-delhi-winter-nation-in-angst.html) after ten days, responded to communal speeches of a certain minority leaded in Andhra after ten days, and even to the ghastly beheading of Indian soldiers on the border after eleven days. You can almost sense someone watching out of a large pane window in the seats of power in Lutyen's Delhi, and counting men on street out on protest against a particular cause and mapping them to the votes they would map to before acting on their demands. The state's action in all these instances would be amusing, had it not been so alarmingly threatening to the very idea of democracy. The state stands complicit with the groups threatening social structure, under the pretext of being offended over one reason or other. The state which ought to be committed the most lonely dissenting voice, sides with the numbers and power.
I am dreaded to think what kind of world we are setting up for our children to live in. We always believe that the worse can only happen to our neighbour, never to us. We believe so till the time disaster knocks on our own doors, we do not have even as much time for the change of clothes, let alone change of thoughts, before being thrown into the dark corner of a police cell. This idea may seem too pessimistic at the moment, but it may not be far away for the precipice we have allowed our state to step on to. Let us rediscover the pleasures of Shastrarth, or debating and not let dogmas kill debates. We owe it to our children, to preserve for them a world in which they can think, write and speak with freedom.
I may not agree with all that I seek to be defended, but it is the right to freedom which I hold dear. To me it is what the idea of our nation is built on. I know, when I say these things, I offend people. I would only request them to give a heeding to what I have written, and revert if you agree and ignore if you do not. Though I wish to, I would refrain from being as aggressive as noted author Chrispher Hitchen's was when he wrote,"My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, any where, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my A***", I would rather leave you with a milder, but firm and vivid and urgent request from John Milton who said "Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to consience, above all liberties"  and as Thomas Jefferson said, "the error of opinion may be tolerated and reason be left free to combat it."
However, I must contend, though in Monarchy, State might be treated as father of its citizens, in Demodracy it is the child of the citizens. We get the state what we make it to. You can not blame the errant kid and let him go on erring. As responsible parent citizens, it our job to set right example for the state. Last heart, a ray of sunlight which smiled through cold winters in Kashmir, the all-girls band, Pragaash, has stopped performance, due to abuses and threat on social media. It was not because of state censorship or millitant threat, it was for people protesting on the internet. Please do protest by all means but earn enought words to be able to do it in a manner civilized enough not to kill a contrary thought. Do not be a thought fundamentalist, for the state, like a growing kid will be keenly observing you and learning like a kid what might be allowed conduct under the rules of discipline of its parent.

Pictures Courtsey: Flickr.com (From CC)

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