Saturday, May 19, 2012

User's guide to Indian free speech

A list of controversial subjects Indians shouldn’t write about if they want to avoid giving offence (and going to jail)

1) Dr Ambedkar, Mamata Banerjee, Bal Thackeray
2) Dead politicians
3) Living politicians
4) Mahatma Gandhi
5) And his sex life
6) Rama, Sita, Ramayanas, Ramanujan
7) Just kidding. You can write about Ramanujan.
8) Hindu gods and goddesses
9) The Prophet and Islam
10) Any other gods, goddesses, temples, mosques, gurdwaras, churches, systems of belief, places of faith past and present, religious rituals, scriptures, priests, followers etc.
11) Duh. Religion.
12) Sex is fine, especially if it involves starlets, but not if it involves 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11.
13) Savita Bhabhi. (All other Bhabhis are exempt.)
14) Maoists
15) Maoists masquerading as college girls
16) Anything about 1 to 15 on the Internet
17) Under the IT Rules, do not post anything on the Internet that might encourage terrorism, drugs, satire, political discussion, religious discussion, criticism of corporations, criticism of the Indian government, criticism in general. Spam and Shahrukh Khan jokes are fine.
18) If you intend to be disparaging about the IT Rules, do not write about it on the Internet, because the IT Rules make disparagement and certain kinds of criticism on the Internet illegal, even though they are legal forms of free speech. To clarify, you may disparage the IT Rules, which are about the Internet, anywhere except on the Internet. This is what literary theorists call “very meta”.
19) Since it is probably dangerous to write about sex, religion, politics, and the Internet, what can you write about? I suggest mangoes. This year’s crop is especially fine, and worthy of your attention.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ctrl-Alt-Del: On being our own censors

It is always tempting to blame politicians for the sorry state of things, partly because a) that’s what they’re there for and b) it’s often their fault. But in the case of two recent controversies over cartoons—the Ambedkar cartoon controversy, and Mamata Banerjee’s persecution of a professor for circulating cartoons depicting the West Bengal Chief Minister in a poor light—there are good reasons why we shouldn’t blame politicians. Because the present situation isn’t their fault, it’s ours.

The Ambedkar cartoon controversy erupted when a few MPs drew Parliament’s attention to a cartoon by Shankar depicting Nehru’s impatience at the slow pace of Constitutional reform, which was carried in an NCERT textbook on the making of the Constitution. The argument was that by showing Nehru whipping Dr BR Ambedkar, the cartoon offended the sentiments of Dalits.

As far as I can make out, few members of Parliament pointed out the obvious: 1) Ambedkar was quite used to being caricatured, as were most politicians of that era in marked contrast to this 2) political satire may need to be placed in context, but it should be protected 3) to see the cartoon as anti-Dalit in the first place is stretching a point, given that Shankar followed the workings of government closely and spared nobody 4) if the image may now be perceived as anti-Dalit, and if the image of Ambedkar being whipped is a subtle reminder of centuries of discrimination against the community, the need is to open up a discussion, not shut one down. It is no longer important whether a cartoon, a book, an article, or any work of art actually is offensive, or whether that offence is so serious that it actually warrants censorship—just the claim of possible offence is enough to raise a demand for silence.

That’s why it would not have mattered if some MPs had spoken up and ranked themselves on the side of commonsense, because we have already allowed and tolerated a situation for decades where all any community has to do is to claim offence to shut down a discussion. In other words, it would have made no sense for any MP to stand up for free speech, or for plain logic. No one suggested that there was another way to address hurt sentiments that went beyond ripping pages out of a book, tearing cartoons out of the official history of India. If they had, those MPs would have risked being branded as anti-Dalit, for little gain: no party would have been willing to stand up and defend a supposedly anti-Dalit cartoon, even if, and this is where we enter the realm of complete absurdity, that cartoon was not seen as anti-Dalit in its time.

The reason why I don’t blame Parliament for demanding the withdrawal of the NCERT textbooks is not because they’re right—they couldn’t be more wrong, given the range of options that they had. They could have re-examined the chapter and included more cartoons, to give a wider range of opinion on the making of the Constitution. They could have asked for the chapter to be rewritten to include some context on how Dr Ambedkar was routinely depicted in cartoons of the time, and whether he was in any way depicted as different from the non-Dalit leaders of the national movement. They could simply have opened up a debate in Parliament on the right of satire to exist, but instead, they appear to have moved towards asking for legislation that would ban the use of cartoons and satire, and presumably humour, in most textbooks.

But they are only doing what any closed group will do, given a chance—ie, protect its own interests. All political parties understand the benefits that accrue with being seen as the protector of Dalit rights (the Ambedkar cartoons), Muslim hurt sentiments (the Jaipur Satanic Verses readings), offended Hindu sentiments (the Shivaji-Laine book), and so far, these benefits have been tangible and have translated into actual or perceived gains in different vote banks. The fact that these separate instances have also actively encouraged any community, religious or caste-based or political, to claim offense as a means of getting attention or gaining much-needed clout, is not the point. Until there are tangible consequences for politicians, in terms of losing votes or support, there is no practical reason for them to support free speech rights—only ideological reasons. As the historian Romila Thapar suggests, we should investigate claims that religious or other sentiments have been hurt much more rigorously seeing who stands to benefit, before resorting to a book ban or a withdrawal of a book.

Nor can you blame politicians for wanting to use existing laws to shut down criticism of political parties, as Mamata Banerjee and Kapil Sibal have done in very different ways. Any closed group, given a choice between upholding abstract free speech rights and upholding its own interests, will choose the latter. The problem may run a little deeper—ie, if our laws allow the arrest and prosecution of a professor for the “crime” of forwarding a cartoon, or if Internet laws can be used to silently shut down articles critical of politicians, we need to look more closely at how those laws are being misused.

Where the general community has failed is in convincing both politicians and its own members of the uses of free speech, and the need to allow widespread free expression, even when that expression is offensive to some. Almost all of what we write on free speech and censorship issues is in reaction to an event such as the Ambedkar controversy, but there are relatively few of us, including myself, who actually talk about the importance of free speech outside these controversies. Or we end up making obvious points—shutting down the Ambedkar cartoon and the Mamata cartoons will have a chilling effect on the media criticism of politicians, for instance. (As you might imagine, politicians are really, really worried that they might face less criticism as a consequence of their recent actions.)

On a few occasions in the past year—at a blogger’s meet on censorship, at a few readings and a literature festival—some of us passed around index cards where we invited people to answer two questions. Where did people feel censored or silenced in their own lives? And how would they feel if they could talk about these silences? It is not always easy to draw a direct line between apparently distant acts of censorship—the censorship of art, books, textbooks, cartoons—and censorship in one’s personal life, but the two are deeply connected.

End of rant, and meanwhile, here are some of the answers, shared with the permission of their authors.

Things people can’t talk about:

“I can’t talk about my childhood.”
“I want to tell my father how angry he makes me when he reads the papers and starts abusing Muslims, but my Muslim friends can’t even come home.”
“Censored about family violence and beatings.”
“Can’t share my political beliefs with my colleagues at the bank because then I might lose status with them.”
“Never could talk freely about my emotions and what I really wanted to do in my life.”
“Can’t tell husband he’s embarrassing me by shouting at servants in front of some of our friends.”
“Can’t say anything to my parents about my life or feelings, it’s not important to them.”

How they’d feel if they could speak without censorship:

“I’d cry and cry and let it out.”
“If he stopped it would make me so happy.”
“It would change my life. I want someone to understand why I’m so angry all the time.”
"I'd feel like less of a fraud and a liar in the daily office conversations. More my real self. More honest."
“I don’t know.”
“I would tell him how much I hate what he does and how small it makes me feel. Also, it goes against my beliefs, and that should be important.”
“I would feel like a real person at last.”

Speaking Volumes: The Bunderful Mr Lear

“What to do, my Dear Fortescue, when I return to England!!??.” At 36, Edward Lear had both of the qualities that make an artist an excellent traveler—an ability to feel at home anywhere, even in Devonshire (“Lord! How it rains!”), and an insatiable curiosity about other places.

“The more I read travels the more I want to move,” wrote Lear. It is difficult, reading Lear’s lively letters and journals, to believe that this is the 200th anniversary of his birth: there is little Victorian about either the prose or the mind.

In his thirties, the ‘Nartist Cove Named Lear’, known for his landscapes, would become famous as the Author of the Book of Nonsense. He was a seasoned traveler; Ireland, Italy, the Lake District in England and Corfu had already drawn him away from the rains he deplored so much at home, because they brought on his “assma”. He had given Queen Victoria 12 drawing lessons, but something in his nature balked at the comfortable life of a court painter.

He wanted to visit India, but as Corfu pulled him in and Jerusalem beckoned, Lear postponed his plans indefinitely. It stays there, off to a side—in 1857, he writes with great interest of the Mutiny, noting that The Times is probably wrong in its assessment that the fuss will blow over in a month or two. But it was only in his sixties that Lear would finally visit India, and by that time, he was not just a seasoned traveler, but a most interesting one.

Lear viewed the attempts of fellow Victorians to rescue their savage brethren with a gently caustic eye. “I’ve been reading Brooke’s Borneo lately. What do you think of a society for clothing and educating by degrees the Orang Outangs?” he writes to a friend. Nor does he stick to the conventions of travel writing, as this letter from Corfu demonstrates: “I meant to have written a lot about the priests & signori, and the good peasantry, & the orange-trees, and sea-gulls, and geraniums, & the Ionian Ball & what-not, but I am too sleepy.”

He was an accommodating traveler, and one of the few places that brought out the worst in him was Jerusalem—“uniting people in a disagreeable hodgepodge of curiosity and piety.” Travelling in the region, Lear nursed an understandable dislike of “marauding Arabs”, 200 of whom relieved him of his possessions in Petra. They took “things of no use to them but I believe taken as diversions for their nasty little beastly black children.” It’s a rare, ill-tempered outburst, one of the few times when the Victorian in him rose to the fore.

He approached India with curiosity and an open mind. In a letter to Lord Abedare, written just before his Indian journey, Lear thanks him for his good wishes: “But will you not tell me if you have any special wish for one view more than another. Shall I paint Jingerry Wangerry Bang or Wizzibizzigollyworrybo?”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lear found a way around the heat and dust and crowds. He noticed all of it—“heat always great here stuffy puffy muffy”—he writes in his letters, and elsewhere, he complains bitterly of the political gossip and exhausting parties of “Hustlefussabad”, his name for Government House in Calcutta. The ekkas and palanquins made him wish for an extra set of bones, and he cast a fascinated eye on certain native habits: “All these devout and dirty people carry out their theory of attendance on Public Wash-up on a great scale, by flumping simultaneous into the Holy Gunga at sunrise on April 1 squash.”

But Lear found his feet when he discovered the Dak bungalows, which suited him so much better than staying in private homes or in hotels. It was hard, he noted, to say to the lady of a house as you might in a dak bungalow: “Ma’am, I want tea at 5 a cold luncheon and wine to take out with me, and dinner precisely at 7, after which I shall go to bed and shan't speak to you."

The bungalows restored his sense of independence, and using them as staging points, Lear did some of his most beautiful work while in India, over 2,000 drawings of “old Indian temples and rivers” made as he travelled through Punjab, Bengal, fell in love with large parts of South India, explored the Ganges to his heart’s content.

The landscapes, collected in an out-of-print book by Vidya Dehejia, have almost been forgotten—but Lear’s Indian year is memorialized in The Cummerbund. “She sate upon her Dobie/ To watch the evening star/ And all the Punkahs as they passed/ Cried, “My! How fair you are!”

This was, if you like, his return present to India—many travelers had commented on the language, but only Lear could have given us “gold-finned Chuprassies”, “green Ayahs” perched in trees and the vision of a monstrous, fearsome Cummerbund, second cousin to the Jabberwock. It was, in his words, “a truly bunderful” journey.
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