The following essay is part of a 2012 booklet published by The Liberty Institute, New Delhi, in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The booklet was title At Liberty: Freedom to Express and Offend. Authored by Ravi Shanker Kapoor, the essay challenges the perceived validity of public outrage (and political support for the same) and bans on artistic expression.
In India, as also in other countries, often demands are made for ban on movies, paintings, books, songs, or other creative works. The demands are accompanied with overt and covert threats – ban it, or else… Apparently sound arguments are made in favor of capitulation. After all, it is just a movie, song, or book; why hurt the sentiments of somebody or some group; why risk peace and amity in society; why should the law and order situation be allowed to worsen just because some Johnny thinks that his creation is a great piece of art; at any rate, human lives are more important than art. Governments face the question: should the demand be accepted?
The easy answer is yes. The tetchy (and raucous) group is appeased; the specter of large-scale violence fades away; and the authorities breathe easy.
The tough, and correct, answer is no.
A ban is wrong not only in principle but also as an expedient measure. It is wrong in theory because it violates or curbs the right to freedom of expression; and without the individual enjoying freedom of expression, democracy is reduced to a farce. Democracy is not just about casting vote and electing representatives for state assemblies and Parliament; it is a way of life: if you can’t say what you want to say, it is democratic form without substance. The principle worth imbibing is: give me freedom or give me death.
Why Offend Somebody
It is often argued that freedom of expression does not mean license to offend others. Why should Salman Rushdie write a book that offends the Muslims? After all, he was a writer of repute even before he published Satanic Verses; his other books received critical acclaim and were sold in good numbers. So, the argument goes, why should he write a blasphemous novel in the first place? Similarly, why should M.F. Husain paint goddess Saraswati in the nude? Why should Taslima Nasreen author novels which offend the Muslims? Why should the Danish cartoonist sketch the Prophet Mohamrnad?
But the point is that, as George Orwell said, if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. If you tell me that I am a great author, and I let you say that, it is neither liberty nor tolerance. You enjoy liberty only if you tell me that my writing is not worth the paper it is printed on; and I am tolerant when, even if I have the power to squash you, I let you (or am forced to let you, because the law will protect you, however powerful I may be) express your opinion. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously cracked a joke at one of his press conferences which goes on like this: An American and a Russian had an argument about freedom of speech in their respective countries. The American said that he could go to White House, enter the Oval Office, and tell the President, “Mr. Reagan, you are a fool!”
The Russian responded, saying that he could also go to the Kremlin, enter Gorbachev’s office, and scream, “Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Reagan is a fool!”
Secondly, it is practically impossible for a creative person to envisage what would offend somebody. Yes, sometimes people say and do things for instant publicity, but again that is neither criminal nor immoral so long as it does not hurt others. How could the makers of Biloo Barber have imagined that a neutral word ‘barber’, which is not pejorative by any stretch of imagination, would get them into trouble?
Vagaries of Political Correctness
And, finally, if a creative person has to always keep the sensibilities of tetchy rascals and the vagaries of political correctness into account, how could he create anything of any consequence? He would be busy studying, analyzing, and examining the nuances of every word, every name, epithet, etc. As for the fears about the worsening of law and order situation if ‘offensive’ books, movies, etc. are not banned, we can only say that the fears are grossly exaggerated.
This is not to say that there are no fears. Hindu groups have attacked painting exhibitions by M. F. Husain and Jatin Das. Salman Rushdie did receive a death fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah IUlomenie for his novel Satanic Verses. While Rushdie was not hurt, many others were.
According to www.wikipedia.org:
Hitoshi Igarashi, its [Satanic Verses’] Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991; Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing the same month; William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, barely survived an attempted assassination in Osio in October 1993, and Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Individual purchasers of the book have not been harmed. However, the only nation with a predominantly Muslim population where the novel remains legal is Turkey.
It is important to note here that since that unfortunate incident, no Verse-related violence has happened in Turkey. The reason: Turkey refuses to forget the Sivas Massacre and forgive the perpetrators.
An angry mob of Islamic fundamentalist had attacked the Mahak Hotel in Sivas after traditional Friday prayers. The intellectuals had gathered at the Mahak to celebrate 16th century poet Pir Sultan Abdal. The attackers were incensed by the presence of Aziz Nesin, a writer who had translated and published extracts from Satanic Verses. While Nesin managed to escape because the mob did not recognize him, dozens perished in the arson attack.
The State Security Court sentenced 33 people to death in November 1997 for the massacre. In a 2001 appeal, all but two of these sentences were upheld. The sentences were, however, commuted to life in prison as Turkey abolished the capital punishment in 2002.
Turkey and Us
Civil society organizations and prominent intellectuals commemorated every year the anniversary of the Sivas Massacre. In 2010, the Turkish government joined for the first time ceremonies commemorating the outrage which had claimed the lives of many intellectuals, writers, and artists.
“The pain of Mahak is a pain for the entire country,” State Minister Faruk Celik said at the commemoration ceremony held in front of the Mahak Hotel and attended by other government officials.
Celik went on to call July 2,1993, as one of the most painful dates in Turkish history. “That day they wanted to test the brotherhood we have built for centuries, with blood and tears,” Celik said. “The fire that encompassed the hotel affected all our bodies.”
What this shows is that the Islamist fundamentalists, despite their bluff and bluster, are mostly a cowardly lot; they become dangerous when they get the impression that they get away with murder.
It also shows that in Turkey intellectuals actually died and suffered for the cause of the freedom of expression – unlike their counterparts in India who invariably succumb to the pressures of Islamic fundamentalists and whose fight for freedom of expression is restricted to a tirade against fanatic Hindus.
This is not to say that Hindu groups pose no threat to the freedom of expression. Their campaign against Shivaji: The Hindu King in Muslim India, a book written by American scholar James Laine, is a case in point. The book not only occasioned ban and court cases but also violence.
Shivaji Bhosle (1630-1680), the Maratha Emperor with the royal title Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, fought for the freedom of the Maratha nation from Sultanate of Bijapur. Owing to his fight against the Muslim rulers, including the mighty Mughals, Shivaji is a hero of Hindu nationalists. His many adventures have bestowed a halo to his legend. In Maharashtra, he is especially cherished as a cult figure. The local parties like the Shiv Sena which peddle Maratha pride almost worship him and even the slightest hint of criticism, let alone disparagement, is projected as blasphemy. Characteristically, the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) airport was renamed as Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
In June 2003, Shivaji was published in India by Oxford University Press India. In November, scholars affiliated with the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) of Pune, city MP Pradeep Rawat, and others demanded withdrawal of the book. The OUP was prompt in coming out with an apology; it also withdrew the book from the Indian market. This, however, did not appease Shiv Sena activists who, on December 22, assaulted scholars attached to BORI for their assistance to Laine for his book. Sanskrit scholar Shrikant Bahulkar was beaten up and his face blackened.
A few days later, James Laine faxed a statement, saying:
It was never my intention to defame the great Maharashtrian hero. I had no desire to upset those for whom he is an emblem of regional and national pride, and I apologize for inadvertently doing so. I I foolishly misread the situation in India and figured the book would I receive scholarly criticism, not censorship and condemnation. Again I apologize.
The campaign against the book continued nonetheless. On January 5, 2004, over 150 members of the Sambhaji Brigade ransacked BORI, vandalizing the building, books, and artworks.
The state government, however, did little to stem the assaults. State home minister R.R. Patil said (The Indian Express), “We condemn the attack and also distorting of the history of Chhatrapati Shivaji. The government is seeking legal opinion to ascertain if any action can be taken against the author and also whether the book can be banned.” Notice the bracketing of scholarship with criminality. Unsurprisingly, the criminals were emboldened. On January 9, Sambhaji Brigade spokesman Shrimant Kokate is reported (The Times of India) to said, “In fact, scholars should be happy that BORI is still intact.” The brigade was “most unhappy” that scholars who had helped Laine were ”still alive,” he lamented.
In another report (The Indian Express), he was quoted as saying, “Those who fed him [Laine] with the offensive information should be hanged by the government. If the government is unable to do so they should be handed over to us.”
As for the newspersons disapproving of vandalism, Kokate said, “We will deal with the media later.” On January 14, the Maharashtra government proposed to ban the book, citing Sections 153 and 153A of the Indian Penal Code. Two days later, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee opposed the proscription, infuriating the ally Shiv Sena. He said (The Indian Express), “If you do not like anything in a particular book, then sit and discuss it. Banning a book is not a solution. We have to tackle it ideologically.. If differences of opinion remain after an issue is discussed, the best way would be to come out with another good book on the subject.”
Because Ban Involves Us All
It needs to be noted that it was not just the pro-Hindu outfits like the Shiv Sena which were whipping up a frenzy against the book; leaders of other parties also joined in the capitalize on despicable popular sentiments. Senior Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister A.R. Antulay castigated Laine and urging the government to take all necessary legal steps to punish him. Chief minister Sushillrumar Shinde said (The Hindu) that it was “not fair” to write such “bad things” about Shivaji.
Fortunately, the Bombay High Court decided against the ban; and the Supreme Court on July 9, 2010, upheld the high court’s decision. The apex court maintained that the Maharashtra government did not follow the mandatory procedure while invoking the ban on the book.
In Shivaji, politicians saw a golden opportunity to gain popularity by transmogrifying the people into rabble. In what he thought was an excellent exercise in competitive populism, Maharashtra BJP president Gopinath Munde: also demanded a ban on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, Discovery of India, claiming that a 1986 edition contained derogatory remarks about Shivaji. But he had not read the book; and the hearsay he relied on proved to be misleading. When it was pointed out that no such remarks were found in that edition, he sheepishly said, “I am a politician and not a scholar.”
The controversy over Shivaji: The Hindu King in Muslim India was just one of the many that Hindu groups kicked off. In 1998, they unleashed hell against Deepa Mehta’s film Fire on the grounds that it portrayed a distorted version of Indian society. The movie was about lesbian relationship between two family members. On December 2, activists of the Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi attacked the matinee show of the film at Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon in Mumbai. Glass panes were smashed, posters burnt, and slogans raised against the movie.
A day later, the women storm troopers vandalized Regal cinema in the heart of the national Capital, accompanied with TV camera crews. The cops, however, were conspicuous by their absence. Fire producer Bobby Bedi was quoted in India Today, “The Delhi Sena chief’s letter informing the press about the demonstration said that they would do tod-phod and violence was expected… almost as if tea will be served.” Pune was next, then Surat.
According to India Today:
On the eve of their attack on Cinemax, the Mahila Aghadi women called on state Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar to protest against the depiction of the “lesbian relationship” between Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in the film. They even demand Azmii’s resignation from the Rajya Sabha.
While Navalkar obviously gave the green signal, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi egged them on, even patting them on their backs. ‘I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture,” said Joshi on the day the Sainiks attacked cinema halls and succeeded in stopping a film cleared by the Censor Board. Of course, Joshi backed down later saying he was only supporting their protest and not the vandalism.
The charge of the Sena brigade was, however, successful: Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting M.A. Naqvi sent Fire back to the Censor Board. Once approved, a film is rarely referred back to the censors, with exceptions like R.V Pandit’s Maachis [directed by Gulzar] because of its supposed soft treatment of terrorists. You need “public outrage” for that, and the Sena obliged.
There is a pattern. The bodies protesting against a work of art are front organizations of Sangh Parivar or the Shiv Sena. The pro-Hindu political parties are under the (false) impression that sanctimonious thump over ‘the great and glorious Indian culture’ will bring a rich harvest of votes. As Manohar Joshi’s flirtation with the activists indicated, the vandals enjoy political and administrative support. So, the real threat to the law and order does not emanate from the artists’ flights of fancy but from politicians’ shielding of hooligans.
It is not just the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena but also the Congress and other ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ parties which have great faith in and tolerance for storm-troopers. The grand old party, in a bid to outsmart the regionalism and sectarianism of mainstream Akalis, set up Bhinderanwale-resulting into the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and killing of thousands of people of all faiths. Similarly, to counter the Maratha chauvinism of the Shiv Sena, it propped up Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray and refused to take action against the violence he brought about. Not much dissimilar is Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s effort to out-Left the Marxists in West Bengal; she has partnered with the ruthless Maoists.
In short, it is the shortsightedness of mainstream politicians that creates law and order problems, not the work of art, however outrageous they might be. If the vandals are brought to justice and the rule of law is upheld, there would be no lawlessness and disruptions.
Last week’s musing: STATE MONOPOLIES AND THE CITIZEN IN A DEMOCRACY