It may sound a bit far-fetched to say that there is a relationship between a Man Booker prize-winning novel set in New Zealand and the creative environment in India. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries deals with the 19th century gold rush, migration, and above all “a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.” She was one of the eloquent participants at The Hindu Literary Festival 2015. Between two of her sessions, the “Lit Fest” witnessed a panel discussion about the plight of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who was forced to commit literary suicide, and on the state of free speech in India in general.
New, systematic assault
One of the lines from The Luminaries that gave me an insight into the method of censorship deployed by the religious right, sometimes in close coordination with caste groups, in India was: “a string of coincidences is not a coincidence.” The desire of this group is to create a homogeneous idea of India and erase its vast, cultural, linguistic, religious, regional and sub-regional diversity. Is this a new phenomenon? Was there no attack on freedom of expression earlier? The sway of obdurate views and the attack on critical thinking is older than the inquisition of Galileo in 1633. In the modern-nation state, where the rule of law is supposed to govern our daily life, and where the fundamental rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution are expected to be upheld giving space for inquiry and reflection, for analysis and creative explorations, and, for interpretations and dialogue, a systematic assault on people who assert the plurality at the cost of stifling monochromatic imagination, is relatively new.
Scholars of contemporary India trace this to a development in 1990 when Dinanath Batra was appointed full-time general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) schools network, Vidya Bharati. Much has been written about the type of textbooks produced by this network and the inherent illiberal outlook it foists upon impressionable students. Fortunately for India, many sane voices managed to keep the influence of this network at bay during the first decade of its existence. However, with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance coming to power in the late 1990s, the spheres of influence of this group started growing. With multiple front organisations and an unrelenting penchant for filing court cases, this group has now become a threat to any scholarly pursuit that challenges its worldview.
Let us just look at some of the cases filed by Mr. Batra since 2006. He filed a case against the social sciences and history books of the National Council of Educational Research and Training. In 2007, he managed to get sex education removed from the State curriculum in Madhya Pradesh because he felt that it offended Indian values. The decisions of Delhi University to drop eminent literary scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, and the publisher Penguin’s to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History , are also the handiwork of the group led by Mr. Batra.
Silencing a voice
A closer scrutiny of these cases will reveal that the institutions gave up without fully going through the legal process. There are legal remedies but they come at a high cost. The process is the punishment: people like Mr. Batra are aware of the toll a legal process can take. It wears down a scholar. It wipes out the financial stability of a publishing house. It stigmatises the author. It plants a skewed idea about a literary work among those who have not read the work. It reduces a multilayered narrative to a unidimensional one. The most terrifying modus operandi that is gaining ground is to instigate social unrest to silence a critical voice without even going through the legal notice route.
These groups are aware that not every creative person is an activist to fight against their vigilantism. A writer writes, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a filmmaker makes film and a musician creates music. That is the calling, the vocation, the expertise. Creators may not have the wherewithal to wage a legal battle nor are they interested in becoming martyrs. It is a collective responsibility of society to nurture its creative minds.
Two faces of censorship
In his brilliant book, Publish and be Damned , Rajeev Dhavan talks about the two faces of censorship — social and political — and argues that they come together and overlap as if in conspiracy. He talks about different groups that vie for power to proscribe all thought, expression and behaviour considered uncongenial to the interests of the group. He explains the techniques of these groups: personal, immediate, insistent and vindictive, threatening people with protests, humiliation, ostracism, physical violence, and even loss of life. His contention is that since the state and these groups are moulded by a pool of power structures, they are often seen working together, with groups sometimes appropriating the state’s power and at times, challenging and bypassing the state’s authority, if the latter conspires to look the other way.
What happened to Perumal Murugan is clearly social censorship in which the state was an accomplice in the widest sense of the term. Instead of an outright rejection of the demands from the fringe to alter the novel that was published four years ago, the state gave legitimacy to the motley gathering of religious Right and caste groupings. From Godse to the protesters against Perumal Murugan, there is always an official denial from the establishment of the religious Right about the affiliations of the perpetrators. A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.