The fine art of Intolerance

Illustrations: Samia Singh

LET ME begin at the wrong end. Let me start with what should be footnotes. Romain Gary once said that there is only one thing worse than intolerance. It is the intolerance of intolerance. Many of us since the time of the Jaipur Literature Festival of 2012 have been highly vocal in pleading that nobody has the right to prevent Salman Rushdie from visiting India and by inference, laudably promoting the cause of freedom of speech for all artists. (It is a moot point whether we would be just as vociferous on behalf of the fundamental rights of non-artists or the common man.) What is disturbing is our own intolerance towards those artists and other denizens of the country who have a different point of view and different value systems.

What is even more disheartening is that it seems as if it is no longer possible to have a civil conversation with authors who might not agree with us. Whence the need to speak of them with such contempt? Why do we resort to all kinds of tasteless personal comments and puns about them? What exactly do we hope to gain by alienating them instead of using reason and persuasion to win them over to our point of view? Oddly enough, the authors who, according to our lights are on the wrong side of the fence in the Rushdie imbroglio, have so far been more restrained and courteous.

The Genesis Of Censorship
There are no historical records about how exactly censorship evolved but here’s one of the more plausible theories. The impulse behind censorship in primitive times when tribal societies were homogeneous was normative. The elders had a vision of how members of the tribe should conduct themselves; what they should do and not do; what would bring honour to the group and what would bring dishonour. In a real sense, censorship could have served as the basis of the concept of codified law itself. The 10 Commandments, like the laws of Hammurabi and the edicts of Ashoka, can be seen as but logical extensions of the concept of censorship.

Things have changed a little since those innocent days. Since there are many more groupings, religions, factions, denominations, political ideologies, caste and class interests, special interest cliques, we now have multiple and often conflicting visions of an ideal society, especially in those countries that claim to be secular states. And even more important, they are in constant competition. Whether we like it or not, the normative high ground has given way to one-upmanship, keeping up with the Jonses and a flexing of muscle that is nothing but a power kick.

In a country like India, there are currently two kinds of censorship: legal and extra-legal. The first might often come across as unreasonable but it has the full weight of the law and the State behind it. Luckily for us in India this variety of censorship is not evoked too often. The second kind comes into play far more often these days.

Political parties may start with high ideals and their manifestos outline lofty mission statements but as we all know, in a country like India, come election time, there is only one overarching consideration: the votebank. The Satanic Verses was a victim of the misconceived idea of appeasing the votebank. A Member of Parliament, Syed Shahabuddin needed a cause for his flagging political fortunes and The Satanic Verses came in handy. A few people died in the protests against the book and Rajiv Gandhi banned its import. It is doubtful if anyone in the Parliament had read the novel but that should not surprise anyone. It is one of the preconditions of censorship that the offending text is mostly unread when it is banned.

It’s a precondition of censorship that the offending text is mostly unread when it is banned

But even if the book was banned, at no point has Rushdie’s entry into the country been forbidden by law. The government of the state of Rajasthan (perhaps of the country too) was reluctant to take the responsibility of safeguarding Rushdie’s life in the hope of currying favour with the Muslim community in the light of the approaching elections at that time. The obvious question is why did the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival not approach the courts to defend Rushdie’s right to enter? Perhaps it was because while the courts will make sure that a legal ban is respected, they will not defend the right of freedom of speech and expression when the only ban that is operative is an extra-legal one and is enforced through the intimidating tactics of a section of the public backed by some political party.

It augurs badly for the nation and for its people that the courts too then have double standards. Take just one case, a particularly harmless one. The movie version of the Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code, was seen several times by the central censor board and later by the minister of information and broadcasting. Nothing offensive was found in the film but to be on the safe side, the film distributors were asked to attach a disclaimer both before the film started and immediately after the end that the story was pure fiction and did not lay claim to any sort of veracity. And yet even though the central censor board had okayed it, it was reported in the press that it was not allowed to be shown in eight states.

When the courts do not take a stand on such issues, the glib defence put forward is that they cannot be expected to rush in every time the mob decides to dictate matters. The fact is just a few cases of a strong response from the courts ordering the governments of individual states to do their duty, if necessary by calling in the police, will ensure that political parties and the populace learn to respect the rights of the ‘other’. It will work even better if the same courts mandate that any guilty party that tries to threaten a performance or an exhibition of art through extralegal means will be fined so exorbitantly for wasting the court’s time that it would serve as a serious determent.

An All-Pervasive Culture Of Intolerance And Appeasement 
Perhaps the most positive offshoot of the recent Rushdie controversy in Jaipur has been the move to get the outdated law regarding the banning of books, feature and documentary films and works of art repealed altogether. My knowledge of jurisprudence is below zero and hence I am not conversant with what it will take to get the courts to first of all, admit such a suit and then to fight it all the way, perhaps to the Supreme Court.

But the resistance to the repeal of this fossil of a law will very likely come, not from the courts of law but from politicians of every hue, aided and abetted by the denizens of our country. They have grasped what an enormous political cache extra-legal censorship is. A few decades into Independence, we began to realise the political potential in becoming highly over-sensitive people with extra-thin skins. Everybody is on the lookout for slights, innuendoes, real or imagined slurs and everybody takes offence if there is a suggestion of malpractice or abuse of power in his or her select field or group. The police, doctors, lawyers, the engineering community, teachers, armed forces and members of every branch of every profession, not to mention our esteemed politicians, become apoplectic at any suspicion of criticism. (Obviously, all talk of the monumental scams covered daily in our media are maya or sheer fiction.) Their response follows a familiar path: immediate, vociferous protests, often followed by violence.

National and regional political parties have exploited and honed the business of intolerance into a fine art. With the latter, the platform changes every few years and so does their choice of a villain. Sometimes it’s jobs for locals; at other times, it’s the local language and the signboards that are not in the regional lingo. At times, it’s a book which may portray the party in a not-too-favourable light. Or they might go after the Bangladeshis or the Biharis. What is reliable is the quality of the reaction. It is utterly disproportionate even on the rare occasion when they might have a genuine grievance. Violence, of course, is the most common response. Blackening a teacher’s face, banning books from the varsity curriculum, destroying the rarest of ancient manuscripts or cricket trophies is par for the course. But the repertoire does not end there. Rasta rokos and Mumbai or Kolkata bandh are just a few other variations on demagoguery and mob rule.

The national parties work at a different level. They have grasped that their most potent weapon is God and what passes for the honour of God. In the name of religion they practise the most malevolent and explosive violence. Thousands are killed, entire mohallas are burnt down and the residents of the ‘other’ community are forced to flee for their lives. The bloodbath of the Partition, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Bombay bomb blasts, the mowing down of hundreds of innocent Sikhs after the murder of Indira Gandhi, the Gujarat massacres of 2002, you can put every one of them down in the debit and credit account of God as interpreted by the religious zealots of every hue with the connivance, if not outright provocation of the political leadership of the State.

Choking Creativity And Original Thinking 
The effects of censorship, both State-sponsored and that practised by political parties and religious institutions, has far graver consequences than banning a book, a performance of The Last Temptation of Christ or persecuting an artist like Husain till he is forced to flee to a foreign country. Artists and authors are often asked if the mere presence of censorship leads to self-censorship. This is such an asinine question, it doesn’t merit an answer. Of course it does even when artists might claim the contrary. Censorship quite simply closes door after door; though many of the subjects would never have posed a threat to society. Who in India, for instance, would hazard to write a robust, critical (and that word doesn’t mean digout- the-dirt on someone), balanced and fearless book on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj or Subhas Chandra Bose when the majority of critics themselves prefer to stay within the ambit of hagiography?

We would be deluding ourselves if we make believe that it is only the arts that suffer because of censorship

We would, however, be deluding ourselves if we make believe that it is only the arts that suffer because of censorship. A free, uninhibited and open atmosphere is the oxygen that allows scientists, mathematicians, architects and those from other disciplines to think without walls, taboos and claustrophobia; and to dare to take risks and venture into unknown and unexplored territories.

But that too does not reveal the insidious but palpable far-reaching effects of an atmosphere of Big Brother looking over your shoulder every minute. The openness that should be the hallmark of all universities, educational and research institutions goes out the window. Much worse, the horizon shrinks at an alarming rate and all your values get skewered. Your air supply starts to dwindle. Creative minds in the sciences as well as in the humanities and the arts can breathe, thrive and contribute to their disciplines only when there are no barriers to knowledge and ideas.

Nagarkar is the author of Cuckold, Ravan & Eddie and The Extras.