The flip side of freedom


I WAS in Class VIII, or was it IX, when late Rajiv Gandhi was expected to campaign in Kolkata with his family. The convoy was to pass through a road close to my school. Most students in my class were keen to catch a glimpse of Priyanka Gandhi, who they all fell in love with that torrid October of 1984 when Doordarshan beamed the image of a sad, young girl, standing quietly next to her deceased grandmother, for days together.

In the limelight If Aseem Trivedi wasn’t involved with Anna’s movement, he wouldn’t have garnered any attention

But a few senior students coming from political families had a strong anti-Congress (therefore anti-Rajiv) bias and would have none of it. We were told not to join the cheering crowd waiting at the roadside barricades unless we carried black flags along. Warned that we might report them, the bullies turned the tables and accused us of having “obscene discussions about a sister”. As voices rose, a bemused teacher reminded us that nobody was going anywhere during school hours.

Big deal This illustration in the national press did not invite censure in 1998
Illustration Courtesy: Asit Bagchi

The bullies were worked up but there was no way they could contact their comrades outside to “teach the dirty, infatuated lot a good lesson”. As we cautiously picked our way back from school, we realised that Rajiv was suitably late. We waited and soon enough those very seniors sheepishly joined the crowd. With the convoy due any minute, they conceded, it would be stupid to miss the young lady wave by, flags or no flags.

A decade later, a few months into my first job at a Calcutta newspaper in 1995, I was borrowed by the edit page for a week. The new boss was scowling. Having typed out highlighted portions from all five letters he had given me for the Letters to the Editor column, I had ventured to pick a postcard on my own to fill it up.

“You don’t put just anyone there. Unless it is a rare special letter, always stick to the regulars,” the assistant editor grunted. I learnt that there were about 20 regulars responsible for nearly half the letters the newspaper received. Most of them were erudite, retired men given to sober pontificating. I also realised why, despite posting numerous enthusiastic letters to three newspapers through high school, not a single one was published.

Three years on, I was handling slightly more meaningful editorial responsibilities in New Delhi. My indulgent editor put me in a team of three assigned to bring out a bulky I-Day special edition full of government ads. A number of stalwarts contributed to what was basically a PR exercise for the Vajpayee government. There was not much editing involved but our cartoonist Asit Bagchi had his hands full.

I remember one particular cartoon that accompanied Julio Ribeiro’s piece on corruption. The three lions in the national emblem were replaced by a politician, a cop and a criminal. We did not think twice before putting it on page. The edition was distributed widely in Parliament and within the government. Nobody — except the group’s super editor BN Uniyal who briefly admonished us for not consulting him “before touching the emblem” — said a word about sedition.

Times have changed. Today, mobile phones are common in schools. Millions blog and many more copiously comment every day on every interactive website. Nobody in this connected world is voiceless; and nothing goes unnoticed. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi is as much a creation as a victim of this new order.

It does not take sensitive issues or big names anymore to trigger intolerance

WE HAVE always been intolerant. Our history and literature are replete with instances of ostracism and exile for breaking away from religious traditions and socio-political decorum. In modern times, Henry Derozio’s Young Bengal movement got the bhadrolok all riled up in Calcutta during the early years of the 19th century. Reverend James Long was sentenced for libel after publishing Nil Darpan, an account of the 1859 Indigo Revolt. Sajjad Zaheer’s radical collection of short stories (Angaray) was banned in 1932.

Post-Independence, the secular, democratic State fared no better. Soon after the disastrous 1962 war, India clamped down on Bertrand Russell’s Unarmed Victory. Ram Swarup’s Understanding Islam Through Hadis, a critique of political Islam, was banned in 1982. Two years later, Sunanda Datta-Ray’s Smash and GrabAnnexation of Sikkimfaced the axe. In 1989, Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew proved too hard to swallow.

Sixteen years before and after Gulzar’s Aandhi was not allowed a full release in 1975, Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey, on the plight of migrant Chinese labourers, and RK Selvamani’s Kutrapathirikkai, on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, faced political embargo. In between, Mark Robson’s cinematic interpretation of Stanley Wolpert’s already banned novel on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination (Nine Hours to Rama) and Amrit Nahata’s political satire (Kissa Kursi Ka) suffered the same fate.

Between Salman Rushdie and MF Husain, India’s secularism was defined not by rejection of all religious considerations but by appeasement of bigotry of all shades. Even the Church successfully lobbied a ban on Christ Illusion, an album by heavy metal band Slayer, in 2006. Things actually took a turn for worse in the mid-1990s. As in the past, potentially controversial films such as Mira Nair’s Kamasutra, Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water and Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen or books like James Laine’s Shivaji,Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah and Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja faced harsh scrutiny. But it did not necessarily require sensitive issues or big names anymore to attract intolerant attention.

Actress Khushboo advocated safe pre-marital sex in an interview and it took her five years to get a battery of criminal cases against her quashed. The Shiv Sena blocked My Name Is Khan because the lead actor, while promoting the film, spoke about cultural integration between Indians and Pakistanis. Songs in Aaja Nachle and Kaminey were edited and the film title Billu Barber was trimmed to Billu because the mochis (shoemakers), sunars (goldsmiths) and telis (oil seed crushers) and nais (hairdressers) decided to take offence.

Are these instances of intolerance or people acting recklessly just because they can and know that they will get away with it?

WHEN WE published that cartoon in 1998, the newspaper did not have a website, the number of Internet connections in India was less than 1,50,000, mobile connections did not even touch the 1-million mark and Zee and Star were the only private news channels. Information, and opinion, was not so much of a right but a privilege.

Till the mid-1990s, a relatively small tribe of journalists and experts generated news and views for a sizeable but limited audience and feedback was restricted to snail mail. Information remained locked in files and paper cuttings. Barring few truly national houses, media was restricted regionally and nobody in Pune knew what was being published in Guwahati. Television news was just that, news.

Today, India has 140 million Internet users, more than 200 million computer literates and 950 million mobile owners. Facebook alone has 46 million members here. More than 120 regional channels and a dozenplus English channels beam dramatised news and breathless views into 150 million TV homes. Then, there are news websites and blogs.

The result is mind-blowing. TV viewers are flooded with an option of over 2,300 hours of news and views daily. Every media output is available on the web to be accessed from anywhere. Almost all websites allow instant feedback. Any trivia published or aired anywhere can be potentially magnified by billions of texts, tweets and social media chains in a matter of hours. Most significantly, anyone with an Internet connection and a computer can add her voice to this infinite matrix. The information flood may reduce an expression’s chances of getting noticed but the perpetuity of its presence in the public space more than compensates for that.

This technology boom has ensured that nobody or nothing can be really suppressed anymore. But like all miracles in life, this is a double-edged sword. At its best, this opportunity hastened the Arab spring. At its worst, the rumour mill triggered a mini exodus of Northeast people from the rest of the country.

This new order is doubly unpredictable due to its vulnerability to the impulses of the youth who dominate it. When public opinion was the realm of a handful of qualified and politically correct grown-ups, it was usually staid, banal and even, at times, dishonest. But it was responsible more often than not. Today, with experience and expertise no bar, many online forums and blogs are refreshingly candid while others utterly provocative for provocation sake.

Since talent is relatively sparse, this flood of expression has not unearthed too many. But scores of not-so-gifted have declared themselves part of the larger media which, in turn, is scouted by self-styled custodians of honour and ethics for perceived breaches.

Like most Indians, Aseem Trivedi feels strongly about corruption. At 25, his craft does not compare to any I have come across in the professional media. But for his blog and involvement with Anna’s movement, he probably would not be considered much of a cartoonist.

Amit Katarnayea, 27, is a follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar and a member of the Republican Party of India. A student of law, he could have moved court on a hundred issues more relevant to social justice. But Katarnayea was probably in a hurry to pass the test as a nationalist.

End of the day, it was a 27-year-old aspiring lawyer taking on a 25-year-old aspiring cartoonist. The cops messed up and the nation has been debating it over hundreds of TV hours, tonnes of newsprint and millions of mobile and social media messages.

INTOLERANCE IS not restricted to freedom of opinion either. Our choice of lifestyle is also under attack. Young couples are routinely heckled in pubs simply because they are there and women are targeted for daring to dress or behave “differently”.

Till the 1980s, social classes in India lived in mostly watertight compartments. No Delhi bureaucrat’s (or Bombay businessman’s) daughter was ever taunted for wearing skirts by his driver’s son or a village bumpkin outside the movies. If they had opinions (which they usually did), it remained within their circle.

Liberalisation and technology suddenly broke the barriers for some. Cities expanded with a burgeoning urban middle class and land deals put unforeseen cash in the hands of a section of peasantry. A larger number of subaltern youth was absorbed as security guards or salespersons in housing apartments and malls. That story is still unfolding.

As the two worlds first overlapped in the suburbs, the subaltern got his land deals and jobs but no education or cultural preparation was possible overnight. The first decade of liberalisation was also the period when right-wing sentiments were gaining strength across the country. Moral policing soon became a pseudo-legitimate means for sexual, monetary or political extortion.

Meanwhile, money and exposure to a fast-flourishing media made a sizeable plebeian population aspire to what they saw as modern lifestyles. On Valentine’s Day, the moral brigade found it was easier to target their own. While opportunistic attacks on the elite continue, case studies from across India show that perpetrators of sexual offences usually seek out low-risk targets.

This quasi-ideological front of religion, politics and morality emboldened the growing ranks of the intolerant to target film sets, book releases, and celebrities. While they got away with simple detention, the financial and psychological damage their attacks caused has converted India into a no-go location for many. Mehta shot Midnight’s Children in Sri Lanka and will not release the film here. Those who must do business at home now go weak in the knees at the first sign of protest and concede to even the most absurd of demands.

Genuine intolerance was bad enough and we were never short of it. But thanks to a hungry, indulgent media, now any show of intolerance — more inconvenienced the people are the better — even by pretenders, has become the easiest route to securing attention. It is a dangerous leverage with so many willing to test the fine lines of public discourse and conduct. We applaud every time the boundaries are stretched. But more often, it will cause overstepping.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.