Freedom’s Wardens


We were driving to the polling booth, my ex and I. He said quietly, “I would vote for the BJP, but I know you will be upset…” In the event, he chose an independent candidate and so did I, only because it seemed fair to return the gesture. We just did not want to hurt each other’s sentiments, as perceived. More pertinently, I began to question myself: Does one subliminally censor another merely by being ideologically different?

It is for this reason that I kept silent, until now, about the ‘pulping’ of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ by her publisher Penguin India after a settlement following a four-year-old civil petition against it. I simply have no foot to stand on. From the Danish cartoons of the Prophet to ‘The Satanic Verses’, I counter them with an arsenal of logic compacted in one word – Islamophobia. I sneer at Salman Rushdie living off the martyrdom of a fatwa. It is another matter that Sir Salman and many upholders of freedom of speech do not come forth to support those they are opposed to. As a marked born Muslim, I cannot afford secular selectivity. Even as I will not renege on my position regarding the demonisation of the Muslim world, as opposed to Islam, it does bring to the fore the question of parity.

As is to be expected, the Hindu rightwing has posed the query: “Can you imagine what would have happened had the ‘alternative’ version with factual errors been written about Islam?” The possible counter-query to this would be: how many Hindu fundamentalists have spoken out against such portrayals of Islam? Have they not instead participated gleefully in such ‘rights of passages’?

Content vs. Context

If we think about it, in the broader scheme, however much it may lack in value, one set of prejudices does curb the freedom of another set of prejudices. Doniger has admitted that for the edition published in India in 2010, her editors and she tried to “take out things we thought might be particularly offensive to Hindus, to not thumb our nose at them…we changed some of the wording and softened some things that would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull”.

So, there were already two versions of the “alternative history” by her. She agreed and participated in some form of censoring. Much of self-censorship too is about not “hurting sentiments”. Why do we then object to it when conservatives use this argument?

“Conservatives employ muscle power to curb freedom of speech, they shoot before reading the work, they do not understand intellectual interpretation,” is the standard reply.

All true, except that voices against censorship are adept at ignoring their own limitations, and the fact that most have not read the works in question. “It will remove ignorance, result in debate,” is another such explanation.

What is there to debate? The attempt to humanise already exists within these texts. The deification of religious interpreters has given them a different dimension, but the nature of idolatry remains unchanged. Curiously, those who object to such censorship refer to the glory of an ancient forward-looking belief system and celebrate Hinduism for its pluralism. In that, they ironically buffer the state as religion idea. The roles are deliciously swapped with the liberals speaking up for what they believe to be pure faith and the traditionalists standing by what we can assume is an interpretation, for in mythology nobody knows what really happened as anything can happen.

Should we capitulate to some fringe organisation? The point is: who is the ‘we’ addressed here?

By flaunting the writer’s knowledge of Sanskrit and scholarship (she is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago), the supporters give her Brahminical legitimacy that does nothing for a case against censorship. In fact, it props up the knower as a better interpreter than the believer. In this hierarchy of and for free speech, the readymade template of election blues is used and married to the muzzling by Hindutva in the social space.

The pecking order arrogates to itself a supra-feudal identity. Doniger’s self-censoring has now been consigned to the past as she declaims in a New York Times piece on March 5 about “the best” folks: “The dormant liberal conscience of India was awakened by the stunning blow to freedom of speech that had been dealt by my publisher in giving in to the demands of the claimants, agreeing to take the book out of circulation and pulp all remaining copies. My case was simply the last straw, in part because of its timing, just when many in India had begun to view with horror the likelihood that the elections in May will put into power Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Such conflation is disingenuous. The confident assertion that it is about political resurgence omits to mention that the Indian rightwing was in power for one term after a pugnacious assertion, no less, aside from ruling in several states and being an alliance partner at the Centre 25 years ago. It had the support of the “reasonable” middle class then as it does now. Religion has always formed the backdrop of Indian elections. Besides catering to communal vote-banks, political leaders of secular parties too have invariably been ascribed deity-like personae.

A couple of years ago, when a Siberian court deemed the Bhagavad Gita “extremist”, Indian politicians of the rabid right began making demands for the Gita to be made the national book. The ban was on a Russian translation by Swami Prabhupada, the head of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), a cult that has raised eyebrows due to its own controversial interpretation of the holy text.

Rather interestingly, since Lord Krishna, the ‘hero’ of the Gita, was a Yadav, members of this scheduled caste community – some of who are not even permitted to enter temples to this day – also joined in to oppose the ban in Russia. The high caste and the low caste were ready to fight for the same overseas rights, so to speak, but would not come together on home ground.

Different Strokes

The complexity of the issue is evident in our reaction to a simple example. Militant political organisations blacken hoardings of jeans ads that are suggestive; activists do the same because it amounts to objectification of women. Both have moral dynamics. Yet, we know who will support whom. Our concept of censorship has a lot to do with where and how we opt to get ‘auto-suggested’.

To watch the media stand up for freedom of speech is precious, more so by senior journalists who have had to be edited out. Both the electronic and print media are slaves to commercial and political interests. The sides they take make it blatantly obvious. From reports to columns to photographs, everything has to be vetted to serve some masters and not hurt sentiments. The media pedestal is, therefore, most shaky when it comes to censorship.

In a hyperbolic open letter to Penguin, her publishers, Arundhati Roy not only places them on a higher plane (“Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world…”), but also ignores facts (“…you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds”). In 1988, it was the consulting editor at Penguin India, Khushwant Singh, who advised the publishing house against ‘The Satanic Verses’ because there could be riots. It was a preemptive measure, based on an assumption. It was enough to ignite sentiments, and India became the first country to ban the book.

Roy further asks, “What are we to make of this? Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books? Or risk being pulled off the bookshelves in ‘Bharat’ (as your ‘settlement’ puts it) and pulped?”

Apart from the snarkiness over the word Bharat, a name of the country that is in our national anthem and our currency, it is ludicrous to suggest that there would be only pro-Hindutva books. Her novel ‘The God of Small Things’ was deemed anti-Communist by veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad:  “Anybody who attacks Communists anywhere in the world will be welcomed by the captains of the industry of bourgeois literature in the world.” The then chief minister of Kerala, E.K.Nayanar, had said, “If the novel had come out with such references to any other political party, it is certain its distribution would have been ensnared in legal tangles.”

Is there an implication that only pro-Leftist writings would be acceptable? Is freedom under threat only when there is a perceptible noise? What about the stuff brushed under the carpet?

In 2011, Pranav Prakash’s exhibition at Delhi’s prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi was cancelled at the last minute. The reason was a painting titled ‘Goddess of Fifteen Minutes of Fame’ featuring Roy. The artist had alluded to “pressure”. Although I had questioned the validity of this particular work as a political statement, one could not help but notice that the mainstream media that feeds on controversy was silent. The subject too was silent about this censorship.

It is not only religious figures that are considered sacrosanct. The counter-establishment is not spotless, nor entirely independent, and works under camouflage to save its own image.

The concern, therefore, should not be restricted to where one must draw the line for caging thoughts. We also need to ask: what sort of freedom can the wardens walking down the corridors of prison cells possibly stand for?

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections