Tuesday 25 July 2017

How young Indians are growing up censored and silenced

Excerpts from India Now and in Transition, edited by Atul K Thakur:

On the evening of August 1, 2015, the Reddit India community, nothing if not vigorous, had worked itself into a state of remarkable frenzy. For the uninitiated, Reddit is the social network that takes freedom of expression the most seriously; to offend and to be offended are cherished rights for Reddit veterans. Those with less-than-thick skins are swiftly ejected and sent out to pasture.

The Redditors of India were angry and unusually vocal, even by their standards. The reason: Internet Service Providers all over the country had blocked access to some of the most popular pornography sites in India.

Surprisingly, this development came less than a month after a supreme court ruling that explicitly refused to ban pornographic websites. This ruling followed a Public Interest Litigation that sought a blanket ban on porn. Speaking on the matter, the Chief Justice of India HL Dattu said:

Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody can come to the court and say ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room? It is a violation of Article 21 (right to personal liberty) of the Constitution.’ Yes the issue is serious and some steps need to be taken. The Centre has to take a stand. Let us see what stand the Centre will take.1

Users reported how logging on to a porn website simply yielded a blank page or a variety of error messages, like "Directory does not exist". One Reddit user uploaded an error message that read: "This site has been blocked as per the instructions of Competent Authority".

L’affaire Wendy Doniger and its aftermath

In February 2014, Penguin announced that it would pulp all available copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009).2 This decision came in the wake of a civil lawsuit filed by Dinanath Batra, an octogenarian former headmaster, who started a Hindu chauvinist group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (literally, "Save Education Campaign"), that has sued the authors of several textbooks, academic treatises, and other works in the past decade, for pursuing what it perceived to be an anti-Hindu agenda.

In an interview with Time later that month, Batra laid out his concerns about Doniger’s book.

Her intention is bad, the content is anti-national and the language is abusive. Her agenda is to malign Hinduism and hurt the feelings of Hindus. (...) Doniger says [in the book] that when Sanskrit scriptures were written, Indian society favoured open sexuality. The jacket of her book shows Lord Krishna sitting on the buttocks of nude women. She equates the shivlingam, worshipped all over India by millions, with sex and calls it an erect penis.3

Much like conservative Christian groups in America, Hindu chauvinist groups in India cannot stand the idea of Hindus and "open sexuality" in the same sentence.

The case of Deepa Mehta’s film Fire is instructive — the cast and crew were not allowed to shoot in Varanasi because the film explored a lesbian romance. This is the first important tenet of censorship in India: life choices that do not fall in line with the censor’s own worldview are quickly branded "anti-social" or in the case of Batra and Doniger, "anti-national". This nomenclature is essential for the kind of impassioned breast-beating facade that must accompany the censor’s claim that the book/film/song has "hurt the sentiments" of a religious or ethnic group.

As the historian Vijay Prashad pointed out in a brilliantly argued piece in The Guardian,4 the Doniger affair was the latest in a long line of scandals which were concocted to assert the supremacy of Vedanta Hinduism, a relatively orthodox and straight-laced version of the religion that naturally, hardliners like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) prefer for political reasons. Doniger and several other scholars were attacked and censored because she sought to explore the Tantric tradition, which is not interested in imposing restrictions on a person’s dietary or sexual behaviour.

Doniger was also a likely target for persecution because she is a Western scholar of Hinduism and there are those that wish to see Hindu scriptures and mythologies being interpreted only by Hindus. There is a rising perception among the right wing that the media and the intelligentsia are biased towards Western readings of Sanskrit texts.

Meanwhile the triumph of the censors was complete when Aleph, an Indian publishing house, followed Penguin’s lead and decided to withdraw Doniger’s On Hinduism from bookshops. Around the same time, Aleph’s publishing partner, Rupa, published a translation of Narendra Modi’s poems during the 2014 election campaign. Clearly, somebody at Aleph had decided to back the winning horse. Ravi Singh, co-publisher at Aleph along with David Davidar, resigned with a view to opening his own firm Speaking Tiger books, which began operations in 2015.

Singh’s initiative led to a small moral victory for the champions of freedom of expression. In the wake of Aleph ditching Doniger and Singh’s departure from Aleph, they lost a lot of authors who decided to jump ship with Singh and be a part of Speaking Tiger’s line-up (some Penguin authors, like Siddharth Varadarajan had asked the publishers to withdraw their books by then). These authors included Jerry Pinto and Omair Ahmad. Ahmad’s novels Jimmy the Terrorist and The Storyteller’s Tale had previously been published by Penguin. After the pulping of Doniger’s books, he asked Penguin to cancel his contracts and Speaking Tiger editions of his novels are now available in bookshops. In a statement later published by Time Out (Delhi), Ahmad expressed his disappointment with Penguin’s actions.

Penguin does not have the right to criticise Indian laws or the legal system when it has withdrawn without even fighting. What message does this give? That the biggest publishing firm in the world has such little respect for Indian courts that it will abandon the fight without standing up for its authors, and its own decisions, in court? If Penguin will not fight for its own decisions, its own authors, then what is its reputation, all its money and organisation really worth? And if its reputation is worth so little, then it is a shame to be associated with them, not a point of pride.6

Ahmad strikes at the heart of the matter here: Penguin decided to throw in the towel, which was surprising because most legal experts agreed that Batra stood virtually no chance of winning the case against them. Courts tend to favour freedom of expression, unless the text in question is extremely inflammatory and can, in the opinion of the court, lead to riots. The thing is, most individuals do not find it within themselves to prepare for a prolonged battle in court. Moreover, the impact this has on their day-to-day lives often proves to be enough of a deterrent: they simply choose not to fight well-funded, well-armed organisations with vested interests.

When Javier Moro tried to get the book released in India in 2010, Sonia and the Congress’s censors would not budge. 

Even when a section of the Indian public fights against censors, what they tend to miss out on is the larger psychological ramifications of censorship. The censor board, when read in the context of the Italian theoretician Antonio Gramsci’s treatise on hegemony, is a cultural institution that propagates the ideas of the dominant classes in a compelling way, so that the other classes bow down to their belief system. Their loyalty is "consensual" because they are convinced that their best interests lie in aligning with the establishment. Within this framework, any form of dissent or an individual’s freedom to oppose the dominant machinery is liable to invite conflict.

Censorship creates a climate of fear. Young people get the message that they must toe the line or be ready to face dire consequences. Conformism is never good news for a country’s future, but unless the current penchant for censorship is reversed, that is exactly what we are destined to get.

Censorship by hook or crook: that’s the motto of 21st-century India. The behaviour of publishers like Penguin is better understood when you consider the reality that a fanatic fundamentalist group is more than willing to use violence to achieve its narrow-minded aims.

In the last 12 months, school and college syllabi across the country have undergone a booster dose of historical revisionism, designed to rewrite India’s history and give it an almost comically exaggerated pro-Hindu slant. A brief look at the proposed re-writes tells you all you need to know about the callousness and the apathy that India’s censors not only possess, but actually flaunt proudly. In a December 2014 Hindustan Times report, we came face-to-face with our new, censor-approved history.

The Emperor Ashoka’s preaching of non-violence, for instance, "weakened north India" and cowardice spread throughout the kingdom. During his reign, people were saddled with the economic burden of having to feed Buddhist monks. The Qutub Minar was not built by Qutubuddin Aibak, but by a Hindu king called Samudragupta; the monument’s name was Vishnu Stambha. Dalits were "the creation of Muslim invaders during the medieval period". And of course, India is "the most ancient country in the world. When civilisation had not developed in many countries, India’s rishi-munis brought the light of culture and civilisation to them".9

This is the worst kind of censorship, aiming to influence children, youngsters who may very well grow up to become adults peddling this ridiculous perversion of history. But then, the future of our children must be sacrificed to further the political future of India’s censors.

Both sides of the aisle

Which isn’t to say that censorship is the sole refuge of the BJP or right-wing politicians in general. On the contrary, most governments in India have been trigger-happy, as far as banning books and movies are concerned. Indira Gandhi famously claimed to have been defamed by a single sentence in Salman Rushdie’s magnum opus Midnight’s Children. Curiously enough, she sued the novelist in 1984, a full three years after the book was first published. By then, of course, it had won the Booker Prize and was already being talked about as one of the definitive novels about the subcontinent. Rushdie wrote about his encounter with Mrs Gandhi (and the lawsuit that followed) in May 2006, a full 25 years after the novel was published, in an article published by Outlook magazine.10

This was it: "It has often been said that Mrs Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father’s death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything." Tame stuff, you might think, not really the kind of thing a thick-skinned politician would usually sue a novelist for mentioning, and an odd choice of casus belli in a book that excoriated Indira for the many crimes of the Emergency.

Rushdie would ultimately come to a settlement, preferring not to take his chances in court, where Mrs Gandhi’s actions during the Emergency would almost certainly have come into play.

In 2010, history would repeat itself. Mrs Gandhi’s daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi was the most powerful woman in the country, being the President of the Indian National Congress, which was in power at the time. The Spanish novelist Javier Moro’s book The Red Sari, a "dramatised biography" of Sonia Gandhi’s life, was first published globally in 2008. But when Moro tried to get the book released in India in 2010, Sonia and the Congress’s censors would not budge. They claimed that the book contained salacious and unfounded gossip about the Congress president. Moro and his publishers tried their best to negotiate with the Congress, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 2015, when the Congress had been voted out of power that the book finally released.

Just months before the Moro controversy, the Congress had also forced the director Prakash Jha to edit portions of his political drama Rajneeti. It is worth noting that Jha’s film was nowhere as closely hewed to reality as Moro’s book (which — after all — was fiction but in the form of a "dramatised biography"; this terminology is similar to another seemingly oxymoronic phrase, "non-fiction novel").

Even a purely fictional allusion was deemed to be unsuitable for the audience.

(Source: DailyO)

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