Ashis Nandy’s Predicament and Ours #JLF #FOE


January 30, 2013
by , kafila.org

For the past few days I have been preoccupied in one part of my mind in dealing with two reasons for anguish. The first reason has to do with the profound sense of disappointment and anger with which I heard Prof. Ashis Nandy, a man I consider to be a great teacher, friend and in possession of one of the finest minds of our time, commit himself in public to a flippant and vulgar position when speaking of the relationship between caste and corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

I was saddened because Prof. Nandy’s statements do a great disservice to the suppleness and ethical integrity of his thinking, and represent one of those sadly paradoxical situations where an intellectual can become their own worst adversary. I am unambiguously critical of the Nandy who chooses to be pompously opinionated and misinformed at a forum like the Jaipur Literary Festival or while riding the hot-air currents of television especially because I remain a partisan of the Nandy who can be (when he chooses to be) one of the most thoughtful and insightful witnesses to our time in his writing.

The second reason for my anger has to do with the knee jerk reactions that have followed this episode, calling for Nandy’s prosecution and imprisonment, that come laden either with a disturbing sense of authoritarian rectitude emanating from the foot soldiers of identity politics and brokers of victimhood or with a degree of schaudenfraude from intellectual charlatans.

In all honesty, I cannot deny that Nandy’s remarks at the Jaipur Literary Festival reflect a profound lapse of judgement. As a person who claims to be a student of psychology among other things, I would urge Prof. Nandy, out of the solidarity and respect that I have for him to do some honest introspection and think about the conscious and unconscious habits of thought and affect that so speedily bring an invocation of caste, even when it is not immediately relevant, to the lips of our intellectuals. Corruption is a question of an unregulated access to power, or, a measure of the way in which the absence of a sustainable wage makes it necessary for millions of ordinary people to pursue informal economies and ways of life outside of or on the fringes of legality. A meditation on neither of these two polar phenomena necessarily requires us to weigh in on the caste identities of those who corrupt, or are corrupted by the ordinary operations of power and the economy in our society.

To say that ‘most of the corrupt are Dalits or come from backward communities’ is to say something as nonsensical as ‘most terrorists are Muslim’, or, ‘most people in the top echelons of right wing Hindu groups are Chitpavan Brahmins’ or ,’most of the financiers and speculators in global Capitalism are Jewish’, or ‘most of the people who were carriers of the HIV virus in the early days of the AIDS epidemic were homosexuals’.

First of all, such statements are of extremely dubious empirical value. They reflect the prejudice of the speakers and the spoken to more than they mirror facts on the ground. Secondly, even if they were to contain a modicum of truth – ‘yes, some of those caught for corruption have been Dalits, yes, some of those found guilty of terrorism are Muslim, yes, some of those who were early carriers of the HIV were gay, and yes, some of the leading plutocrats are Jewish and some of those involved in right wing Hindu fascism are Marathi speaking Brahmins’ stating them in bald terms necessarily involves the assertion of a falsehood, simply because there are always more counter factual instances that disprove each of the above assertions. For each X that is why Y ( here, for X, read an identity category – Dalit, Muslim, Gay, Jew, Brahmin etc. and for Y read an attribute – corrupt, terrorist, disease carrier, plutocrat, fanatic), there are way too many Xs that are also not Y for any correlation between X and Y to be meaningful. In fact no statements of this kind, or pretences to facticity of this nature actually tell us anything valuable about corruption, terrorism, AIDS, finance capital, or hindutva, or for that matter, about Dalits, Muslims, Jews, Gays or Brahmins.

They reflect instead a habit of inexactitude and imprecision that is indulged in Indian intellectual life, based on the easy anecdote, idle prejudice and plain statistical dissimulation, and deployed, casually, in passing as the currency of opinion, in may I add, largely male homosocial gatherings, where no one actually challenges anyone else. It reflects the sad fact that the mainstream of Indian intellectual life has not yet learnt to think beyond, below or besides identity based categories.

With regard to a discussion of corruption, the question of caste has a relevance insofar as the informally expressed networks of power and privilege are concerned, through which corruption operates – nepotism, for instance, in a specifically Indian context has to be read in terms of caste, because of the relationship between kinship, the closed structure of many affinity groups and affinal ties and caste structures in India. This is perhaps the territory that Ashis Nandy intended to step into when he began talking about corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival. But a consideration on the matrix of privilege, informality and familiarity that comes with an assessment of how the wheels of corruption are greased – which is best represented by Nandy’s remark gesturing towards how elites reward and protect their own (which in all fairness cannot be read in an ‘anti-Dalit’ manner) does not necessarily translate into a quantitative assessment of which caste embodies how much corruption. That leap, I am afraid, takes us straight into a habitual, reflexive cast of thought that cannot articulate itself in terms other than those of caste. That intellectual failure, the rush to make a sweeping statement about millions of people, their intents, actions and motives is what disappoints me. If anything, a serious consideration on kinship, influence, caste and corruption would show that there is not a single caste, community, old boys network, professional sector, affinity group or vocation that is free of corruption in India. To single out any particular group or identity, for the purposes of a conversationally discursive rhetorical flourish, is to be utterly deluded, and to provide fuel to the purveyors of prejudice, even when the person doing so may not be prejudiced themselves.

The political theory that emanated from CSDS may well have said important things about the relationship between caste and electoral politics in parts of north India in the latter half of the twentieth century, but to have caste become the inevitable conceptual short-hand for any random feature of social, political or cultural life in India, shows us what happens when the contingent results of time bound quantitative surveys become intellectual fetishes that can be used to talk about any and everything in the name of a faux and au-fait indigeneity. Nandy’s profound error is not his alone, he is only the canary who sings in a predictable monotone as the conceptual mine shaft around him begins to cave in on itself. Perhaps there is no coal left in this particular seam.

What is particularly distressing to me is the fact that Nandy is actually at his best when he offers us the intellectual tools that help us critique the cults of empiricism, expertise and scientism. He is at his best when he speaks in riddles, enigmas and allegories. To see him pillory his own method at the altar of a vocabulary of ‘facts’ and ‘data’ is to see Nandy become the caricature of what he has most relentlessly criticised. Again, he is not alone in this. Great minds fall from great heights, and they fall hard. Let us not forget Martin Heidegger’s sinister Nazi period, Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for the venality of the Islamist revolution in Iran, Hannah Arendt’s alleged abandonment of her principled anti-Zionism for the sake of a bizarre celebration (late in her life, and in private) of the military prowess of the Israeli state, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s anti-semitism and Jean Paul Sartre’s disgusting apologetics for Stalinism. We need not be blind to any of this when we read and learn from the work of these intellectuals and writers, nor do we need to be blinded by it. Intellectuals are not infallible, and there is no need for us to be incredulous when an intellectual that we otherwise admire succumbs to an ethical or cognitive lapse that we cannot, and indeed must not ignore.

A robust commitment to the principles of free speech can reconcile trenchant intellectual disagreement with a passionate embodiment of the ethical defence of the liberty of that with which one disagrees. I am prepared to argue strongly in favour of the freedom of speech of those who are my bitter intellectual and ideological adversaries, not because I think they are all wonderful people but because I think we are left poorer as a society when we do not make room for contrarian points of view (even when they are profoundly disagreeable). I strongly believe we need to consign every single law in the statute that restricts the freedom of speech, whether on the grounds of offended religious sensibilities, caste sentiments or the sanctity or security of the state to the garbage bin.This needs to begin with a rejection of the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, and its infamous ‘reasonable restrictions’ clause, which is the fountainhead of every justification for the stifling of liberty. Whatever damage violent and hateful forms of speech do can in my opinion be effectively addressed by those legal instruments that define and target acts that are accessory to, or abet, the conduct of actual violence be it on casteist, sectarian or misogynist grounds. As for the specious argument of offended sentiments, especially on the grounds of religion, identity and honour, I maintain that a consistent and just application of this principle would also necessarily entail the potential prosecution of almost every religious believer because virtually every religion enshrines in its scripture hateful and damning sentiments regarding the believers of other religions, non-believers and those who undertake to lead forms of life, particularly in the intimate sphere that are not in conformity with religious dictates. My doubt may be as sacred and important to me as the faith of a believer. While I think that these sentiments (that damn those who are not of the right or sufficient faith) are provocations for us to think carefully about the relationship between prejudice, misogyny, homophobia and tradition, I would not think for a moment that the scriptures be banned or that religious figures be imprisoned for wanting to send the likes of me to hell, because there is a great deal in the same religious traditions that I am interested in and care for, even as an unbeliever. If I am, and millions of people like me are, prepared to live with the fact that our sentiments are offended on a daily basis by religion, then why must we not insist that we be returned the favour?

Because I am committed in principle to the freedom of speech, especially of the speech with I do not agree, or even disagree strongly, I do not think that Prof. Nandy’s words are sufficient ground for arrest or legal action. i must say here that even if someone made rank communal or casteist remarks, I would still not agree with them being ‘locked up’, ‘put away’ or gagged in any form. While I would urge everyone to either combat such speech, or deprive it of the oxygen of publicity by ignoring it, (even by means of a social boycott when necessary) under no circumstances would I endorse or call for punitive measures like a ban or imprisonment. The discomfort that some of the intellectuals who are currently standing in support of Nandy is something that I can recognise, but not sympathise with. It is this discomfort that makes them adopt several rhetorical contortions by means of which they are trying to either overlook or retroactively justify the import of his statement so that they can prove to themselves that he must not be banned or punished. This is the discomfort of those who have no issue as such with a mild climate of censorship (of the ‘reasonable restriction’ variety) but believe that someone like Nandy (one of ‘us’) ought not to be bound by it. Meaning they can perform the complex acrobatic manoeuvre of reconciling a mild hostility to free speech (in general) with an automatic endorsement of Nandy’s particular right to free speech because he is special. This is why they are making excuses for Nandy today. I make no excuses for Nandy. I do not believe that his words have not done damage. I do not think his is a special case that one should make exceptions for. I would defend him even if he was not a scholar of eminence, even if he was not someone I respected, or regarded as a friend. Even if he was a clear adversary, or an inhabitant of the widening constituency of right wing lunacy in this country. We have to learn to distinguish between different kinds of speech acts. Nandy’s words embody an opinion, a reactionary opinion, and must be confronted, immediately, with counter-speech, and vigorous, militant thinking, but they are not intended to act as a threat. On the other hand, when a Praveen Togadia or an Akbaruddin Owaisi, or a Varun Gandhi, or the family firm of the Thackerays call for the undertaking of acts that would involve physical harm or violence against particular communities, then, we can and indeed must consider whether or not the speech act itself constitutes the kind of violence that must be punished. Even at the sidelines of the Jaipur Literary Festival this year, there was a man, Kirori Lal Meena, an independent MP from Dausa, Rajasthan who loudly declaimed on television that he would personally beat up the women who he said were ‘drinking alcohol in the evenings at the festival’.

Now that is a threat, a clear statement of an intent to do or support physical harm being done to someone else for no good reason. That is the kind of speech that should make us think about whether or not to invoke the law.

The damage that Nandy’s flippancy has done on the other hand can be addressed only if we make room for stringent intellectual criticism and a demand for introspection, on everybody’s part. No amount of retrospective qualification can restore to the statements that Ashis Nandy made about caste and corruption, (or for that matter to the ones that he made just a little earlier endorsing the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s bizarre two-nation theory of rape), any degree of ambiguity or irony. And the various attempts that I have seen by some of Delhi’s intelligentsia and commentariat at closing ranks around Nandy, by referring to his ‘maverick sense of humour’, his almost apparently zen master like ‘provocative intentions’ cannot take away from the intellectual and moral harm that a set of grossly incorrect statements pretending to facticity do when they are said with authority, and may I say, with an unnecessary degree of braggadocio. It is also not adequate in my view to say that these statements were made, as Nandy and some of those around him have been saying, in a context that was otherwise supportive of Dalits and other marginalised groups. Let us take this position for what it is worth and examine it closely. Basically, (and this is a generous interpretation if this position) what it implies is that the marginalised get ‘caught’ because they are not sophisticated or intelligent enough to develop strategies that would help them get away with it, like upper caste elites have long been accustomed to. There is something profoundly, vulgarly patronising about this attitude, that shades off into the snigger about the foibles of ‘simple people’ who can’t do better. I have no hesitation in saying that this needs to be called out, not because it is necessarily casteist, but because it is egregiously patronising.

I do not for a moment believe that Ashis Nandy is personally casteist. I know him to be an unorthodox and irreverent thinker who is deeply uncomfortable with any kind of intellectual protocol premised on hierarchy, and therefore, but naturally, is a trenchant critic of the actual operational existence of the caste system. But at the same time, like the Gandhi that Nandy admires, he is both a critic as well as a captive of the conceptual cage of caste. He may think against it, but he cannot think outside it. In doing so, he is on the same page with some amongst those who are calling for his punishment. They have spent their lives preventing themselves and others from thinking in terms other than those provided by the caste system, even if they have done so as its victims.

I know Nandy to be refreshingly egalitarian in his personal conduct, life and work practices. He has stood bravely in support of very radical positions, even when these positions have brought upon themselves the wrath of state fury or an angry majoritarian public consensus founded on negativity. One can only salute all of these attributes of his personality. But these facts do not in themselves absolve Nandy of the intellectual irresponsibility of his recent statements. While I strongly condemn any move to use the law to effect punitive measures against him, or to send him to prison even for day. I do believe that a refusal to be critical, and even harshly critical of his language and expression is irresponsible. The times that we live in require us not to be irresponsible in this way.

One of the finest statements that I have heard in the wake of this unfortunate episode has come from a person I find myself rarely in agreement with – the Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad. I heard him say on television (in conversation with Ashis Nandy and Barkha Dutton NDTV) that it is time to invoke ‘the great Dalit tradition of forgiveness’ while dealing with someone like Ashis Nandy. I agree with this view. Forgiveness involves a tacit admission of guilt on the part of the forgiver as well as the forgiven. First of all it means that both parties agree that the person who is to be forgiven has in fact done something wrong. One cannot forgive the innocent. And it does not evade the question of justice in the way that a anodyne invocation of reconciliation does. One need not ever be reconciled with the act that one chooses to forgive. Forgiveness is also a greater and more powerful instrument in the hands of the weak than the weapons of retribution. Forgiveness strengths the weak while doing away with weakness while retribution only redistributes weakness. Chandrabhan Prasad’s very intelligent deployment of the trope of forgiveness offers everybody, and especially the Dalit position, an opportunity to discover and flex its ethical strength, I hope it will be listened to.

The Bhagawad Gita opens with Arjuna’s predicament on the battlefield. He sees arrayed against him his teachers, his kin. And he says he does not want to take up arms against his teachers. This does not necessarily mean he is unaware of the harm that they have done. It only means that he is looking for a way other than violence or victory to confront their perfidy, because he is attached to them, because they mean something to him. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna is well known, and I need not distract us with its details, but in essence it commands Arjuna to rise above his attachments in order to fight the war. I have never been satisfied with Krishna’s answer, while I remain fascinated by Arjuna’s question. Today, I find myself in the place of Arjuna, and in front of me is an acharya, a teacher who has done wrong. Perhaps the first thing to do is to invert the logic of the Bhagavad Gita, to insist on the ethical validity of one’s attachments, to think not against, but with desire in the pursuit of an ethical life. Doing this means being critical of the long tradition of renunciative abstraction as the engine of a meaningful life that includes not only Mohandas Gandhi but also some of his foremost interpreters today, including Ashis Nandy. It is to insist that one need not rise above or beyond the matrix of one’s attachments in order to fashion an ethical life. It is to find a language of criticism that is also the grammar of solidarity.

I hope that sense prevails, that Ashis Nandy is not sent to prison, so that we can roundly and thoroughly criticise him on intellectual grounds. Should the powers that be decide that a spell in prison is the only way their meagre imaginations can deal with this situation, I call upon everyone, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with Nandy to denounce such a move in the strongest, harshest terms because of its inherent authoritarianism. I also call upon us all to call for a thoroughgoing review of every repressive legal instrument in the constitution and criminal law, from the first amendment onwards, that restricts free speech.This country has already been shamed when it sent writers like Arundhati Roy or Varavara Rao to prison, or when it has banned or prohibited the work of M.F.Husain, Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen at the urging of bigots. If Ashis Nandy is sent to prison, we will once again find ourselves rightly accused of being the citizens of an illiberal, immature and closed society that is unable to live with difference.

Nandy himself has said that he will dance and write if he is sent to prison. I hope that he will dance and write even if he is at liberty. And I will happily dance with him, and read what he writes, and tell him while I do so, how wrong he has been in this instance, how profoundly exasperating he can be, and how much I love him. I believe that given half a chance, and had he been possessed of the intelligence and moral courage to defy Krishna that the situation warranted, that is what Arjuna would have done with Bhishma.

 

What Ashis Nandy said #JLF


No room for nuance in this fragile republic

HARSH SETHI, The Hindu

MISREADING THE CONVERSATION: The days when such an event would have been dismissed as irrelevant, if not comic, are now over. Instead, we want instant retributory action without pausing to ascertain the facts. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
The HinduMISREADING THE CONVERSATION: The days when such an event would have been dismissed as irrelevant, if not comic, are now over. Instead, we want instant retributory action without pausing to ascertain the facts. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

In the rush to condemn Ashis Nandy and demand that he be jailed, no one bothered to understand what exactly he had said about corruption and caste

It is symptomatic of the times we live in, of the climate of political discourse that we have contributed to, that even relatively innocuous statements can get so easily misrepresented and twisted to convey a meaning that is diametrically opposite to what was said and meant. The Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, which until the morning of Republic Day had managed to successfully steer clear of any controversy, was suddenly rocked by angry protests based upon (and this must be stressed) a total misreading of remarks made by Ashis Nandy.

The panel discussion on “The Republic of Ideas,” featuring IBN7 Managing Editor Ashutosh, author and Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, historian Patrick French, philosopher Richard Sorabji, and social psychologist Ashis Nandy, was moderated by the author and publisher, Urvashi Butalia. Following a fascinating exchange on the “promise” of the Indian Republic and Constitution, the discussion turned to the theme of corruption and the significance of the anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare.

Making a passionate plea to deconstruct the sociology of corruption, Tarun Tejpal argued that we need to understand the “corruption” of the poor and the marginalised as a necessary strategy to break through the stifling nature of our rules, regulations and laws. Characterising Indian society as deeply stratified, hierarchical and oppressive, our laws and rules, he claimed, are mostly designed to “keep out” the erstwhile excluded strata from having their say. The corruption of “people like us” — an elite which has both the resources and power to subvert the system — often goes unnoticed, and if discovered, rarely results in prosecution. The misdemeanours of the “others,” in contrast, not only get caught, but also generate outrage, in part because they do not have the necessary skills to successfully cover up their corruption.

Grounded in earlier remarks

Subsequent remarks made by Ashis Nandy need to be read and understood in the context of what Tarun Tejpal said speaking before Nandy did. Agreeing with Tejpal, Nandy went on to argue that such “corruption” of the excluded — the Dalits, tribals, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and minorities — is inevitable if they are to break out from the bonds of an oppressive web of rules and regulations. He went on to say, referring to both himself and Richard Sorabji, that if they “arranged” to get fellowships for their children at Harvard or Oxford, as part of a trade in mutual and selective favours, none will comment about that, as if it is axiomatic that the fellowship was awarded on the basis of merit. Politicians or leaders of the oppressed strata, being new to the game and relatively untutored in the skills of manipulation, are unlikely to seek academic fellowships as a form of graft, and are more likely to covet and corner licences to operate petrol pumps. These pumps are publicly noticeable and can provoke outrage. Their licensees are linked to their “corrupt” benefactors, who are then condemned by the chattering classes in metropolitan cities.

So far so good. Nandy then went on to more provocatively stretch the argument, asserting that it is precisely this kind of “corruption” that has “saved” the Republic and democracy by enabling a degree of social and economic mobility and pluralising the composition of India’s elite. Furthermore, he argued, that it is most likely the list of “corrupt” could be inordinately dominated by Dalits, tribals, minorities and OBCs. Despite his prefacing his last remarks, saying that what he was about to say may shock many people, and that he nevertheless wished to stress the point about how we understand corruption, many in the audience (and one on the panel) completely missed Nandy’s point, and immediately accused him of casteist bias, calling upon him to withdraw his remarks and tender an apology. Some in the audience demanded that he should be charged under the Protection of Civil Rights Act for hurting the sentiments of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Competitive outrage follows

Nandy’s protestations that what he said and meant was completely the opposite of what he was being charged with were not persuasive once the atmosphere was charged with heightened emotions. Competitive outrage, taking on the familiar form favoured by some overly strident and aggressive TV anchors, evidently gives no quarter to nuanced arguments, any irony, or even black humour. When Nandy characterised the former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Madhu Koda (now in jail), as India’s first dollar billionaire, he was hardly extolling the virtues of corruption or turning a blind eye to the “perfidies” of upper caste politicians. At best, in an underhand and sly way, he was expressing admiration for the abilities of a tribal leader in matching up to what has hitherto been an exclusive preserve of India’s upper caste elite.

Accusations of Nandy of being anti-Dalit/tribal/minority groups, the calls for registering a FIR against him, and demanding that he should be arrested would, in our better days, have been dismissed as an irrelevant, if not comic, aside. Such innocent days have faded, unfortunately, into a distant past. So quick are we now to take offence and demand immediate retributory action against alleged offenders that we almost never take a moment to pause, to ascertain the facts, understand what was said and meant, in what context, and to what ends. All we want is action, and now!

Signals shrinking discourse

Subsequent demands by the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayawati, by the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes P.L. Punia, and others, to arrest Ashis Nandy, even though none of them was present during the discussion, illustrates the danger of a growing kind of prickliness and intolerance. Worse still, such occasions are used by politicians to signal their commitment to their constituencies and shore up their images. In the process we are left with a diminished public discourse. Even liberals, usually quick to defend “freedom of speech,” advocate caution and temperance in the expression of reactions to intemperate allegations of the kind made against Nandy. Is this stance, one wonders, a compensatory guilt, marking what is politically correct, an obverse privileging of the erstwhile dispossessed?

Ashis Nandy’s choice of words, phrases, and examples can be questioned. He is not an organised and scintillating public speaker. One can also differ with his argument and analysis, for instance, his failure to distinguish between “corruption of the poor” and the “corruption of their leaders,” whose subversion of rules often results in them robbing the very poor who are also their constituents. Nevertheless, Nandy’s argument that the “rules of the game” have been set by an elite class to which he belongs, which remains a privileged lot, and therefore, that the deliberate subversion of those rules is an inevitable strategy for those striving for survival and upward mobility, certainly has merit. Clamping down on nuanced utterances and elliptical statements of the kind Nandy made will only make us a poorer democracy and Republic.

(Harsh Sethi is Consulting Editor, Seminar magazine.)

Right to dream should be fundamental right: Mahasweta Devi #JLF


Published: Friday, Jan 25, 2013, 9:00 IST
By DNA Correspondent | Place: Jaipur | Agency: DNA

“ ‘O to Live Again!’ – at my age, this desire is almost a mischievous one; look at all the damage I’ve done being around longer than I should have!” These opening words of author and social activist Mahasweta Devi, in her keynote address, at the Jaipur Literature Festival had the audience completely charmed throughout her speech.

Taking up the cause of Naxalites, Mahasweta Devi said: “All my life I have seen small people with small dreams. It looked like they wanted to put them all in a box and keep them locked up…but somewhere, some of them escaped, as if there has been a jailbreak of dreams. Like the Naxalites. Their crime is they dared to dream. And why shouldn’t they?”Addressing the gathering during the inaugural session of the Jaipur Literature Festival, she said: “The right to dream should be the first fundamental right of people.”Mahasweta Devi scorned at “the middle class morality where everything is suppressed”.

Going around the circle of life, of youth, of motherhood, and as a writer, she said “sometimes, I feel like an old house privy to simultaneous conversations of its inhabitants,” as she spoke of all the characters she had met and written about coming alive and haunting her.Giving the audience glimpses of what she hopes to write next, she shared her ‘recipe’ to stop gobalisation. “Just a small plot of land, covered with grass. Grow a single tree on it, let your child’s bicycle rest on it, let some poor kid play there, let a bird sit on it. Small dreams….after all, you save your small dreams, don’t you?” she paused, leaving the rapturous audience with this moving thought.

Later in the day, Tibetan Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, addressing a jam-packed session, invoked the age-old catch phrase ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’.When questioned about the tension between India and China with regard to Tibet, he said that good relations between the two nations are essential. “The saying — ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai, is unfortunately not implemented,” he rued and said that he strongly advocates democracy.
“We must not be taken for granted,” the Dalai Lama said and added, “The 21st century should be the century of dialogue. This is the only way forward.”A fulfilling romance at JLF
Jaipur: “Write in the language that comes most naturally to you…write in the language in which you dream.” That’s the advice Mahasweta Devi – arguably, one of the most iconic writer-activists of our times – had to give to a young school-girl who wanted to know which language she should choose to begin her literary career with.A little while later, Fahmida Riaz — celebrated Pakistani writer-poet and feminist — informed the Bengali writer (to her surprise) that her books had been translated into Urdu and were

Mahasweta Devi —Joshy Joseph

 

Sri Aurobindo, Heehs and the fragility of faith


GAUTAM CHIKERMANE

We banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and provided the moral justification for a barbaric fatwa on his head by Iran’s then spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As a result, Rushdie had to take refuge in the UK. Last month, we prevented him from coming to India and speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, hammering one more nail in the coffin of free speech in India. In case you wish to read it, the book is available here in PDF form, freely downloadable.

We drove MF Husain, India’s best-known painter, out of India. For his paintings of Hindu goddesses, Husain faced eight cases in various courts of the country — all were dismissed in an April 2004 judgement by the Delhi High Court — his house was attacked by Bajrang Dal activists in 1998, his art vandalised. The Muslims found a quawalli in his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities blasphemous and he had to withdraw the film in 2004. Husain had to flee to Qatar, become a Qatari national and died a non-Indian.

And now, right under our noses, even as the national discourse is moving against banning books and towards free speech, another intellectual is being hounded. This time, it’s Peter Heehs, an American historian, who has who has lived in and served the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for 41 years, set up the Ashram’s Archives department, has been the founding editor of Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research, and was part of the team that has brought out the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. The ban in question is on his scholarly biography of Sri Aurobindo titled, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo.

If Sri Aurobindo was still residing in his “cave” at Pondicherry, he would have welcomed the book, critiqued it — but most important, he would have read it. But if an April 9, 2009 notification by the Orissa government is to be taken seriously, this is what it suggests: we have not read the book but the select excerpts given to us by interested parties is enough evidence for us to ban the book. For those who enjoy legalese, you can read the notification here.

So far so good. During the course of my investigation into this affair, this notification was given to me as “evidence” by a party that’s fighting another case against the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, holding them responsible for harbouring Heehs and seeking their removal. This group of people and the petitioner — Mrs Gitanjali JB, who in her writ petition to the High Court of Orissa at Cuttack has said she lives in Balasore, though the last time I tried to contact her, I was told she lives in Chennai — are allegedly related. Although I could not independently verify the relationship, it is pretty clear that the two are working together. So, when they emailed me the “evidence”, they forgot to attach another document that supported this senseless notification.

This is a February 13, 2009 report written by the IG Police Intelligence to Dr K.C. Sarangi, OAS, the deputy secretary to government, home (special section) department. According to the IG’s report, Heehs’s book is not available in Bhubaneswar or Cuttack and “hence its entire contents are not known but photocopies of extracts of the book”, that form part of Mrs Gitanjali JB’s writ are. Based on this shallow, incomplete and clearly prejudiced evidence — and without undertaking the rigour of independent investigation by attempting to check the context within which these extracts have been provided — the IG has suggested to the government that the book “appears to be blasphemous” and “appears to be a fit case for invoking action u/s 95 Cr.P.C”. I can only pity the Orissa government for having such an incompetent officer in charge of such a critical function. You can read this illiterate piece of literature here.

In its November 4, 2008 order, the Orissa High Court ordered Mrs Gitanjali JB to make a representation before the Ministries of Home and Information and Broadcasting and the book should be published only after getting a no-objection certificate from them. The Home Ministry has not taken any decision so far. So, in its April 20, 2009 order, the Orissa High Court adjourned the case, “with the direction that the Central Government may take a decision as early as possible”. There has been no decision since then. What are they waiting for — Godot? They should either say yes or no or that it is beyond their brief. Its silence speaks of a frozen government, unable and unwilling to do its job.

Courts have their own processes and the legal system works on its own time. But it is curious to note, as senior lawyer AG Noorani did, the five objections of this order. These include “unprecedented abdication of judicial power and responsibility in favour of an outside authority; worst of all, the State” and the fact that the author and the publisher need to be heard in the interest of natural justice. Do read the piece here.

When Heehs appealed the setting aside of this notification, a three-judge bench was formed. “When the book has not been published in India, it is not traceable to any call of action for such a ban and for such a notification,” Heehs’s lawyer Prasanta Kishore Ray said. “So, banning this book amounts to banningfreedom of expression. It amounts to banning thinking. That is how the three-judge bench were shocked to hear that the book has not been published in India.” In a January 17, 2012 oral order, the court called upon the Advocate General of Orissa, Ashok Mohanty, to justify this notification, Ray said. I doubt if Mohanty will have any.

One last point on Heehs’s book. This time I invite you to a sojourn in time, all of 30 years ago. In a November 8, 1982 judgement, the Supreme Court declared that Sri Aurobindo’s teachings cannot be said to be of a religious nature. “Numerous utterings by Sri Aurobindo or the Mother unmistakably show that the Ashram or Society or Auroville is not a religious institution,” the judgement said. “There can be no better proof than what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother themselves thought of their teachings and their institutions to find out whether the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his Integral Yoga constitute a religion or a philosophy. The uttering made from time to time by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother hardly leave any doubt about the nature of the institution. It was on the basis that it was not a religious institution.” You can read another excerpt here.

The point: if Sri Aurobindo is not a religious entity and his teachings not a religion, how can his biography hurt any religious person? This is a question that many devotees, in their blind faith, ignore. India is home to gurus and spiritual teachers. All of them stated clearly that they are not professing a religion but a way of life, call it spirituality if you must. To convert those words, those ideas, those books, those teachings into a religion is the biggest crime against their own gurus. If Sri Aurobindo were around, he would have shuddered to have been called an author of yet another ‘religion’ and steered clear of anything to do with it.

Those terming Sri Aurobindo’s yoga a religion need to do their homework. If they are unwilling to go through the rigour of reading, the least they should do is what Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator The Mother suggested: “When you have nothing pleasant to say about something or somebody in the Ashram, keep silent. You must know that this silence is faithfulness to the Divine’s work.”

Returning the issue that’s bigger and vaster and more precious than any single book or person, I find that as a society, India’s level of tolerance and toleration — something we push strongly for in other countries, the Bhagwad Gita being banned in Russia that I wrote about earlier, for instance — has fallen to depths unseen. We use whatever tools we can to curb free speech — threat, violence, politics, power, goons, police, state, non-state and this new development of abusing the due process of law that results in delaying books from being published.

I had a discussion about free speech with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Center for Policy Research, one of Asia’s most respected think tanks. “Why do we tolerate,” he asked. “I feel safe when offensive people are tolerated. I can conclude that if society can tolerate these bozos, surely I’m safe. It’s a psychological security.” That’s on the physical front. But go a step deeper and here’s what those lining up to curb free speech in this name or that issue need to understand. “We put ourselves under God’s yoke when we are furthest away from god,” Mehta said. “Right now, there is a fragility of faith.”

Let Heehs’s book not fall at the alter of that fragility.

Do check out the totally intolerant comments on the blog

Dont expel the Historian

‘Freedom must bring responsibility’


IN 2008,the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) had organised an exhibition on MF Husain to protest the India Art Summit’s reluctance to display the legendary artist’s works. This attracted the ire of some right-wing groups who attacked SAHMAT. Ironically, they ended up destroying Delhi-based photographer Parthiv Shah’s photos of Husain rather than the controversial paintings. The 48-year-old lensman tells Janani Ganesanhow artistic freedom brings its own set of responsibilities for both the artist as well as the State.

 

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

What should the State’s role be when a work of art is publicly censored through violent means?
It is not just the State, it is also up to the artist or the organiser to execute something (they believe in). If you want to invite someone to an event, you can do it quietly as well. You can’t take it on and then expect everyone else to protect you. And people who want to protest can do so. But they don’t have any right to hurt me or my photograph. Or on the other hand, if you want to be defiant, then be prepared for the consequences.

When you say the artist should take responsibility for his/her acts, are you suggesting that Article 19(2) should be done away with?
I don’t know how many artists are familiar with the law. They usually don’t come together to form a guild or society like lawyers or architects. Recently, there was an artist who exhibited his paintings of Husain painting Vidya Balan nude and another of Arundhati Roy having sex with Mao. Now this is artistic freedom, but I don’t know what Roy has to say about this. How do you draw lines? When somebody gives you freedom, you are also responsible for it.

So there should be some level of censorship?
I wouldn’t call it censorship. Suddenly, there is a bomb blast and we wake up for a while and go back to sleep. This whole freedom of expression debate is similar to that. Did Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) file an FIR on the people who threatened to attack? If not, then as the JLF team, prominent individuals (present there) should have filed a case. Nobody wants to do anything about this. People reap their own advantages from controversies.

How would you, as an artist, define morality?
Morality changes with the society. There are no rules on morality. As long as you don’t hurt somebody else, it is okay. For that, the whole society has to evolve together. But in India, it is not going to happen now, given the vast differences.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka
janani@tehelka.com

Now, ‘Flashread’ to rescue freedom of speech


//
Mail Today, New Delhi
From Ramanujan‘s essay to Hussain’s paintings, Rushdie’s writings to Facebook musings, the issue of cultural censorship seems to be spreading like a disease in this country. But before it goes viral, activists have decided to step up efforts to retain India‘s democratic fabric.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie‘s ‘The Satanic Verses‘ is banned for alleged blasphemy against Islam.

In one such attempt that bears a resemblance to the “flashmob”, where a group of people shake their legs in a choreographed move, free speech advocates have now joined hands to raise their voice against increasing intolerance in the country.

Termed “flashread”, groups in cities across the country met in public places and read out from works by controversial authors on Valentine’s Day, which has itself become a flashpoint of cultural censorship.

“What we have to do is keep embarrassing the state so that we can ask them; do we want India to turn into some of those countries where authors are jailed?” Salil Tripathi, an author, asked. “The state needs to be reminded that it has to protect the vulnerable. And who is the vulnerable here – the painter who paints what he wants to… the author who has something to say!”

A.K. Ramanujan
A.K. Ramanujan‘s essay on Ramayan was banned by the Delhi University.

At Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, a group of about 15 people gathered and began reading out extracts from the works of A.K. Ramanujan , Rohinton Mistry, Jeet Thayil as well as Salman Rushdie , whose intended appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival created quite a storm.

“What we’re doing is showing them that there’s a civil way to make ourselves heard,” Mohit, a financial services consultant who read at the gathering, said. “We can easily form a mob and try to go after the ones who want to silence us. But the point is we have to behave in way you can appreciate. We have got to show that there’s a better way than just being loud.”

The movement was organised by Nilanjana Roy, a literary critic, editor and writer who is also heading an effort to lift the ban on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

Roy put the idea down on her blog on February 10 and it quickly spread on social networking sites, inspiring similar events in Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities – with groups using Twitter to keep each other informed about the timing and location.

The movement also allowed for impromptu changes – with one group in the Capital deciding to carry out a “flashread” at Janpath after office-goers were unable to make it to Lodi Gardens.

After the group at Lodi Gardens failed to attract much attention, they decided to move into Khan Market where a spontaneous reading in front of a bookshop invited interests and questions from passersby.

“More and more people seem to be afraid to say what they want; afraid to express themselves, and that is obviously a problem,” Mohit said. “If you can’t speak, you can’t think. For us the role model is right here (in India)… As a state and a country we are in danger of forgetting that.”

India: How to silence a nation


07 Feb 2012

The Satanic Verses

Image via Wikipedia

Legal proceedings have been filed against four authors that read aloud from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic verses. Salil Tripathi explains how outdated Colonial-era legislation is being used to curtail free expression.

The saga refuses to end.

The Jaipur story has now taken a new turn, on Monday (6 February) two courts in the city began legal proceedings after complaints were filed by among others, members of an organisation that campaigned against Salman Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival. They allege that the festival organisers and four authors who read from Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

The four authors — Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, and Jeet Thayil — read from the novel to express solidarity with the absent Rushdie, and as a mark of protest. Rushdie did not go to Jaipur after he received plausible information that security forces had evidence of death threats against him. Now the festival’s organisers are also being charged under provisions of India’s criminal laws, which date back to the colonial era.

The complainants main contention is that the authors and the festival organisers conspired “to promote enmity on grounds of religion.” One magistrate has recorded the complaint to decide if the case has any merit before it is sent to the police to register a First Information Report. That case will now be heard on 8 March. Another magistrate will record a complainant’s statement today. When such complaints are filed, the court can either ask the police to register a report and launch an investigation, or examine the complaint on its own, before deciding if the matter deserves to be sent to the police for further action. The courts have decided to examine the matter first, before sending it to the police.

The relevant sections under the Indian law are:

295-A (which deals with deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings)

298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings),

153-A (promoting enmity between groups on religious grounds),

153-B (imputations prejudicial to national integration)

120-B (criminal conspiracy).

Preserving communal harmony is a serious matter in India. These laws empower the state to prosecute anyone whose intends to and acts in a way that outrages religious feelings or promotes “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language,” and the all-important, all-inclusive “etc.”

Now think again about what happened in Jaipur: the four authors read extracts from The Satanic Verses, whose import is banned in India. Note, its import is banned in India; lawyers have pointed out that the government did not ban its printing or publishing — rather, Penguin, which had the rights to publish it in India, chose not to do so after the import ban was imposed, and its consulting editor recommended that it would be unwise to publish the novel. Leading Indian lawyers say that bane does not extend to reading the novel, or reading from it. In fact, in the years after the ban, several lawyers and writers read from it in public, as a mark of protest. They weren’t charged at any time. At the Jaipur Festival, parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, author and former diplomat, said he has read from, or cited the novel, without any problem.

And yet, now the four authors and the festival’s organisers — William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale, and Sanjoy Roy — face the prospect of being charged under colonial-era laws. Such a prosecution mocks India’s fine judicial traditions and runs counter to its constitutional guarantees of free speech (which are, it must be said, limited). It means if you say anything that someone considers controversial or offensive, then either that individual or the state can begin proceedings that could lead to prosecution. This isn’t a theoretical proposition, nor is this the first such complaint. Many film-makers, authors, and artists have been scarred by threats of such prosecutions. Many have sued for peace by dropping contentious material before publication; some have been prosecuted. Higher courts have usually dismissed the charges, but not before a long process that’s costly and stressful. (There is also the other threat of vigilantes doling out justice in the form of ransacked galleries or theatres, or attacks on artists, with the police doing little to stop such violence). This is preposterous — but such is the state of affairs.

Neither the authors nor the festival organisers incited any community, nor did they intend to insult any religious group. The festival organisers have said they were not aware that the authors intended to protest. After the four read from the novel, the organisers even issued a statement saying the authors had acted on their own. But none of that seems to matter to the complainants.

The charge is even more confusing since there has been no violence. Nobody went on a rampage; there was no riot. The four had never intended to incite anybody, and nobody got incited. However, some Muslim fundamentalist groups had offered rewards to throw shoes at Rushdie, or spit on Rushdie. Others had said that even a video appearance by Rushdie could have repercussions, irrespective of what he might say. Many might regard these statements as threats, but as of now, no police officer has pressed charges against any of those individuals, who were at least implying that matters might get out of hand for which, of course, they would presumably claim no responsibility.

And so it is that the one who claims offence and threatens to take the law in his hands, or suggests others might do so, remains free; the ones who read from a book are being charged under laws meant to prevent violence.

The Indian Penal Code, from which these sections are derived, was drafted in 1860, and much of that law has stayed fossilised, even though India gained Independence in 1947. It is important to remember the circumstances under which that law was drafted. In 1857, many princely states in India rebelled against the rule of the East India Company, and what followed was what India calls the first war of independence, and what Britain remembers as the Sepoy Mutiny. Soldiers of the East India Company rebelled against the company, and united with various princely states in a vain attempt to overpower the colonial rule. The war ended in 1858, with the Indian states surrendering, and soon thereafter, company rule ended, and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.

There were many reasons for the uprising, but the immediate spark was religious. Indian troops in the East India Company’s army were alarmed by rumours that the new British cartridges were greased with cow or pig fat. Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike were offended, unwilling to handle ammunition contaminated by animal fat which the respective faiths shunned.

Realising the combustible power of religion, the British decided to make maintenance of religious harmony their priority, and to do that, they took advantage of mutual suspicion among the communities. So anyone who disrupted harmony would be prosecuted, and people had the right to complain against anyone who disrupted such harmony, turning the “subjects” into informers. Colonial rulers had good reason to maintain such laws — to keep communities suspicious of one another and divided just short of fighting.

Free India is supposed to be democratic; its adult citizens vote their governments, and they argue with each other in a spirited manner. But these laws, relics of the raj, treat Indians as subjects, not citizens. They allow troublemakers to file spurious complaints under the provisions of these laws and restrict free expression, as had happened to the great painter, the late M.F. Husain, who was driven out of India, and died in exile in London last year. The same provisions are now being used against the novelists and organisers of a festival of literature.

This has gone on too long. Before it gets any worse, India needs adult supervision; it needs to repeal these laws, stop proceedings against the authors and festival organisers, and keep a stern eye on rabble-rousers who cry offence and threaten violence because they don’t like other people reading a book they haven’t read and which they are told they must dislike.

You can dislike a book; nothing is sacred. But if you don’t like a book, Rushdie had said in India in 2010, all you have to do is to shut it.

Instead, they want to shut conversations across the country through intimidation.

Salil Tripathi is a journalist and author and the chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee

Organisers wash hands off Amitava Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, others


 This was after Amitava Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, others read out passages from The Satanic Verses.

This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Any comments made by the delegates reflect their personal, individual views and are not endorsed by the Festival or attributable to its organizers or anyone acting on their behalf. The Festival organizers are fully committed to ensuring compliance of all prevailing laws and will continue to offer their fullest cooperation to prevent any legal violation of any kind. Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken. Our endeavor has always been to provide a platform to foster an exchange of ideas and the love of literature, strictly within the four corners of the law. We remain committed to this objective.

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