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In the name of communal harmony: Mind it, gag it, ban it

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

We Indians are a vastly sentimental people. We possess way too many sentiments and each in perpetual risk of grave injury. And our solution to everything is not mind it, but ban it. Be it over a play exploring Rabindranath Tagore’s differences with Mahatma Gandhi, a Jism 2 poster, or a Twitter account parodying the PMO, someone, somewhere in this great land of ours always has their panties in a twist. What do PMO parody accounts have to do with vicious rumour-mongering that sparks an exodus from Bangalore? Absolutely nothing, but hey, while the government has an excuse for a self-righteous crackdown binge it’s happy to see what else it can get away with.

And it gets away with it because we are so used to being trigger-happy with handing out bans usually in the name of  preserving communal harmony.

The latest reason for umbrage is a play in Bhopal called Tamasha Naa Hua which discusses Gandhi’s view of nationalism versus Tagore’s view of universal humanism. “The theme is blatantly anti-national,” thundered Rajesh Bhadoriya, the convener of the state BJP’s cultural cell before delivering the coup de grace. “This play should have been staged in Pakistan not here.” Bhadoriya threatened a police case.

The BJP has no copyright on cultural policing. The Congress showed its grand lack of spine with the Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literature festival earlier this year. Never mind that the man has been in and out of the country innumerable times in the past without comment or concern (and showed up soon after the Jaipur Literature Festival and the UP elections were over). Never mind that his slated panel at the Jaipur Literary Festival was on Midnight’s Children, not the controversial Satanic Verses. But hey, his very presence is sufficient to give offence, or so claimed Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the vice-chancellor of the Deoband seminary: “I call upon all the Muslim organisations of the country to mount pressure on the Centre to withdraw the visa and prevent him from visiting India, where crores of community members still feel hurt owing to the anti-Islamic remarks in his writings.”

We Indians are a vastly sentimental people. We possess way too many sentiments and each in perpetual risk of grave injury. And our solution to everything is not mind it, but ban it. AP

Nomani’s posturing is just par for course in what passes for a national debate in our country. Over the last year, various people for various reasons have been outraged over: an essay on different versions of the Ramayana, a Rohinton Mistry novel that referenced the Shiv Sena, a Bollywood movie on reservation politics, Prashant Bhushan’s comments on a Kashmir plebiscite, a poster of The Dirty Picture.

The immediate cause may vary, but the triggers for our outrage remain reliably the same.

Religion is always a big one, and not just for those overly sensitive Muslims.  From the naked goddesses in a Husain painting to the cat-faced Krishna on Aerosmith’s Nine Lives CD to those designer slippers and bikinis featuring the pantheon, they all gotta go. The Da Vinci Code was banned in Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland. We censor, exile, ostracise anything and anyone who offends. Oh, and let’s not forget all those worthy citizens who aren’t daunted by the images of gods when it comes to relieving themselves on someone’s boundary wall. We can pee on our gods, but don’t you dare put that Ganesh on your beer bottle.

If it isn’t religion that has us all worked up, then it’s our overdeveloped sense of patriotism. Our other great sacred icon is the national flag which got poor Sania Mirza in trouble because she put her feet up in the wrong place at the wrong time: ie on national television and in the proximity of a Tiranga. The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act and the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper use) Act was invoked to sue Mandira Bedi for stamping on tricolor balloons and wearing a sari with flag on its border (which then touched her feet). Sachin got in trouble for cutting a cake depicting the jhanda. But the silliest perhaps is the lawsuit against Sushma Swaraj for accidentally holding the flag upside down at a public event. Shah Rukh Khan is just the latest to have a court case slapped on him for having waved the Indian flag upside down during the 2011 World Cup victory . “While waving the flag, he ignored the fact that saffron colour was at the bottom and the green colour was on top,” complainant Ravindra Brahme told the media. No idea what Brahme thinks of those hundreds of little paper flags – overflowing in dustbins and strewn on the ground — after Independence Day.

Then there’s Kashmir, of course. The idea of holding a referendum in Kashmir has been part of the public debate for the past 60 years. And yet, just putting plebiscite and the fair name of the state in the same sentence can earn you a public beating, threat of a seditions charge, or at the very least a public interest lawsuit. The notion of an Azad Kashmir is not just wrong – it’s literally unspeakable.

In a land where everything is sacred, why not our politicians — who surely rule us by divine right. Before their Rohinton Mistry-inspired meltdown, the Shiv Sena burnt copies of Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for a caricature of Bal Thackeray. And for all of Kapil Sibal’s posturing about “communal sentiments”, 255 of the 358 official requests submitted to Google last year were to pull material critical of political leaders. Think Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh dancing to a reworked song from Dabangg. Bring out the riot police already!

It would be bad enough if this knee-jerk propensity to ban was just a naïve nanny-state version of preserving the peace. It’s more often the reverse – aimed at stirring up some communal mischief before the UP elections or launching someone’s political career or prospects by playing to parochial instincts. Or as in the latest case with the PMO parody accounts, using outrage over one thing to sneak in a ban on something completely different. But by ever lowering the national threshold of insult, we have descended into a ping-pong game of censorship.

Remember Nomani’s logic for the ban on Rushdie’s appearance in Jaipur. “We expect the government to be prompt and tough, the way it was over the Russian court’s ban on Gita for allegedly promoting terror activities,” said Nomani, “We expect Hindus to support us. Last month, when Gita controversy was at its peak, Deoband was first to publicly condemn the proposed ban”.

Right, let’s all defend our common right to get excessively exercised in the name of our faith. His logic is as ridiculous as those who respond to any defense of the Ramanujan essay by invoking the infamous Danish cartoon of Mohammad. If you think that one thing was out of line, then you must be for banning everything that upsets anyone at any time. This tit-for-tat version of equal protection has the entire nation sliding down a slippery slope to illiberalism. When everything offends – from a birthday cake to a novel – the principle of freedom of expression loses all meaning.

Maybe it’s time we stopped being so easily and predictably offended by the same things, over and over and over again. In a nation of way too many sacred cows, it’s about time we learned to say moo to it at all.

This is an updated version of an essay that appeared earlier on Firstpost.com.