By Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy
"Our primary objective was to maintain law and order and that has been done...There is no question of vendetta against Kamal Haasan," announced a stern Jayalalithaa at a press conference explaining her government's decision to suspend the release of Vishwaroopam. Don't blame me, she said in essence, Kamal Haasan needs to take it up with the Muslims who he so foolishly angered.
Yet the Muslim groups who objected to Haasan's movie too were concerned about 'law and order.' "We intend to register our apprehensions that release of the film with (even) deleted scenes or changes will affect the social harmony and all-round peace in the state," Mohammed Haneefa of the Federation of Islamic Movements and Political Parties told PTI.
'Law and order' excuse works perfectly in tandem with the 'hurt sentiment' discourse. Some group takes offence and the state immediately raises the prospect of rampaging mobs, riots et al. Political pandering can be disguised as responsible governance: hey, I'm just doing my job, protecting the safety of citizens etc. See: Leviathan, Hobbesian contract etc. Or as Jayalalithaa piously declared, "I would like you to understand what is the meaning of maintaining law and order. It doesn't mean allowing a situation to turn violent and then stepping in to restore peace."
The added bonus: It doesn't require crass bullying a la Kapil Sibal and Facebook, Google etc.
And over the years, the 'law and order' cudgel has been wielded with ever greater frequency with ever slighter excuse. Salman Rushdie once had to write a book which then could be banned under the guise of maintaining communal harmony. Today, just the mere possibility of his presence at a litfest event can invoke a preemptive ban. The Indian state has become more wily and creative in its use of the 'law and order' bogeyman in the service of cultural terrorism.
Safety not guaranteed
Contrary to popular wisdom, the 'law and order' bogeyman is not a weapon deployed in "rarest of rare" occasions, ie to target A-list celebrities, movies or litfests. It has become an everyday billy-stick, used to club into silence all expressions of ideas, irrespective of scale. Here's an instructive example.
Back in November, 2011, an arts and media collective was forced to cancel its monthly speaker series because the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena circulated a letter to the police commissioner claiming that it was a seditionist Hurriyat Conference event likely to feature Syed Shal Geelani. It also incited supporters "to teach the anti-Indians and stone-pelters a lesson," warning that "the police would be responsible for anything unpleasant happening."
The actual event — organised by arts and media collective Maraa and a theatre group Rafiki — on Kashmir featured a performance artist, theatre director, and readings from a novel.
The Bangalore police did indeed respond. "Members of rafiki were subjected to preliminary investigations by the police and related investigating agencies as a result of the suspicion generated by these false allegations," read a statement announcing the cancelation, while a member of Rafiki told Bangalore Mirror, “The owners of the premises where we operate from urged us not to hold the event there. So we cancelled the event.”
All it takes to squelch free speech is a threat and an unhelpful attitude on the part of the police. The state can now cancel an event merely by refusing to guarantee the safety of its participants, and let human vulnerability take its course.
Incite first, ban later
The pattern was no different in Jaipur litfest in 2012 where Rushdie's appearance was canceled because the Rajasthan government refused to guarantee his wellbeing. Soon after, even his live video appearance was nixed by the owner of Diggi Palace "on advice of Rajasthan police.” Given the threat of being stormed by a “large number of people," owner Ram Pratap Singh called the decision "unfortunate but necessary to avoid harm.”
More of the same but with one crucial difference. This time around, the political class was an active participant. The most effective way to create a law and order situation is stoke it, either explicitly or otherwise. When it comes to certain kinds of protesters, the government's mantra is unambiguous: Protester-bhai aap aagey badho, hum tumhare saath hain. Both the BJP and Congress parties were eager to affirm their sensitivity to Muslim sentiments ahead of the UP elections, each expressing 'concern' for those hurt by Rushdie's presence — as opposed to his physical safety.