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.
“No state government will want a law and order situation. I have informed the Centre about the prevailing sentiments,” Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot told the media. “There is a reaction among the locals. They do not want Rushdie to come.” If Gehlot was hiding behind the “people”, his party MP from Jaipur, Mahesh Joshi was more explicit. He assured Muslim leaders that Rushdie would be kept away from Jaipur.
What had started as a protest by the Deoband seminary with no direct threat of violence ended with a satellite hook-up cancelled because the hotel owners at Diggi Palace allegedly could not risk the potential damage to their property and guests. For the political class, it was a win-win situation. Once the dust settled, P Chidambaram claimed that his government had only issued “a routine advisory” to Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur that protests might occur.
Has no one has signed up for the protest party yet? Your law and order situation not boiling over? No worries. You can always solicit protests. That’s exactly what happened in the yes-Rushdie, no-Rushdie fiasco in Kolkata.
“An officer asked me if I knew of the visit and if I was planning a protest against it. I said that ‘now I know about Rushdie’s visit. I will definitely protest against it,'"Abdul Aziz, the general secretary of the Milli Ittehad Parishad told The Telegraph. No Muslim group planned to protest Rushdie's appearance because they didn't know he was planning to make one — until the police helpfully informed them.
And so they did. The All Bengal Minority Youth Federation showed up with 100 people at the airport on Wednesday morning to protest a writer who was not coming anyway. In his column, Ruchir Joshi notes that the ‘protests’ took place “to provide retro-substance to the notion that widespread protests were always going to take place.” A self-fullfilling prophecy of a law and order situation, if you will.
At one time, censorship was a simple affair. The state openly wielded the danda: books were banned, films never released, websites yanked. But now we are fighting shadows, uncertain where to point the finger. The Rushdie-Kolkata affair has become a Rashomon tale of competing narratives where its impossible to identify who finally pulled the plug. Did the organisers disinvite the writer? Did the CM get on the phone? Did the police chief make the final call? No one knows and that suits the state just fine.
When Rushdie finally pulled out of the Jaipur Literature Festival last year, Digvijay Singh brushed off the government’s role in the whole debacle. “Calling off the visit is Rushdie’s personal decision and the government has nothing to do with it,” he told reporters, “Who stopped him? He does not need a visa to come to India.”
“Nobody prevented (Rushdie) from coming to India. Any decision taken by the organizer of the Literature Festival was a decision taken by them and he said so on television,” averred Chidambaram, “The decision to cancel the video conferencing was the decision of the organizer, not by the Rajasthan Police.”
"According to me, Kamal Haasan is the victim of state terrorism. I don't think the release of the film can be stopped by any state government using the excuse of law and order to trample on his right to freedom of expression," declared director Mahesh Bhatt. But the reality is that the government no longer has to make the effort to actually trample anyone's rights. Even if the ban is lifted, the spectre of petrol-bomb wielding hordes will likely stampede theatre owners into doing the trampling required.
No one screens the movie, no one see the movie. Censorship is now the perfect state crime: Look Ma, no fingerprints.