A tale of 3 protests: Doniger, Rushdie and 'Ocean of Tears'

By Rishi Majumder

New Delhi: Liberals are nasty people really. They’re like those children in school who seemed to know too much, speak too much, and whom you wanted to punch the living daylights out of. So it wasn’t surprising that when a group of Delhi liberals gathered yesterday afternoon to read out aloud from banned or pulped books outside Penguin’s stall at the Delhi World Book Fair, at Pragati Maidan, a bunch of Hindu Sena members shouted them down. They seemed on the verge of physical assault when the cops intervened.

The reading had been called to protest the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The Hindu Sena is a relatively newer right wing outfit, based out of New Delhi.

“They asked me what I’m reading,” said Amit Sengupta, associate professor at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, whom I spoke to when things had calmed down. “I told them it’s Premchand. They asked me: ‘Who Premchand?’” He was referring not to the ‘Sena’ members but to the Delhi policemen gathered around. Therein lies the problem.

If liberals are the nerds and right-wing goons the class bully, the authority in charge often fits squarely into the role of that teacher from schooldays whose name you never really remember. Yet you know he was watching you get pulped from the corner of his eye, during lunch-break, but was too busy finishing his tiffin to care. You also know that if he did interject, it would be to deliver a benign, ‘equal’ scolding to both parties and ask you to break it up— as if all those blows rained on you for no other reason than that your classmate, actually an oversized ape, is absolutely incapable of continuing a conversation, didn’t matter.

“Vande Mataram,” was what the Hindu Sena members screamed as they were breaking the reading up. “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” One aged gentleman, who from his speckled hair and beard seemed to be in his forties, appeared to be leading the gang. “Padhna hai to Taslima Nasreen Padho (if you have to read, read Taslima Nasreen),” he shouted to the group who had gathered to read. Some of them—mostly among the younger lot—wore looks of befuddlement along with fear and understandably so. Here was that moment when you realise at least some of those trolls on social media saying horrible irrational things about your parents are actually real people.

 A tale of 3 protests: Doniger, Rushdie and Ocean of Tears

Salman Rushdie in this file photo. Reuters

“We told them we were reading Pamuk,” said Sengupta, once again about the Delhi Police. “He asked, ‘Who Pamuk?’ I told him he’s a Nobel Prize winner. He said, ‘Okay.’”

“All these people want is publicity,” said one policeman, assuaging a Sena protester. “They want that you attack them and their names appear in newspapers.” Another reader-protester, a silver haired lady who had come to read banned Urdu works, simply said: “All we wanted to do was read.”

***

Let me tell you a little something about the Hindu Sena. On its Facebook page is posted a photograph of Muslims campaigning for the BJP. On it are the words: “Ye Chaahe Congress ka jhanda uthaaye, chahe Bha Ja Pa ka, ye suwar the, suwar rahenge… (Whether they lift the flag of the Congress or the BJP, they were pigs and will remain so… ).” The number and email address of the outfit is displayed on the ‘About’ page. Yet the post, and the page, remain.

***

24 January, 2012. An afternoon in Jaipur. The representatives of radical Muslim organisations warned organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) that if a live video interaction with author Salman Rushdie was carried out, their companions, who had infiltrated the premises, would resort to violence against those present. Hundreds of others who had gathered outside would join in. “I have taken the decision not to allow this video link to go ahead on the advice of the Rajasthan Police,” said Thakur Ram Pratap Singh Diggi, the owner of the premises where the festival was held. “We are having to step down, yet again, in a fight against freedom of expression… we have been pushed to the wall,” said Sanjoy Roy, producer of JLF. He added: “Even seeing his (Rushdie’s) face for them was intolerable.”

State elections in the state of UP, India’s most politically significant state (it sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha) were to be held in two weeks. It was felt that the Rajasthan government, then run by the Indian National Congress wouldn’t dare clamp down on the radical outfits threatening violence at the venue for fear of losing the support of the community they represented in UP.

And therein lies the problem too. There must be a secret psephological society, that we are unaware of, that proves irrevocably to every party in power that the average Indian voter is truly passionate about intolerance. That the fact that such a diverse group of peoples still live together, vote together, is not as much a miracle of better sense, as an act of a proportionately represented god-collective. That the aam aadmi is actually an imbecilic coward who, when confronted with a contrary view, will insist its source be demolished.

For what else can explain Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s defence of allegations that his Law Minister Somnath Bharti harassed Nigerian women (he supposedly did so for the welfare of the area’s residents) to the point of going on a dharna till the policeman who refused to assist Bharti was not suspended. He saw it fit to club this incident, in his dharna, with two others to do with bride burning and rape. Presumably, for the aam aadmi, they’re all the same.

***

That said, coming back to yesterday afternoon, perhaps it was not for nothing. Shortly after the scuffle at the book fair three Delhi college boys discussed the matter while examining books being sold at the Penguin enclosure. “Wendy Doniger. They pulped it no— The Hindus,” said one. Another: “So that’s what this was about.” Also: “‘Compromise’ man, everybody’s compromising nowadays.”

***

14 February, 2014. The afternoon of day before yesterday. Bilal A Jan’s documentary Ocean of Tears, on the Kunan-Poshpora rape victims in North Kashmir’s Kupwara District, was screened at the VIBGYOR International Short and Documentary Film Festival in Thrissur, Kerala. Bharatiya Janata Party And Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers stormed into the venue to ransack furniture and shout slogans, demanding the screening be stopped. “The BJP activists managed their entry into the venue only after police allowed them,” P Baburaj, a Thrissur theatreperson who was present, is quoted to have said.

But the film was screened, according to Bilal A Jan, by the efforts of the “organisers and the audience”.

The key word here? Audience. A cinema hall full of cinephiles screaming “go back” in unison, loudly, till the bullies left the building.

Updated Date: Feb 16, 2014 12:42:36 IST