For me, the last 18 months had been a rigorous learning exercise. While attempting to understand complaints from readers, I also managed to look at what constituted offence, what fair criticism was, and, how to distinguish an act of deliberate misrepresentation from a fair interpretation by a scholar that is subjected to attack by some intolerant groups. I had to look at the principles, philosophy and legal underpinnings to uphold the well springs of the freedom of expression. I could understand that accountability and freedom were complementary ideas, that one enriched the other, and the absence of one undermined the power of the other.Attacking the media
In this context, the last 10 days have thrown up many disturbing developments that, if left collectively unchecked, have a potential of undermining hard won rights and freedoms, intellectual honesty and historical fidelity. The Editors Guild of India’s statement is an indicator of the current state of affairs with reference to free and fair media practices. It said: “It is distressing to find a person like Gen. V.K. Singh using the term ‘presstitutes’ to describe journalists who wrote a story on the movement of Army units causing concern to the government, a statement unbecoming of a former Chief of the Indian Army. It is equally disquieting to find Mr. Arvind Kejriwal attributing corrupt motives to the media that were critical of him and charging the media with being pressured into ignoring him without coming up with specific details or material to substantiate such charges.” The Guild has rightly pointed out that the tendency to attack or abuse the media is not restricted to the newer players, and leaders of established parties are not immune to it either.
In an election year, people with political ambitions do behave in a manner that is less than desirable. But, what can we do if academic institutions fail to adhere to high principles and purge literary work of immense social significance from the curriculum? Can we permit our young scholars to grow up in an atmosphere where intellectual inquiry is substituted by a narrow reading of the past? Can we permit a select few to remove texts that have layers and layers of meaning, and which provide insights into our own immediate history? How did this act of self-impoverishment gain acceptance at the institutional level?Academic censorship
Two short stories by one of the finest storytellers, Pudumaipithan, have been removed from the syllabus of the University of Madras. To understand the significance of this meaningless censorship, one has to locate Pudumaipithan within the large Tamil literary universe. Modernity in Tamil literature is built on two pillars — the poetry tradition of Subramania Bharathiyar and the prose tradition of Pudumaipithan. To be fair to the State, it recognised their outstanding contributions, and the work of both these writers were nationalised. Pudumaipithan is known for his irony, sarcasm and empathy. In a sense, Pudumaipithan realised what Salman Rushdie said in 1990: “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.”
The two expunged stories are Thunbakkeni and Ponnagaram. Both the stories talk about the plight of poor Dalit women and the irony is that they are removed from the syllabus on the ground that the reading of the text would cause embarrassment to Dalit students. Thunbakkeni, which literally means the well of misery, is the first major work of fiction on forced migration from the southern part of Tamil Nadu to the upcountry plantations in Sri Lanka. Often, migration is considered to be a product of voluntary and individual choice. However, my decade-long association with the Calcutta Research Group has made it clear that migration was oftentimes a result of factors that are structural and outside the scope of individual choice. Some of the issues in forced migration are: refugee flows, internal displacement, forced migration of women and children, migration in the wake of human rights violations, natural calamities and humanitarian disasters, statelessness, illegal immigration of vulnerable people, victims of border violence and the militarisation of borders, and trafficking in sex and labour. Thunbakkeni captures many of these elements. Pudumaipithan’s prose is about a sense of loss and despair and not that of exploitation or caste hegemony. The abuses hurled at the main characters by the merciless agents of the colonial plantation sector bring out the uneven power equations. Poignancy and grief are the principle emotions in this work of fiction.
Why did the Academic Council of Madras University fail to see these reasons? Isn’t there a context in which a text is embedded? Is it possible to remove all the work of creations because someone, somewhere feels uncomfortable with it? The silver lining in this stifling atmosphere is that Dalit intellectuals are opposed to narrow interpretations. For instance, D. Ravikumar, former legislator and the editor of a major anthology on Dalit literature for Oxford University Press, said: “We should see it as literature and it is the duty of the teachers to interpret the text, taking into consideration the period in which it is set.” Hope the university listens to these intellectuals rather than opting to purge anything that talks about our difficult past.