Our politicians' attempts to curb freedom of speech would be absurd if they weren't also so scary.
It is not easy to mesh Chekhov and Kafka; one was interested in the absurd, the other in the sinister. Our politicians, however, appear to be managing quite nicely.
Even though we are not halfway through 2012, I was convinced our politicos had reached their nadir for the year in terms of lampooning freedom of expression. After all, what can be worse than a state government conjuring would-be assassins to prevent a writer from attending a literary festival? Forget about attending, Ashok Gehlot's government spun such a web of rumour and fear that Salman Rushdie did not even get to do a videoconference at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Friends tell me that while Ashok Gehlot can be accused of several things, avid reading is not one of them. Yet, when it came to adapting The Day of the Jackal to Rajasthan, he and his minions succeeded in suspending disbelief to a degree that would make a thriller writer green with envy. I, for one, came away from Jaipur thinking I had seen everything.
I had, however, reckoned without Mamata Banerjee.
The fact that there is a profound lack of democracy in the way our political parties are run is no secret. That is even truer in the case of parties like the Trinamool Congress that have regional clout and derive their identity completely from their charismatic leader. Yet, every political leader realises, or should realise, that wielding power, even in a flawed democracy, is different from running a political party. To that end, the last thing he or she can afford to have is a thin skin. Even Nelson Mandela faced criticism as President of South Africa. After the sacrifices he had made to rid South Africa of apartheid, he could have been excused for wanting the public to cut him some slack. Instead, he bore what was levelled at him with the dignity that is his trademark. If he can do it, then why can't Mamata Banerjee? With all due respect to Didi, as she is popularly known, who is she in front of Mandela?
That Didi's actions are troubling is an understatement. If the act of banning mainstream Bengali and English-language dailies from public libraries was disturbing, the crackdown on intellectuals is frightening to say the least. What happened to Professor Mahapatra of Jadavpur University is a case in point. By targeting intellectuals, Didi's West Bengal instantly invites comparison to Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Pinochet's Chile, Peron's Argentina… The entire gallery of history's rogue regimes.
What is especially distressing is that this is happening in West Bengal. The contribution of Bengalis to India's literary and artistic capital is immense. There have been so many great Bengali writers and artists. Furthermore, this is the centenary of the publication of the English translation of Gitanjali that went on to win Tagore the Nobel Prize in 1913. The state should be basking in the glory of that momentous event. Instead, it is making headlines for something completely antithetical to all free thinking without which no literary or artistic tradition can flourish.
Nothing to laugh at
Make no mistake about it. This is a matter of concern for all of us. We writers tend to live in the world inside our heads. When we move out of that world, it is often to criticise each other. While we can be accused of a number of things, solidarity is not one of them. We are a wildly anarchic tribe. Yet, there are times where a measure of solidarity is needed. This is one of them.
It would be foolhardy to say “Heck, I don't live in West Bengal, so this does not affect me.” If Didi is allowed to muzzle her critics, then it could very well have a knock-on effect with other politicians following suit. After all, which politico likes to be criticised? They put up with it, because they feel they must. If they see one of their own tamping down on criticism and getting away scot free, then they, too, will conclude that they have free rein to do the same.
It is tempting to merely focus on the absurdity of Didi's actions. Her explanation, for instance, for putting Professor Mahapatra behind bars is laughable. Honing in on the absurdity helps blunt the seriousness of the situation while giving all of us a good laugh. The absurdity, however, cannot hide the fact that what is going on is truly scary. Let us remember there was a time where former Corporal Hitler was dismissed as a raving madman with the funny moustache. The tragedy that ensued from such a miscalculation is well-documented. Let us not allow Didi's hubris to reach such proportions.