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Enemies of cultural freedom

If a contemporary society is one that cherishes liberality of public discourse and guarantees the right to dissent, then the truth is we aren't that, says RANJIT HOSKOTE, commenting on the recent incidents of `cultural intolerance' in Pune, Surat and Mumbai.

LIKE Agent Smith in the "Matrix", the enemies of cultural freedom assume many forms in present-day India. They can manifest themselves as a gang of ruffians, who break into a shrine of learning, to terrorise scholars and destroy thousands of rare books and manuscripts. Or else, they may appear as a goon squad, gate-crashing an art gallery, seizing and burning contemporary paintings that they find contrary to their iconographical tastes. But these good folks do not always hit the streets, armed with cudgels, stones and effigies ready for immolation. They can camouflage themselves as suave mandarins, defending their unsubtle attempts at censoring an international festival of documentary cinema.

Whatever avatar they assume to suit the crisis of the moment, the enemies of cultural freedom stake the same claim in each case: they assert their absolute right to set limits on what writers may write, artists may paint, documentary filmmakers may show. This absolute right of restriction is based on a self-proclaimed custodianship of a religious or ethnic tradition, or a collective self-image, which must, apparently, be defended against the calumnies of dissenters. That custodianship derives, not from the authority of knowledge or competence in the field whose custody is claimed, but rather, from the power to intimidate other participants in the public sphere, where issues are discussed and opinion formulated.

Python-like, the intimidatory power of the enemies of cultural freedom suffocates both civil society and the polity. It can paralyse state administrations and frighten its victims into variations on the Stockholm syndrome. In the first instance cited here, the Maharashtra Government displayed a deplorable pusillanimity in dealing with the Sambhaji Brigade, which wrecked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, early last month. While more than 70 suspects were detained, the outfit's prime ideologue remains at liberty to propagate his message of hate; worse, the Government has unthinkingly banned the book, a study of the Maratha hero Shivaji's life in its historical context, which the brigade misused as a launch-pad for its spree.

While citizens mobilised themselves, in a surge of public feeling, to restore the traumatised research centre to normality, the authorities failed in their duty to safeguard the freedom of expression, enshrined as a fundamental right in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The argument has been tacitly advanced (not for the first time) that liberal scholarship and critical writing invite suppression: since they provoke enraged reactions, this argument implies, they constitute a threat to peace and order. Thus pre-vindicated, any troublemaker can now articulate his freedom of umbrage, on the grounds that he was incited to violence by a poem, novel, painting, play, or critique.

Praful Shah, owner of the Garden Art Gallery in Surat, which was attacked by Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists late last month, has refused to press charges. He has even offered to consult the attackers on the "objectionability" issue before re-mounting the ill-fated exhibition. No doubt he fears reprisal and cannot rely on the state machinery to afford him security. Whatever his compulsions, the arsonists who violated Shah's gallery have gone unpunished. These men have claimed and exercised their right to destroy the creations of leading exponents of postcolonial Indian art, should these offend their religious sentiments. They have burnt a painting by M.F. Husain, slashed another by Chittrovanu Mazumdar, and damaged yet others by N.S. Bendre and K.H. Ara. Indeed, these Hindutva storm-troopers believed all the paintings they wrecked to be the work of Husain, who they have been taught to regard as an arch-blasphemer. This, despite Husain's deep, richly textured understanding of the Indic religious universe, consistently displayed over six decades of image-making. The arsonists' claim to a monopoly on the representation of Hindu deities is risible enough, given that the Indic religions are celebrated for their abundant versionality of image, symbol and narrative.

Only in the last of these three episodes do we find signs of resilience on the part of cultural producers whose freedom of expression has been threatened by powerful forces. The strong protest registered by Indian documentary filmmakers forced the organisers of this year's Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) to withdraw a discriminatory clause that required all national entries to be certified for screening by the Censor Board. The intention had clearly been to sieve out films expressing a politics of critical resistance. The empire struck back, of course: the exclusionary pattern of selection for MIFF demonstrated the triumph of the censorial impulse by other means. The dissidents, stopped at the gate, mounted their own alternative festival, powered more by goodwill than by lavish funding. A heartening development; but it does not alter the fact that a platform which should have been open and plural was subjected to censorship.

These episodes are symptomatic of our increasingly illiberal and schizophrenic society. On the one hand, we have ridden the dramatic social and cultural transformations engendered by the globalisation process: this has brought us an illusion of advanced-economy status, complete with glass skyscrapers, credit cards, high-speed Internet connections, and a consumerist anti-ethic. On the other hand, the loss of sovereignty and the renewed anxieties of self-definition have unleashed the interrelated reactions of neo-tribalism, aggressive religiosity, and masculinist ego-assertion. These collective reactions are combustible, drawing as they do on a mixture of syndromes, including hyper-patriotism, maniacal economic aspiration, a sense of historic grievance, and the compensatory fantasy of blood-lust. Any resistance to these reactions, any criticism of the validity of these syndromes, any refusal to be co-opted into their workings, is perceived as evidence of disloyalty, to be crushed. We see this process unfolding, in varying degrees of brutality, in the Pune, Surat and Mumbai episodes.

The truth is that we are not as contemporary a society as we would like to believe — if a contemporary society is one that cherishes liberality of public discourse and guarantees the right to dissent. In present-day India, individuals tend to assemble under the rubric of collective selves constructed from the materials of ethnicity, religion, region or gender. Fragile as they are, these collective selves become ferocious in self-defence: lacking the positive dimensions of creativity or compassion, they can assert themselves only through negative, antagonistic gestures. They find their natural targets among those who insist on the right to individuation: those who unmask power disguised as natural condition, turn their X-ray vision on cultural dogmas, and posit open-terrain elsewheres against the regimented Utopias advertised by the control elites.

The struggle to be heard in the public sphere pitches writers, artists and filmmakers against the bizarre counter-modernity of yobbos who combine ignorance with adroitness, coordinating their revanchist manoeuvres over the cell-phone and posting their barbarous triumphs on self-congratulatory websites. There is little space for conversation between the creative imagination and the destructive one; and little hope for that republic, constituted from exchanges among responsible, receptive and enlightened individual selves, which once animated a liberal idea of India.

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