Constitutional values are undermined every time someone who is invited to speak at a government or public event is cut off because her opinion is unpalatable. Yet this is the very nadir that freedom of speech in India has now reached. First, there was the unseemly cancellation of renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal’s talk in January. This weekend, actor and director Amol Palekar’s address at the opening of an exhibition in memory of artist Prabhakar Barwe at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was interrupted.
As this government completes its fifth year in power, the attempts to shut down criticism are getting stronger. The difficulty lies in reconciling this fear of public disapproval with the barrage of factoids that paint a rosy picture of the achievements of the last few years. If this were indeed so, how easy it would be to say, “Speaker, do your worst. We can prove every one of your accusations wrong.”
Mr. Palekar in his speech quoted the artist Rene Magritte: “We must not fear daylight just because it almost always illuminates a miserable world.” But that’s exactly what the authorities seem to fear nowadays: daylight. What else was Mr. Palekar doing but shedding light on the state’s insidious takeover of institutions of culture and learning? He was expressing concern that the Culture Ministry, having dissolved local committees of advisory artists, might now directly decide which artists will be allowed to exhibit at the NGMAs, when he was rudely interrupted by curator Jesal Thacker.
Anyone who imagines the government should be allowed to handle arts and culture has not met the bureaucrats regularly posted as heads of art institutions and museums. For these officials, from ministries as varied as agriculture or health, these are punishment postings. Still, the worst that the arts and culture faced under the Congress was corruption and indifference. To that is now added a system of surveillance to vet everything for ideological compliance.
In 2015, the government took over the autonomous Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), and it took three years for a non-bureaucrat chairman to be carefully placed, while most regional LKAs still don’t have full-time heads. Decisions on everything from light bulbs to wall paints are ferried from Delhi. The two regional NGMAs in Bengaluru and Mumbai scramble similarly for permissions from Delhi. Vague accusations are made in hushed tones, and ideological backgrounds discreetly checked.
There is a general feeling among the populace, perhaps fuelled by signals from the highest offices, that any criticism of the government is tantamount to criticising the country. Interestingly, NGMA director Anita Rupavataram echoed this idea. When she took the mic after Mr. Palekar was shut down, she said, “You should appreciate that this is the NGMA, a government gallery.” In other words, the silencing, if not criminalising, of criticism is now complete.
The writer is an Associate Editor at The Hindu