There are no Charlie Hebdos in India. Je suis declarations notwithstanding, freedom of expression now seems to be an abstract ideal, a distant dream of our founding fathers.
At around the time that TV was breathlessly covering the 3.7 million people rally in Paris, there was considerably less attention on the protests in India against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Poor Murugan might have at the very least merited a stray nod from all those fulminating talking heads. Instead, the writer announced his retirement from writing.
For 25 years Murugan has written poetry, short stories and novels and single-handedly compiled a dictionary of the Kongu dialect. But it was his 2010 novel, Madhurobhagan (One Part Woman), set 100 years ago about a childless couple who attend a religious festival in the author’s hometown of Tiruchengode where women have consensual sex with men other than their husbands in the hope of conceiving, that has earned the ire of the RSS and caste organisations like the Hindu Munnani.
A sustained campaign included posters, a planned bandh and the distribution of selected pages. Murugan and his family were forced to flee town on the advise of the police. And a peace meeting among the author, agitators and district administration ended with an apology by Murugan and an assurance that future editions would excise the name of the town.
The stark announcement on his Facebook on January 13 was not unexpected: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.” In an earlier interview to The Hindu, the writer said: “I wonder if I can think independently [again]. This was perhaps the intention of the opposing forces.”
There is no censorship tool as sharp as the threat of violence, and this threat is now a well-established principle especially with regard to works that apparently offend religion. Movie halls that show a film depicting a character playing the role of God Shiva are vandalised. A bounty is announced on an artist who paints Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the nude. Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku remains in exile in Finland after he upset Catholic groups for exposing a supposed miracle. Islamic groups succeed in cancelling a planned visit of Salman Rushdie to a literature festival.
Are we to pretend that these individual acts — whether voluntary or imposed — do not censor future books, art and movies?
Weak-kneed politicians have proved to be willing accomplices to this fundamentalist blackmail. After all, bans on religious subjects become convenient fig leaves for covering up political criticism. So, using one of three tools — criminal sections in law that cover such vague notions of ‘grossly offensive’ (Section 66A); a declaration that they cannot be held responsible for violence (Jayalalithaa with Viswaroopam); or just sheer muscle (Congress threatening legal action against Sonia Gandhi’s biography The Red Sari, which has only just been cleared for publication in India) — they whittle away at our democratic freedoms, one ban at a time.
The liberal voice has its own version of politically correct censorship. I have written about double-standards earlier, and ask again: Why do the voices that support a ban on The Satanic Verses fall silent when inconvenient speakers are barred from university lectures? What kind of political correctness leads to the removal of a textbook cartoon of BR Ambedkar? And what prompts the Censor Board chief to quit because a film she finds unpalatable, the egregious MSG, is cleared for viewing? After all, the principle liberals adopt — don’t like, don’t watch — should apply equally to films that are ‘not substantiated by logic’, to use the Censor Board’s own words of objection. The list of not-to-be-touched topics increases with every new assault. Religion, caste, creed, politics, sex, cartoons….
It only takes a tiny crowd of rabble-rousers to threaten disruption. But where is the response to the now nearly daily disruptions of free speech? Apart from the usual suspects in TV studios, there is no public protest either against the rabble-rousers or the politicians who fail to stand up to them. Je suis Charlie, hell yes. Je suis Perumal. Anyone?
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal