Where else but in India can you choose to get offended by a whole range of things and manage to get the State to back you? Not in Taliban Afghanistan, where the kajal-eyed boys only shuddered against infidel relics, taped music and women in public spaces. Not in Bible Belt America, where society is only perturbed by the growth of homosexuals, non-Gentiles and Californicators. Not in France, where women in headscarves alone bring about a reaction akin to Transylvanian villagers responding to oversized bats. And look at places like Holland and Britain where everything goes and nothing shocks any more. (The ‘Danish cartoons’ became an issue only when a group of Danish imams pointed out the blasphemous drawings to their counterparts in faraway West Asia).
Not so in India. Here everything is capable of shocking someone — if that someone puts his mind to it and calls a TV channel to rant against it. If it isn’t Richard Gere mock-slobbering over Shilpa Shetty in front of condom-sceptic truck drivers, or Mandira Bedi wearing the Indian tricolour (among all the other flags of the countries participating in the cricket World Cup) on her sari near her knee (!) that gets your goat, how about Rakhi Sawant keeping a statuette of Buddha in her bathroom? If the PILs of R.S. Teotia (who found Shilpa guilty of obscenity and depicting women in the media indecently) and Pushparaj (who found Mandira denigrating the nation) and the police complaint by Mahesh Tayade against Rakhi (for hurting the sensibilities of all Buddhists, the Dalai Lama downwards) were made, they were made because they could be made according to the bountiful laws of India that care for everyone.
Apart from Tayade, a member of the Dalit Panthers — and, therefore, always on the look-out for feeling offended on behalf of ‘his community’ — the other two are ordinary citizens, the sort who think that a woman getting raped at a central New Delhi market in the morning is the logical result of a proliferation of pornography, sex education in schools and adult programming on late-night television — and not because of lousy policing or a sexually repressed society. That enjoying pornography (or skimpily attired models lolling about a beach, or women sashaying down a ramp with nipples shining through the fabric) could be an activity mutually exclusive from being raped strikes these folks as liberal bakwaas.
So, in such a milieu, what would the Minister of Proletkult of a socialistic government do but listen to the people who have been left scarred by offensive displays and act. “When the committee feels that it is bad, it is bad. When the committee feels that it is not bad, it is not bad.” This was not the Committee of Badness — or the Ministry of Silly Walks — making a point. It was Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi speaking as Proletkult chief and reacting to criticism against his decision to temporarily ban two TV channels for airing “bad” things.
Coming from Calcutta as he does, Dasmunsi’s mission to “keep things clean” does not stem from a natural tendency to fight smut. A Congressman of the polis if there was one, Dasmunsi’s conservatism stems from pragmatism, not unlike the political religiosity of an L.K. Advani who wanted a Ram temple built in Ayodhya not because he’s besotted with Lord Ram, but because he knew a popular demand when he saw one.
But for all the groans that can be heard from liberal circles — for, let’s face it, curtailing ‘public’ adult entertainment is not the harbinger of a tin-pot dictatorship in this country — there could be one big positive spin-off that can be expected from the actions of Dasmunsi. By clamping down on perceived indecency — and one man’s Insaaf ka Tarazu and Baywatch is another man’s Draupadi’s vastraharan and Nat Geo programme respectively — our very own Lunacharsky hopes to social-engineer the nation’s public collective libido. What the nation does in private, whether in front of a DVD screen or behind a closed door or in the ‘collective privacy’ of faraway Khairlanji village in Maharashtra, doesn’t concern Dasmunsi. After all, even he knows that all this is not his business. But as far as the public sphere of TV (internet?) goes, he wants to control the knobs.
As a result, we will have no (Western) tits — a perfectly legit Old English word with Germanic roots! — on the telly, but much going for those selling those DVDs at Palika Bazar and manning websites like www.desipapa.com. And who knows? The way The Pearl (1879-1880), The Boudoir (1860) and other erotic collections flourished in the dark alleys and cupboards of a self-enforced and repressed Victorian England, liberal 21st century India may, thanks to officially sanctioned sanctimoniousness, bloom erotically and finally mature from its pre-pubescence where it keeps saying, “It doesn’t bother me. But you know, one has to understand the sensibilities of others. So...”
Dasmunsi may have also just provided a much-needed catalyst for the nation to delink the idea of the erotic with that of the West — the lascivious, ‘easy’ gori — the idea strengthened by necessarily foreign late-night TV shows. Perhaps, the minister’s inspiration is 19th century Calcutta.
In 1853, Calcutta’s population was around 4 lakh. The number of recorded prostitutes were 12,719. And yet, the imaginary erotic landscape was littered with Western images or copies of Western moral manuals. Books published in England, like Venus of India and Love Adventures in Hindustan, not to mention The Pearl, were the rage among the sophisticated babus. As the Reverend James Long wrote in his Handbook of Bengal Mission in 1848, his nostrils all a-flaring, “The Indian market has been inundated with obscene French prints”, with sellers coming up to customers saying, “Babu, you want French cards? Naked pictures?”
By 1856, the British government, rattled by the news of natives lusting after White women in their imaginations and harangued by the likes of Rev Long (genuinely scandalised by the decadence displayed by both Indian and European residents), passed a law prohibiting ‘obscenity’ not only in books and pictures, but also in dance, song, gesture, recitation, etc. This was before such a law came into force in Britain. Thousands of ‘obscene’ books were confiscated. But along with the mushrooming of organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Obscenity in India by the late 19th century, a whole slew of perceived pornographic literature started growing ‘underground’ in an unprecedented manner. One even saw the emergence of protests against the officially sanctioned drive against obscenity. (An 1873 cartoon in Basantak depicted Goddess Kali in a sari and blouse standing on top of Lord Shiva wearing trousers, with a line stating that this was the Kali idol in the house of a member of the anti-obscenity committee.)
By the 1870s, books like The Secret Life of Haridas, Foreign Secrets, Kul Kalankini or Calcutta’s Secret Life, became immensely popular. These ‘Bot-thala’ books, named after the area in north Calcutta from where they were printed, were fanned and fuelled from the official prohibition.
Blocking adult fare on TV will not leave the urban Indian erotic imagination high and dry. But with Rev Dasmunsi making his taste operational, he could be trying to take us menfolk away from those tanned blondes and pale women to something more homegrown. So before you sign on that signature campaign to rage about how the I&B Ministry is blocking freedom, just think of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi not as Censor Board Central, but as the possible father of 21st century Indian avant-garde.