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The fundamentalist virus

Amulya Ganguli's commentaryreveals India's politics of curbing literary and creative freedoms.

india Updated: May 23, 2006 13:46 IST

By Amulya Ganguli

The protests by several Christian groups against the screening of The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's controversial novel, have underlined a distressing aspect of the Indian scene where fundamentalists of all hues seem to be having a field day.

Mercifully, the Christian protests did not involve any violence unlike the Hindu militants' attacks on exhibitions of MF Husain's contentious paintings.

But there was at least one person, former Mumbai corporator Nicholas Almeida, who offered a reward of Rs 1.1 million to anyone who brought the author of the book before him "dead or alive".

His outrageous demand was no different from the one made by an Uttar Pradesh minister, Yaqub Qureshi, who offered a reward of Rs 510 million for the head of the Danish cartoonist for his depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

What is evident from these incidents is that the typical intolerance of the fundamentalists is no longer confined to one group.

If the followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar have targeted films like Deepa Mehta's Water for showing Hindu widows in poor light, or attacked an exhibition organised by the Leftist group Sahmat on the different versions of the Hindu epic Ramayana, including one showing the divine figures Ram and Sita as siblings, the Muslims and now Christians have obviously been infected by the same deadly virus of bigotry.

There is little doubt that the government's frequent capitulation to the fundamentalist demands has encouraged the latter.

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was banned following threats of violence by sundry Muslim groups.

Unfortunately, India was the first country to do so, even before the Islamic countries.

As a spin-off, the government even disallowed the filming of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which recently won the Booker of Bookers prize, because of the author's unpopularity with the extremists among the Muslims.

Nor is the Congress the only party which is prone to bending before the militants.

The Left Front government of West Bengal was unhappy about the filming of City of Joy in Kolkata, although it finally allowed the shooting to go ahead, while the Forward Bloc, one of the constituents of the Front, threatened a boycott of Shyam Benegal's film on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bose: The Forgotten Hero, because it showed Bose's marriage.

The fact that it has been approved of by the censor board clearly had no meaning to the protestors.

The Left Front government had also banned Dwikhandita (Divided Self), the autobiography of the fiercely outspoken Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, because it feared it would antagonise the Muslim community.

Fortunately, the Kolkata High Court subsequently lifted the ban.

But Aamir Khan's film Mangal Pandey, The Rising, on the hero of the 1857 uprising of the sepoys against the British, is still involved in litigation as Pandey's descendents have objected to the way he has been depicted. 

 
The furore over Prophet Mohammad's cartoons had not quite died out when a new controversy stole the show - the film version of The Da Vinci Code

Although The Da Vinci Code had been passed by the censors, the Christian groups were not mollified. As a result, the government had to organise a special screening where these objectors were present along with Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi. Later, they stipulated the conditions under which the film could be shown.

An identical incident occurred earlier when Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had to clear the Aamir Khan film Rang De Basanti, which showed a defence minister being gunned down, before it could be released.

That filmmakers also try to play safe is evident from the fact that before releasing his film Bombay, based on the 1992-93 communal violence in the city, director Mani Ratnam invited Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray to a special screening to secure his approval.

It may not be beside the point to say that a convention may develop under which all controversial films will require a certificate from ministers and powerful politicians before they can be shown to the public.

Already this restriction exists in the matter of literary and even historical works. Only a few months ago, the Maharashtra government banned James W. Laine's biography of Shivaji, the 18th century Maratha warrior. Not only that, the government even threatened to set Interpol on the author.

A biography of BR Ambedkar may also experience a similar fate because the Dalit leader's followers are unhappy about references to an exchange of letters between him and an English woman.

The government has a long history of succumbing to such pressures. Way back in 1954, Aubrey Menen's Rama Retold had to be taken off the shelves following protests from self-proclaimed defenders of Hindu sensitivity because of the author's individualistic interpretation of the Ramayana.

Another book The Ochre Robe, by Swami Agehananda, aroused the ire of sections of Hindus because of its less flattering description of Hindu monastic life.

Not unrelated to this habit of banning books is the propensity to rewrite history in order to bring it in line with political prejudices, a deplorable trait which was most in evidence when the BJP was in power in New Delhi.

The customary explanation that is given to justify such acts of interference in literary, artistic and historical works is that they must not offend religious feelings.

It is the same reason which was advanced to stop Galileo from saying that the earth goes around the sun.

India does not seem to have moved much ahead in this respect from medieval times.

Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached ataganguli@mail.com