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Who's afraid of culture cops?

Banned books in India end up as bestsellers while banned films are easily found in grey market, writes Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2006 02:03 IST

Culture is what your butcher would have if he were a surgeon. In the thirties, when novelist Mary Poole coined this definition, the refined folks would have been outraged if the butcher were to decide how to live their lives.

But that was then, when culture was seen as a class act. For the post modernists, the butcher too is a custodian of popular culture. From consumption of movies and music to ad jingles, a surgeon’s world often overlaps with that of a butcher. Everyone imbibes culture as a process of learning social behaviour. (Our hunger is our animal need but our craving for aloo parantha or corn flakes is cultural.)

Popular culture is consensual but everyone has a right to differ. Moral controversies are a feature of every plural society where no single authority has a monopoly over public good. A liberal democracy has space for all sorts of opinion leaders: priests with laptops, market-savvy Marxists, fundamentalists with MBAs and good-act-junkies. Moral controversies per se are not so bad even though they seem to be inspired by business sense more than faith.

Common occurrence

In a vibrant democracy like India, several cases of cultural policing hog the headlines every month and the dissidents include all types of ideological and religious groups.The following examples show the sheer range of cultural policing:

A Congress Government barred girls from dancing in Mumbai’s pubs; The Armed Forces’ brass forced changes in Rang De Basanti; BJP’s youth brigade pulled Rang De… out of many cinemas and managed to stop Fanaa in most of Gujarat; The CPM govt. in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasreen’s novel, Dwikhandita; Samajawadi Party minister Yaqoob Qureishi announced Rs 51 crore reward on the head of the Danish cartoonist. BJP’s Vinay Katiyar ‘gave’ what appeared to be the right to find, judge and kill a ‘terrorist’ for bounty. Attires of ‘item girls’ Rakhee Sawant and Meghna Naidu attracted severe outrage in Kolhapur and Junagarh towns. All these cases are recent and the list goes on and on. Moral policing is clearly on the rise.

Free speech vs faith

When a liberal society bothers to suppress an artist’s work, it acknowledges that it is potent enough to constitute a danger. That’s why the political class takes the freedom of faith more seriously than the freedom of expression (For legal view see the bottom article). Free speech can be politically incorrect but it gives diverse alternatives to the majority view, which is often wrong and conceited.

Fortunately, governments, throughout history, have fared badly at censorship. Or else diversity and free speech wouldn’t have survived the condemnation of Galileo and countless others who were persecuted for speaking out their beliefs that finally proved the majority wrong.

If being hopelessly bad at censorship is such a historical virtue, the Indian government seems to be doing a splendid job. Most books it has banned are underground bestsellers and all the banned movies are freely available.

Heavens are not falling

The unprecedented rise in cultural policing has taught the public to take the usual suspects with a pinch of salt. Just as other Hindu hardliners, Pravin Togadia or Sadhvi Ritambhara, Katiyar’s provocative speeches are being consistently ignored. The only hope of publicity comes from the sedition case slapped against him by the Jammu and Kashmir police. SP’s Qureishi is mercifully out of the news despite raising his pitch. And Rang De Basanti and Fanaa are mega success stories, despite the outcry.

As a trend, cultural policing is bound to increase in direct proportion to expansion of pluralism, permissiveness and celebration of body. For now, MTV merrily co-exists with Sanskar TV and teenagers and grandparents, sharing TV sets, often end up watching both!

First Published: Jun 12, 2006 02:03 IST