Measure India’s greatness through academic, cultural freedoms
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Measure India’s greatness through academic, cultural freedoms

If artists are made to feel insecure, if their work is threatened on the basis of rumours, when art is repressed, when books are burnt, when the whole country is made to follow a single text, then no good ideas or policies can emerge

opinion Updated: Nov 30, 2017 19:22 IST
Padmavati,academic freedom,cultural freedom
A woman reacts to a protest organised by the Akhil Bharyiya Chatriya Mahasabha, Ranchi, Jharkhand, November 28 (Parwaz Khan/ HT)

Some Hindu fundamentalist groups have threatened to disallow the release and screening of Padmavati, a film based on a 16th century fictional story of a Rajput queen and an invading ruler. These groups earlier tried to vandalise the sets during the production of this film. They also announced rewards for cutting off the nose of the actor and beheading the director. Similar acts by Islamic fundamentalists surrounded the release of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. Following threats, Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for years. Many artists and intellectuals have been banished and paid a price, because of such groups, with the State remaining a mute spectator at best.

Several issues are at stake here. The primary argument of such groups is that their community sentiments and pride are hurt and the honour of ‘their’ women is at stake. The groups get further legitimacy by statements from several politicians who are always ready to pander and promote such sentiments, since they draw their strength from crowd and community mobilisation. In this regard, the Supreme Court’s observation asking netas not to make comments that could influence the working of independent bodies is welcome.

Historically and conceptually, it is well known that women are symbolically represented as upholding the honour of their community and the nation they belong to. Women’s bodies thus are repositories of such pride and honour. When the enemy or ‘other’ wishes to destroy this pride, they have traditionally done so by ‘dishonouring’ women through rape and sexual harassment. This act dishonours the community as a whole. This is why rape has been an instrument of war and of humiliation to a community, even while it is an attack on an individual woman. So symbolic honour is protected while real women are dishonoured.

Women’s groups internationally have struggled to delink women’s bodies from the concept of honour because it translates into gendered political control, where the power to destroy is shown as part of masculinised toughness. This reinforces the traditionally unequal relations between men and women, based on male privileges and superior rights. Men assert their role as protectors of the weak and occupy public spaces. Women are forced to accept their inferior position as the ‘helpless protected’ and so get confined to domestic ‘soft’ spaces. Thus, women’s struggles for equality and empowerment are pushed back once again.

Even though at an individual level many women break the glass ceiling, and are encouraged to do so and gain political power, women as a gender remain unequal. Internationally, nationally and at the local level, women have been struggling for equality and parity with their male counterparts. This inequality makes them economically and socially insecure. They have to fight either through collective actions led by women’s groups or through courts of law to get the privileges that men have from birth.

That is why many organisations have passed resolutions for gender equality and made attempts to pressure States to make these principles into laws, norms and practices. This gender inequality is also the basis for violence against women. Women’s groups, thus, should be at the forefront of the movement for dissent, cultural freedoms as these are lined to participatory democracy.

The truth is that acts of violence and threats, especially through vigilante groups, are deeply embedded in power inequalities. Some politicians while in power, as well as those aspiring for power, are known to use such limited violence to control thought, action and policy. Ethnic and race mobilisations are asserted through violent actions.

Is a country incredible and great because it has high GDP and ease of business alone? Where women remain excluded and security lies in the hands of fundamentalist groups? Where fear stalks and ideas are attacked?

Such threats must be stopped by the State. It has the responsibility to protect its citizens. If artists are made to feel insecure, if their work is threatened on the basis of rumours, when art is repressed, when books are burnt, when the whole country is made to follow a single text, then no good ideas or policies can emerge. Mediocrity triumphs at the cost of talent and commitment. Technocracy takes over from science.

A country becomes great and incredible not with markets alone. Academic and cultural freedoms need autonomy and space. Any violation of this space is a destruction of ideas. Once there is thought control through street violence, there is little left in the creative life of a nation.

Anuradha Chenoy is professor, School of International Studies, JNU

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 30, 2017 18:29 IST