Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Bleeping bleeps

In a collection of ghost stories, Washer of the Dead, Venita Coelho describes a place where women no longer speak. Mothers cooperate by silencing their daughters, but one woman breaks the rule. Of course, suffering ensues. And much of the suffering comes from people cooperating too much with the oppressive forces.

In stories, it is easy to tell the good guys from the bad. But in real life, most of us dither. We wonder why there’s such a fuss about Salman Rushdie. Well, the fuss isn’t about Rushdie, or Taslima Nasreen. The fuss is about societies that silence people through violence. We read about such societies in books and we shudder.

And yet, we do so little to protect our society from silence. The wretched assumption is that some people’s freedom is morally superior (such as the press) to others’ (such as writers). I missed most of the exciting events at the Jaipur literature festival this year but some writers had started a petition asking the state to reconsider the ban on Satanic Verses. I was helping get signatures when I was ambushed by some TV crews.

They wanted me to speak about “the issue”. I told them to read the petition. They didn’t want to. They just wanted another face to take up the Rushdie chant. I asked if they would sign the petition. They refused. I asked why they didn’t want to sign and they mumbled, “Well, we’re press people…”, which left me very annoyed. There’s a difference between being objective and being a mute spectator to injustice.

There are some basic rights that our constitution guarantees us and freedom of speech and expression is one. Press people are citizens first and in fact, they should be at the forefront of this particular battle. How can reporters expect that they can tell a true story unmolested, if a writer cannot write fiction unmolested?

Besides, the press is supposed to inform public opinion. But often, the only information being conveyed is that X group is offended by Y book, and Z is at risk. Why is there no emphasis on the fact that X group is breaking the law? Death threats are illegal; writing is not.

Look at what is happening to us. Actors are dragged to court for a peck on the cheek. Art is destroyed (without it being paid for). Activists are arrested for possessing leftist literature (including Bhagat Singh’s writings). Recently, Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist (reportedly a Team Anna player), was accused of treason because he lampooned the state’s (alleged) attitude to corruption. When Arundhati Roy expressed her views on Kashmir, she was threatened and her house attacked. TV crews stood there, recording, but not really condemning.

Now take this thing about cows. When historian DN Jha wrote Holy Cow, publishers didn’t want it. They expected violence since Jha reminds us that cow sacrifice and beef-eating were common during the Vedic era. A decade ago, reports in newspapers mentioned calls for a ban, and suggested that the book was blasphemous. Almost nobody focused on the fact that Jha was facing death threats, and his tormentors deserved to be arrested.

A decade later, beef stands criminalised in states like Madhya Pradesh. When foreign TV shows like Friends are aired, the word ‘beef’ is removed. As if beef simply did not exist anywhere in the world. Which is a lie, of course. But in eliminating the word, cable networks are demonstrating to us how to cut off our tongues, offer them up at bloodthirsty altars of silence, and pretend that we have managed to live unmolested.

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