Words do not always liberate
Sometimes they also imprison
I am in search of such a line
That will set me free
From the web of suffocating sentences.
– Punjabi poet Surjit Patar
The recent vilification of Arundhati Roy in the mainstream Indian media has once again highlighted the question of limits to freedom of expression. She successfully deflected possible charges of sedition by pointing out that civilised countries do not imprison their writers for words spoken in passion or compassion. Sebastian Seeman, a Tamil filmmaker, was not so fortunate – he has twice been arrested under the National Security Act for saying much less in support of Tamil Eelam. But Home Minister P Chidambaram is a Harvard graduate and a corporate lawyer, and knows the difference between an English-language and a Tamil-language writer too well to treat them in a similar manner. So, Roy was let off the hook – but with enough of a hint to the friendly press to create an unfriendly environment so that her freedom became much more oppressive than the honour of being a prisoner of conscience in a supposedly democratic state.
There is little to complain about in the observation that Roy made. With the people wanting azaadi, and living in an almost permanent state of siege by the Indian security forces, Kashmir has indeed never been an integral part of India. This statement is applicable to some states of the Northeast too, where Indian has connotations different from what the word is taken to signify elsewhere. Had the government gone for Arundhati Roy’s head for telling the truth, its actions would only have added further lustre to her celebrity status. What the Indian establishment has done instead is to let loose upon her the hounds of the media and the foxes of the chattering classes.
Indeed, the talking heads are still not done with the Booker winner. The opinion pages continue to bristle with the rage of armchair analysts, who see her as a challenge to the putative superpower from Southasia. The saffron brigade is bent upon keeping her in the news by branding her ‘anti-national’ at the slightest pretext. It is unlikely that Roy’s critics are determined to turn her into a martyr of controversial causes. However, every effort to demonise a writer of her status succeeds in dissuading scribes of lesser visibility, glamour and presence from supporting issues of common concern.
There is some truth to the allegation that Roy has turned every cause that she has supported into a topic of dinner-table conversation without having any positive impact on the affected people. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, for instance, received a good deal of attention but then became a non-issue for most. Roy’s success in drawing world attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the process of globalisation has also been limited. Whether the Adivasis of Dantewada benefited from her portrayal of them as ‘Gandhians with guns’ remains doubtful. And yet, India – and Southasia at large – needs public figures like her to critique the powers that be.
Successful states know that gag rules seldom work in societies with a tradition of dissent, such as in Southasia, a fact that dawned on Indira Gandhi only when she lost control over what she had considered her family fiefdom. These days, the establishment has to ‘manufacture consent’ in order to make denial of dissent palatable.
Many scribes have begun to aim their pens and hurl invective at those whom they consider to be enemies of ‘national interest’ – namely, those opposing the building of huge dams or nuclear-power stations. Whosoever suggests a rethinking of these issues must be either a lunatic or an enemy of progress and possibly both, or so the argument goes. Supporters of ‘development’ have technocratic legitimacy and are impossible to refute. Even though it is perfectly valid from a scientific perspective, the idea that big dams are possible sources of catastrophe, or that nuclear-power plants are sitting bombs, has few takers. The number of opinion-makers devoted to the protection of ‘national interest’ in Southasia is staggering.
Another aspect of suppressing dissent is subtler. Maoist fighters in India might not number more than 20,000, and most of them might have unsophisticated weapons, but they have been portrayed as the biggest security threat for the third-largest defence establishment of the world. When the enemy within is shown to be so fearsome, it becomes essential to denounce all of its sympathisers.
Dissent is also quelled by what can only be called private prior restraint. The gatekeepers of the media collude to exclude voices that they consider unhealthy for the growth of the market, the interests of the political elite or the preferences of the cultural majority. The expansion and commercialisation of the media has only strengthened this mindset. From the standpoint of this brigade, the right of free speech is of course sacrosanct; but it also comes with responsibilities, and public figures need to exercise restraint when commenting on sensitive issues. Nationalism, the national army and national culture are too important to be frivolously debated. Apologists for the establishment try to shame dissenters into silence. When ‘nationalist’ attackers also pretend to be protectors of fundamental freedoms, it is extremely difficult for the targets of their kind concerns to remain unaffected for long.
Then there is the ever-present danger of self-censorship. The possible rewards of wilful silence and the likely punishment for speaking up are so skewed in modern societies that the upwardly mobile almost invariably prefer to keep mum – though some are so embarrassed by their own immobility that they lap up every opportunity to comfort their consciences by speaking up for the exceptional dissenter. Shame can also be expressed through belligerence: there are habitual conformists who justify their choices by pouncing upon all critics of the social, religious, commercial or political establishment. In either case, the voice of conscience is either suppressed or drowned out by words of convenience.
The incessant attacks on Roy are symptomatic of the rising intolerance in countries of the region for views au contraire to the mainstream. M F Husain was hounded out of India. Taslima Nasreen has not been allowed to enter Bangladesh since 1994. Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was excluded from the Bombay University curriculum by the thought police of the once-secular and progressive metropolitan city.
In order to explain his oft-quoted observation that artistes were the ‘antennae of the race’, Ezra Pound once offered the corollary that a country’s writers were ‘voltmeters and steam-gauges of that nation’s intellectual life’. He also issued the warning that ‘they are registering instruments, and if they falsified their reports there is no measure to the harm they do.’
It would need a great leap of faith to buy the Indian government’s position that Kashmir is as integral a part of India as, say, the most expensive private residences of Bombay. Bangladesh has declared itself to be a secular country once again, but it will be some time before another Taslima feels secure enough to challenge the hold of orthodoxy and return to the country. Norms of propriety might prevent some from accepting it, but the charge that the armed forces of Sri Lanka wiped out sections of its own population is far from baseless.
The region needs more intellectuals who talk about issues that concern not only their own countries, but others as well. Stagnation in the social, cultural, economic and political lives of the Subcontinent can only be fought with subversion. Walls of words need to be pierced with arrows of expression. ‘Gandhians with guns’ is a nice piece of wordplay with intrinsic contradictions, but to call it seditious is akin to pretending that Naxalites would disappear overnight if there were no writers to tell their stories to the world.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine, Republica and the Nepali Times.