The Great Indian Love Affair With Censorship

Arundhati-Roy_20101021 Ashis Nandy in Outlook India:

“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson said nearly 250 years ago, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” These days in India, the adage can be safely applied to nationalism. There is no other explanation of the threat to arrest and try Arundhati Roy on charges of sedition for what she said at a public meeting on Kashmir, where Syed Ali Geelani too spoke. I was not there at the meeting, but I have read her moving statement defending herself afterwards. I feel both proud and humbled by it. I am a psychologist and political analyst, handicapped by my vocation; I could not have put the case against censorship so starkly and elegantly. What she has said is simultaneously a plea for a more democratic India and a more humane future for Indians.

I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago, when I wrote a column in the Times of India on the long-term cultural consequences of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. It was a sharp attack on Gujarat’s changing middle-class culture. I was served summons for inciting communal hatred. I had to take anticipatory bail from the Supreme Court and get the police summons quashed. The case, however, goes on, even though the Supreme Court, while granting me anticipatory bail, said it found nothing objectionable in the article. The editor of the Ahmedabad edition of the Times of India was less fortunate. He was charged with sedition.

I shall be surprised if the charges of sedition against Arundhati are taken to their logical conclusion. Geelani is already facing more than a hundred cases of sedition, so one more probably won’t make a difference to him. Indeed, the government may fall back on time-tested traditions and negotiate with recalcitrant opponents through income-tax laws. People never fully trusted the income-tax officials; now they will distrust them the way they distrust the CBI.

In the meanwhile, we have made fools of ourselves in front of the whole world. All this because some protesters demonstrated at the meeting that Arundhati and Geelani addressed! Yet, I hear from those who were present at the meeting that Geelani did not once utter the word “secession”, and even went so far as to give a soft definition of azadi. By all accounts, he put forward a rather moderate agenda. Was it his way of sending a message to the government of India? How much of it was cold-blooded public relations, how much a clever play with political possibilities in Kashmir?

We shall never know, just because most of those who pass as politicians today and our knowledge-proof babus have proved themselves incapable of understanding the subtleties of public communication. They are not literate enough to know what role free speech and free press play in an open society, not only in keeping the society open but also in serious statecraft. In the meanwhile, it has become dangerous to demand a more compassionate and humane society, for that has come to mean a serious criticism of contemporary India and those who run it. Such criticism is being redefined as anti-national and divisive. In the case of Arundhati, it is of course the BJP that is setting the pace of public debate and pleading for censorship. But I must hasten to add that the Congress looks unwilling to lose the race. It seems keen to prove that it is more nationalist than the BJP.