The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Censorship as a Political Instrument

(this piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian on 17th October)

There are certain leaders who have the ability to transform a political moment, to take a localised anger or dissatisfaction and convert it into a movement of real force. History remembers these people more than any other. Mahatma Gandhi managed it, as did his contemporary Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Hitler did it in 1934, and Churchill eight years later. Mayawati is now recognised as a more significant political force than her mentor Kanshi Ram, because she could convert Dalit dissatisfaction in Uttar Pradesh into lasting national political influence. L.K. Advani will be remembered as one who accomplished it, even as any number of pretenders, from Kalyan Singh to Varun Gandhi, will fade from memory.

In post-Independence India, Shiv Sena leader Balasaheb Thackeray has managed this most adroitly. With little institutional support or party experience, he created a political platform for his unique ideology. The Shiv Sena plank combined a number of different concerns that many Maharashtrans felt in the 1960s, but these were buttressed by a series of anti-Constitutional demands (especially for religious and regional favouritism) that suited Thackeray’s personal, virulent antagonisms. His years in politics have been wildly successful, and Maharashtra has never been the same.

And so it falls upon the ambitious young Aditya Thackeray to enter this theatre of competitive chauvinism, and the weight of familial experience sits heavy. His father Uddhav, son of the Tiger, tried briefly to cleave the party from its roots, hoping to woo the middle-class Maharasthtran with a brand of parochialism untainted by the thuggish politics favoured until then. His singular failure, and uncle Raj’s ascendancy, has sent Aditya a potent signal: their brand of right-wing politics demands emotive symbolism, rhetoric, and a unified grassroots support that teeters on the precipice of violence and “retribution”.

If the youngest Thackeray goes on to become a force in Maharashtran politics, his campaign to have Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-nominated novel Such A Long Journey removed from the syllabus of Mumbai University will be remembered as his entry point. The problem, it seems, is Mistry’s less-than-flattering portrayal of the patriarch, of the Shiv Sena, of the Marathi manoos, and of Mumbai’s dabbawallas.

Yet history – and official and unofficial censorship has a long history in India – teaches us that content is immaterial. At times like this, too many columnists and literary analysts spend their time defending the content of these books. Poring over the offending texts reveals nothing, because in India, outrage can be manufactured over anything. Instead, look at the political circumstances surrounding these controversies. This is how we can counter such vigilantism.

The excising of Mistry’s book from the University syllabus is a means to an end –portraying Thackeray as a defender of manoos culture and his grandfather’s reputation – just as the banning of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses suited the political interests of important Muslim clerics and the ruling Congress party, and the 2004 banning of James Laine’s history of Shivaji helped bolster a floundering Maratha nationalist movement.

What sets this case apart from the two examples cited above is that this is not a case of government censorship. The vice-chancellor of Mumbai University has chosen to bow to the wishes of a 20-year old with a grandfather-complex. Yet, an important work of art is being held hostage by political forces, just as years ago M.F. Husain’s work was considered by some people to be offensive to Hindus. While no government deemed Husain’s work unacceptable, his work was not protected and his personal safety was not guaranteed.

Art is censored for a number of reasons in India. There are undefined parameters of propriety that it is expected to adhere to, protecting religious sentiment, community pride, the sanctity of the female, and so on. But it is a cause for real concern that in India censorship is used most dramatically – and loosely – when political gain is involved.

Thackeray’s trick is a success of spectacle. Like his grandfather and his uncle, he has managed to find the right conduit to establish his reactionary political credentials on the national stage. He will believe that his leadership of the Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Sena, and his political career, has now begun in earnest.

These attacks on works of art, whether mandated by government or self-appointed champions of Indian culture, should be viewed as cleverly planned instruments designed to extract political mileage, and not as individual attempts at harmonising cultural sentiments. What is really playing out in India is a battle between politics and art. And politics is winning.