Updated: February 2, 2016 12:15:22 am
“When you have nothing to say, you start a fire.”
— Richard Siken
“Modi! Modi! Modi!” I looked around. Was I in a political rally? Or in Wembley or Madison Square Garden? What was this circus? It was, would you believe, the normally elegant debate held at the end of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Invited to participate to support the motion — Is freedom of speech absolute and unconditional? — I had anticipated well articulated points by eloquent adversaries.
The brilliant actor Anupam Kher was on to supporting that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech. His points: India is the greatest because we can say what we want. To prove that he let fly a string of Hindi gaalis that included your sister. Kher announced from the start that the drum to signal the speaker was over the time limit would not apply to him because he was going to speak as long as he wanted. However, he never had enough to say and finished before even reaching that time. Periodically, the thousands of goons he had brought in shouted “Modi! Modi!” on Kher’s cue when he raised his arms. I have seen that many insecure stars like to travel with their own entourage of chamchas but this was stretching it. Kher encouraged them with fist pumping and blowing kisses to them. It was a pinnacle of rowdyism.
It is a remarkable display of boxed in thinking that the BJP caught the ball that Nayantara Sahgal threw at the Sahitya Akademi. She objected to the Akademi’s silence over the killing of writers. Not to the BJP. Smart BJP strategy would have agreed that they were also against intolerance. That would have taken the wind out of the bag. But, the intolerance/tolerance ball was set rolling when any mention of freedom of speech or an intolerant atmosphere was translated to anti-Modi, lack of patriotism and met with verbal lynching.
In truth, it has been the Congress party that has been the most intolerant and vindictive of dissent and criticism. Starting
with Jawaharlal Nehru’s adding restrictions to freedom of speech (Article 19a) that included obscenity, vulgarity, etc, and banning of books, films and even people. It has the longest list of banned books and films. The now repealed Section 66A that threw people in jail for Facebook and Twitter posts was done by the Congress. According to Section 295A in the IPC, any citizen can file a complaint of hurt sentiments and the person would be jailed. Section 295A was passed by the British in 1927. This was used to jail a puzzled comedian, Kiku Sharda, who acted out a spoof on godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Section 295A was also used to issue arrest warrants to All India Bakchod, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. Members of the audience, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt, also got arrest warrants. This was from one citizen’s complaint that he was offended by the vulgarity. The BJP had nothing to do with it. Then why has the BJP taken ownership of being intolerant by insisting there is no intolerance?
The Central Board of Film Certification, more truthfully called the Censor Board, is only supposed to certify films. But it chops and snips where it pleases. Recently, they cut the duration of a kiss by 50 per cent in the latest James Bond film. It had to be an Indian man who did that because it is against Indian culture. More than 15 seconds of foreplay? Not a chance. Why raise expectations of women? By placing Shyam Benegal to review the process, the BJP has made a move towards more tolerance.
The worst is that anyone wanting a more tolerant and pluralistic India is greeted with hooliganism and branding as someone who does not love his/her country. The argument in the debate centred around the idea that with freedom comes responsibility and restrictions are essential to that. My point is that censorship comes from a colonial perspective that citizens are not to be trusted and must be reined in.
The debate ended with the goons voting for — restrictions, censorship or anything Anupam Kher would have told them to vote for. What does it say when the youth of India are so unthinkingly pro-establishment?
Anupam Kher is a great actor. Just this time, he was given the wrong script and was on the wrong set. The session ended appropriately with Anupam Kher doing the bhangra and then posing for photographers Arnold Schwarzenegger style, flexing his biceps. Kher won. The audience lost.
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