Indian governments have a long, ugly tradition of banning books, films, authors and artistes. It is always a bad idea. It makes India look like she was ruled by a tinpot despot instead of an elected prime minister. For a brief moment during the Emergency it was ruled by a despot who went on a hysterical banning spree. A book of poems by an Urdu poet was banned because its name sounded revolutionary. A film was destroyed, again because of its name. Inconvenient quotations by dead poets and leaders were censored if they seemed to be speaking for freedom and democracy. It was a time of repression so brutal that Indians were deprived of their fundamental rights.
When the concert of the Carnatic musician T M Krishna was cancelled last week, it surprised me that commentators made it sound as if this were unusual. Ramachandra Guha called it ‘barbarism’ and I confessed in a tweet that I agreed with him. I found myself in even deeper agreement with him when my old friend Sonal Mansingh wrote her defence of the cancellation in this newspaper, arguing that “Krishna has spared no opportunity to personally criticise the Prime Minister”. So what?
Narendra Modi needs to be especially careful to avoid being accused of an allergy to dissent. Rumours have swirled for months about his being extremely allergic to criticism. Maybe the rumours are just rumours. If so, he needs to convince owners of TV networks and newspapers that he is actually a democrat who welcomes criticism. Ever since senior editors and journalists started losing their jobs, rumour mills have been working overtime. It does not help that the Prime Minister has not given a single press conference in the past four years.
Donald Trump routinely insults journalists at his press conferences, but at least he meets them. In a private conversation with Mr Modi two years ago, I suggested to him (humbly as ever) that he should have a full team of spokesmen like the White House does and hold regular meetings with the press. He disregarded my humble advice and so the legend of his allergy to even mild criticism has grown. It harms him more than his critics because journalists like nothing more than to appear to be fighting repression.
The sad truth is that Indians in general are allergic to ideas that they think will annoy someone or other. So there was that shameful ban of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival because some Muslim groups of conservative and jihadi disposition started making a racket. It is they who should have been banned. But these things are easier said than done because of our long tradition of silencing voices that someone or other does not like. It is worth remembering that if Rajiv Gandhi had not banned The Satanic Verses, it is possible that Ayatollah Khomeini may not have noticed the book.
To return to present times, I feel it is important to say here that because of Modi’s alleged allergy to criticism, it is not just journalists who feel a certain tension but other Indians as well. In a recent conversation with a small-time businessman, he told me of his continued difficulties with filing GST returns. There are too many procedures, he said, and because he worked in more than one state, he had double the amount of paperwork to deal with. When I suggested that I could pass the word up to North Block, he dropped his voice to a whisper and said, “Do you want to destroy my business completely?”
Writers, artists and musicians have long been targeted by Hindutva goons. But, in the past four years, these fanatics have been more active than usual because they believe they have a Hindutva government in office. They are easily enraged. So when I tweeted my support for Guha’s position on the cancelled concert, I was immediately attacked by trolls, who said I should write about the people demonised by the “tukde, tukde gang” in JNU. I have done and will continue to write against anyone who attempts to ban books, films or concerts.
Trolls of Hindutva persuasion have limited intellects and enormous chips on their shoulder. In the past four years, they have attacked all those they consider ‘anti-India’. This is something that annoys me more than almost any of their other activities because who gave them the right to decide who is ‘anti-India’ and who is not? What particularly infuriates me is that they have not noticed that nobody is more ‘anti-India’ than those who believe that concerts should be disallowed if musicians happen to have a political viewpoint that disagrees with the government. It should shame the Prime Minister personally that some of these awful trolls boast, when giving their credentials, that they are followed by Narendra Modi. If this is true, unfollow please.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh