The BS Column: The marketplace of outrage

(I’m running behind on blog updates–my apologies. This was published on 26th October in the Business Standard. This is part of a series of articles and columns I’ve been writing over the last ten years on censorship and free speech issues–I wish the politics of this country hadn’t made that archive necessary.)

“What we have developed today is a marketplace of outrage. And if you And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, ‘My feelings are more hurt than yours’.”~ Monica Ali, author of ‘Brick Lane’.

In recent weeks, we witnessed the Shiv Sena attack on Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, which resulted in the book being burned outside Mumbai University and then withdrawn from the syllabus.

What was instructive weren’t the well-worn, shabby arguments in favour of the ban, arguments that sought to portray one of the great Bombay novels as an “obscene” book that was against dabbawallahs, the Marathi manoos, Indira Gandhi and the Sena, not necessarily in that order. Instead, it was the alacrity with which politicians of different parties brushed aside concerns over free expression in India, and their willingness to support book bans in general, that was fascinating. Perhaps one way to understand the thriving dhanda in today’s marketplace of outrage is to trace the evolution of book bans in the country through some of the most significant ones.

Rama Retold, Aubrey Menen, banned in 1956: Now almost forgotten, Aubrey Menen was at one time something of a standard-bearer for his generation, known for the elegance of his mind and his somewhat baroque work. Rama Retold was a deconstruction of the Ramayana, told with Menen’s trademark refusal to respect pedestals and the icons that stood on them. In the 1950s, this became one of the first books to be banned by the Indian government on the grounds that it might offend religious sensibilities—opening the door to future displays of competitive intolerance.

Nine Hours to Rama, Stanley Wolpert, banned in 1962: Wolpert’s analysis of Gandhi’s assassination had nothing to do with the Ramayana—it was his research into the gaps in the security arrangements surrounding the Mahatma, and the suggestion of conspiracy theories, that attracted the state’s censorship. This set a second, and equally dangerous, precedent, allowing the state to consider banning books that might deliver inconvenient insinuations about any ruling government.

Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, banned in 1988: Rushdie’s Verses is perhaps the most controversial book of our times. India was the first country in the world to ban the Verses, a ban that was propelled by the fear of a strong Islamic reaction against what was seen as blasphemy. Rushdie has often argued for the right—and the necessity—of authors to explore all subjects, including faith, and the right of authors to be, if necessary, blasphemous.

The result of banning Satanic Verses was direct and disastrous—it encouraged political parties and religious groups of all stamps to play the “competitive intolerance” game. Once it had been established that offending religious sensibilities may be cause for a book ban, anyone who wants to shut down inconvenient ideas or lines of inquiry into any faith can demand a ban by insisting that their sensibilities are offended.

Shivaji, by James Laine, banned by the Maharashtra government in 2004: Laine’s work on Shivaji sourced gossip about the Marathi icon’s parentage and origins, fuelling a rampage against the BORI library in Pune by Sambhaji Sena activists. What is most telling about this particular book ban is the way in which Laine’s scholarship and willingness to examine the complex myths around a historical figure have been reduced to gross simplicities.

Laine’s work may have been flawed—some scholars have argued this point—but in the popular imagination, his Shivaji book is the “book that insulted Shivaji”, written by a “foreigner and outsider”. The only way to keep a book on a banned-books list is to do precisely this—rob it of its complexity, and drop it down a memory hole. Few now remember that the real issue at stake was the far more complex issue of how we choose to remember our histories, and who gets to be the custodian of these histories.

Such a Long Journey, Rohinton Mistry, not banned but withdrawn from a university syllabus, 2010: There are two lessons to be drawn from this particular case. One is that book bans have become an almost symbolic ritual—the burning of books, once a powerfully frightening image, now reduced to parody, the conjuring up of protestors just a demonstration of political muscle, not genuine outrage. The other is that in the marketplace of outrage, bribery and force work if you want to orchestrate a book ban, or subvert a university.

In all of this, as one book after another drops into an Orwellian memory hole, what we’re losing is the power to insist that we have a right to read, and to think for ourselves. Each successive ban creates a demand for the manufacturing of more ersatz outrage. What we need is a freemarket of ideas, not the thriving marketplace of outrage that’s set up shop in India today.







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