Ctrl-Alt-Del: On being our own censors

It is always tempting to blame politicians for the sorry state of things, partly because a) that’s what they’re there for and b) it’s often their fault. But in the case of two recent controversies over cartoons—the Ambedkar cartoon controversy, and Mamata Banerjee’s persecution of a professor for circulating cartoons depicting the West Bengal Chief Minister in a poor light—there are good reasons why we shouldn’t blame politicians. Because the present situation isn’t their fault, it’s ours.

The Ambedkar cartoon controversy erupted when a few MPs drew Parliament’s attention to a cartoon by Shankar depicting Nehru’s impatience at the slow pace of Constitutional reform, which was carried in an NCERT textbook on the making of the Constitution. The argument was that by showing Nehru whipping Dr BR Ambedkar, the cartoon offended the sentiments of Dalits.

As far as I can make out, few members of Parliament pointed out the obvious: 1) Ambedkar was quite used to being caricatured, as were most politicians of that era in marked contrast to this 2) political satire may need to be placed in context, but it should be protected 3) to see the cartoon as anti-Dalit in the first place is stretching a point, given that Shankar followed the workings of government closely and spared nobody 4) if the image may now be perceived as anti-Dalit, and if the image of Ambedkar being whipped is a subtle reminder of centuries of discrimination against the community, the need is to open up a discussion, not shut one down. It is no longer important whether a cartoon, a book, an article, or any work of art actually is offensive, or whether that offence is so serious that it actually warrants censorship—just the claim of possible offence is enough to raise a demand for silence.

That’s why it would not have mattered if some MPs had spoken up and ranked themselves on the side of commonsense, because we have already allowed and tolerated a situation for decades where all any community has to do is to claim offence to shut down a discussion. In other words, it would have made no sense for any MP to stand up for free speech, or for plain logic. No one suggested that there was another way to address hurt sentiments that went beyond ripping pages out of a book, tearing cartoons out of the official history of India. If they had, those MPs would have risked being branded as anti-Dalit, for little gain: no party would have been willing to stand up and defend a supposedly anti-Dalit cartoon, even if, and this is where we enter the realm of complete absurdity, that cartoon was not seen as anti-Dalit in its time.

The reason why I don’t blame Parliament for demanding the withdrawal of the NCERT textbooks is not because they’re right—they couldn’t be more wrong, given the range of options that they had. They could have re-examined the chapter and included more cartoons, to give a wider range of opinion on the making of the Constitution. They could have asked for the chapter to be rewritten to include some context on how Dr Ambedkar was routinely depicted in cartoons of the time, and whether he was in any way depicted as different from the non-Dalit leaders of the national movement. They could simply have opened up a debate in Parliament on the right of satire to exist, but instead, they appear to have moved towards asking for legislation that would ban the use of cartoons and satire, and presumably humour, in most textbooks.

But they are only doing what any closed group will do, given a chance—ie, protect its own interests. All political parties understand the benefits that accrue with being seen as the protector of Dalit rights (the Ambedkar cartoons), Muslim hurt sentiments (the Jaipur Satanic Verses readings), offended Hindu sentiments (the Shivaji-Laine book), and so far, these benefits have been tangible and have translated into actual or perceived gains in different vote banks. The fact that these separate instances have also actively encouraged any community, religious or caste-based or political, to claim offense as a means of getting attention or gaining much-needed clout, is not the point. Until there are tangible consequences for politicians, in terms of losing votes or support, there is no practical reason for them to support free speech rights—only ideological reasons. As the historian Romila Thapar suggests, we should investigate claims that religious or other sentiments have been hurt much more rigorously seeing who stands to benefit, before resorting to a book ban or a withdrawal of a book.

Nor can you blame politicians for wanting to use existing laws to shut down criticism of political parties, as Mamata Banerjee and Kapil Sibal have done in very different ways. Any closed group, given a choice between upholding abstract free speech rights and upholding its own interests, will choose the latter. The problem may run a little deeper—ie, if our laws allow the arrest and prosecution of a professor for the “crime” of forwarding a cartoon, or if Internet laws can be used to silently shut down articles critical of politicians, we need to look more closely at how those laws are being misused.

Where the general community has failed is in convincing both politicians and its own members of the uses of free speech, and the need to allow widespread free expression, even when that expression is offensive to some. Almost all of what we write on free speech and censorship issues is in reaction to an event such as the Ambedkar controversy, but there are relatively few of us, including myself, who actually talk about the importance of free speech outside these controversies. Or we end up making obvious points—shutting down the Ambedkar cartoon and the Mamata cartoons will have a chilling effect on the media criticism of politicians, for instance. (As you might imagine, politicians are really, really worried that they might face less criticism as a consequence of their recent actions.)

On a few occasions in the past year—at a blogger’s meet on censorship, at a few readings and a literature festival—some of us passed around index cards where we invited people to answer two questions. Where did people feel censored or silenced in their own lives? And how would they feel if they could talk about these silences? It is not always easy to draw a direct line between apparently distant acts of censorship—the censorship of art, books, textbooks, cartoons—and censorship in one’s personal life, but the two are deeply connected.

End of rant, and meanwhile, here are some of the answers, shared with the permission of their authors.

Things people can’t talk about:

“I can’t talk about my childhood.”
“I want to tell my father how angry he makes me when he reads the papers and starts abusing Muslims, but my Muslim friends can’t even come home.”
“Censored about family violence and beatings.”
“Can’t share my political beliefs with my colleagues at the bank because then I might lose status with them.”
“Never could talk freely about my emotions and what I really wanted to do in my life.”
“Can’t tell husband he’s embarrassing me by shouting at servants in front of some of our friends.”
“Can’t say anything to my parents about my life or feelings, it’s not important to them.”

How they’d feel if they could speak without censorship:

“I’d cry and cry and let it out.”
“If he stopped it would make me so happy.”
“It would change my life. I want someone to understand why I’m so angry all the time.”
“I’d feel like less of a fraud and a liar in the daily office conversations. More my real self. More honest.”
“I don’t know.”
“I would tell him how much I hate what he does and how small it makes me feel. Also, it goes against my beliefs, and that should be important.”
“I would feel like a real person at last.”

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