Trash Bans

by Mihir Sharma

I am tired of having to defend bad things. Yet apparently one must, once someone bans them. Taslima Nasreen could perhaps be the most awful writer to emerge out of the Bengali-speaking world, but we all bought her book anyway, to show we were free-speech fans. The Satanic Verses was Salman Rushdie’s most unreadable book, but we all did our best to plod through it to show how very liberal we were. This week, as we effortlessly turned an unknown, puerile cartoonist with no sense of humour and dubious drawing skills into a bearded messiah of free speech, I decided that enough was enough. I am no longer going to engage in discussion about the quality and nature of work that gets banned or censored or attacked. Because it’s irrelevant.

Repeat after me: if it’s banned, it can still be awful. The act of banning leaves things’ aesthetic merits unchanged. Indeed, as things that give offence are usually quite unsubtle – a crucifix in urine, Parliament as a lavatory – basing a defence on their being outstanding works of art is tough. So instead of talking about what’s being attacked, can we please keep the focus on those doing the censoring or attacking?

Last week we should have talked exclusively of the archaic, creaking, ridiculous monstrosities that are our sedition law and the one that defends the delicate honour of our “national symbols”. Instead, we spent as much time apparently gauging Aseem Trivedi’s artistic merit as compared to, say, M F Husain. We thought hard about the point of his artistic endeavours – Politicians Bad, whatay brave and novel point – and tried to give that causal force. Our governments are thin-skinned about criticism, we announced ponderously. Foreign correspondents wrote sombre dispatches for stodgy European papers linking Mr Trivedi’s case to the PMO’s ill-judged responses to criticism.

Oh, come on. The problem is our sedition law: some random case is filed, the courts take cognisance of it, the police have to act on it automatically. The Maharashtra police actually went out of their way, taking months, to ensure every legal check and balance was in place before they arrested Mr Trivedi. They went to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate for advice, which they needn’t have done; they went to a court for a warrant, which wasn’t required for these charges; they brought him before a judge as soon as possible. The problem isn’t that the powerful are gaming our laws to go after critics. The problem is that we have bad laws. Even Veerappa Moily, the former law minister, told The Indian Express yesterday that sedition is a terrible law. He’s said as much previously. Of course, Mr Moily didn’t repeal it, because the UPA believes in the wondrous power of words — for this lot, saying Good Stuff means you don’t have to do it.

Frankly, too many of the people defending Mr Trivedi were doing so purely because of what they thought he said. Why not ask them where they were when Narendra Modi’s government framed sedition charges against political opponents for circulating anti-Modi SMSes? Or when Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha charged reporters and activists for the seditious act of carrying around “Maoist literature”? Notice also the thundering silence that accompanied recent reports that seven thousand people in Kudankulam will be so charged — presumably for seditiously frolicking in the sea and treasonously bringing our National Sport of telegenic protest into disrepute. The exact nature of the act shouldn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a bad law that allows – and sometimes forces – the state to act to stifle speech.

From now on, I’m not letting people change the terms of engagement whenever speech is threatened. If Salman Rushdie is stopped from coming to Jaipur, the wise nod and murmur that he’s been living off that fatwa for some time now, eh, such a has-been otherwise. If a mob attacks an embassy with rocket launchers and murder an ambassador who’s helped stop them from all being killed by a dotty dictator, the US government is expected to first condemn the amateurish 10-minute YouTube video they’re “protesting”, or be labelled Islamophobic. And the rest of us must talk about the video too. It was financed by Israelis! It propagates a Western notion of what religious criticism is, which is unacceptable to Islam! Frankly, I don’t care. If you expect me to watch and then condemn a random YouTube video in the same breath as I do armed assault and murder, you have a serious problem with moral proportion.

Even if the Indian government succeeds in blocking the video on YouTube, I will still not exert the minimal extra effort needed to watch it anyway, even as “protest”. Because I don’t need to have an informed opinion about a video in order to say that it shouldn’t be blocked, and that angry bearded men shouldn’t kill people over it.

I am done with letting other angry bearded men determine my own artistic diet. Including you, Mr Trivedi.

In a funny and moving extract in the latest New Yorker from his new memoir, angry bearded man Salman Rushdie says that friends asked how they could help – shortly after dying angry bearded man Ruhollah Khomeini decided to try killing him – he would reply: “defend the text”, not the mighty principle of free speech. He wanted a “more particular defence”, like was mounted for Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Understandable, for an author who loves his written words. But in a world where so much is attacked, and so much of that is unreadable, irritating, or childish, must I defend the particular? After all, I’m defending not just my right to read something — but also my right to choose not to read it.

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2012; Mihir Sharma, columnist, senior editor and professional gadfly, can be found at twitter.com/mihirssharma.)

(More posts from Banned Books Week, here.)