Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Dissent of Man: The Downward Spiral of Censorship

       The decision last week by Penguin (India) to recall and pulp existing copies of Wendy Doniger’s  ‘The Hindus - An Alternative History,’ is another sign that India is heading towards the Dark Ages. Liberal writers and commentators denounced Penguin’s decision as a cowardly step that will further fuel the narrow-minded sentiments of the Hindu Right Wing. This action by Penguin (India) was not forced upon them by a court of law or any state sanctioned decree. Rather, it is a voluntary step taken in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Campaign to Save Education). The SBAS, an outcrop of the powerful, right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is spearheaded by one Dinanath Batra who objects to Doniger’s book because it “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus,” thereby violating section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

       That Penguin (India) chose to settle the case rather than fight it out in court is telling, and perplexing. Calling for censorship and giving in to censorship have aspects that are clearly counter-productive and counter-intuitive. Imposing restrictions on access to books or banning them only increases their visibility, which often leads to increased sales! Penguin (India) was certainly aware, and must have taken some comfort in knowing that no matter how irresponsible their action is to their writers and their readers, their bottom line would see some benefit. 

       Censorship in India is common practice. Even though Article 19 (A) of the Indian Constitution states that “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression,” this right has been eroded down to the bone by amendments: Section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.” IPC 153 (B) prohibits actions that are “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility.” The law evoked to silence Doniger is IPC 295 (A), which identifies as criminal, those “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Between sections 153 and 295 (A), there is no room for any opinion whatsoever. Given India’s diversity in religion, culture and language, anything you say has a potential to insult someone. Here are a few fragments from that iceberg of Indian censorship:

The most infamous act of censorship in recent years was the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988. Despite being the birthplace of Salman Rushdie, India was the first entity, worldwide, to ban the book – and it did so well before the fatwa was issued on Rushdie’s life. It was banned, not by a right-leaning government, but by the centrist Congress Party, led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The circumstances surrounding the ban were not entirely transparent. Here is an open letter by Rushdie to Rajiv Gandhi following news of the ban. 

In 2003, Paul B. Courtright’s ‘Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings’ was banned because it offended Hindus for suggesting an additional interpretation of the story of Ganesha. Courtright views the Parvati-Ganesha-Shiva relationships through the lens of Oedipal conflict. Courtright’s  bigger “crime” was to make overt phallic associations between the physical forms of Ganesha and Shiva as a part of that oedipal reading. 

In 2004, James W. Laine’s ‘Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India’ (Oxford University Press) was banned after activists affiliated with the Maratha Seva Sangh ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, whose archives provided Laine with much of his research. The book allegedly portrayed Shivaji in a negative light.

Cultural vigilantism is no stranger to India. Maqbool Fida Hussein, India’s most eminent painter (he was called the Picasso of India), spent the last years of his life in self-imposed exile. Some of his paintings depicting semi-nude goddesses in sexually suggestive poses triggered a barrage of lawsuits as well as an attack on his home by the Hindu fundamentalist Bajrang Dal, which led Hussein to ultimately leave India. Hussein was also a film director and producer. His film ‘Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities’ angered Muslim groups for allegedly being blasphemous, causing Hussein to withdraw it from cinemas. 

In January, 2013, actor/director Kamala Hassan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ was banned in the state of Tamil Nadu following protests that the film portrayed Muslims in a derogatory way. 

Censorship has extended its reach inside the hallowed halls of education as well. In October, 2011, an essay by A.K. Ramanajum, a preeminent scholar on Indian literature and linguistics, was removed from the B.A. syllabus of Delhi University. This was the upshot of pressure put on the Academic Council of the University by right-wing groups to remove the essay. The essay, called ‘300 Ramayanas,’ brought to light the many variations and “tellings” (as Ramanujam liked to call them) of the epic that exist in addition to the Valmiki-Ramayana, the default version in India. 

Social media, too, has not been spared. In November 2012, two college students aged 20 and 21 were arrested for “hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.” One girl’s crime was posting a comment on her Facebook page questioning the total shut-down of Mumbai following the death of Bal Thackeray, Mumbai’s political kingpin and Hindu hard-liner of many decades. The girl wrote: "With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on...... Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.” The other girl’s crime was “liking” her friend’s post.

       Penguin (India) is not the first publisher to set a precedent to capitulating without a fight. In January of this year, Jitendar Bhargava’s ‘The Descent of Air India’ was voluntarily withdrawn by Bloomsbury (India) in response to a lawsuit filed by Praful Patel, India’s former Aviation Minister widely implicated in bringing the airline to ruin. Bloomsbury even apologized to Patel in a public notice: "If the contents of the book have caused any embarrassment to Mr. Patel, we sincerely regret the same and it was never our intention to discredit him in any manner."

       These and a multitude of other instances of curbing free speech have made taking offence a de rigueur occurrence in India today. Taking care to not offend is looked upon as the strategy to maintain peace. And so the law is exploited, where feelings of being offended are disingenuous, or they are pandered to in order to gain votes or some political leverage. 

       Dinanath Batra’s claim that ‘The Hindus’ has offended a million Hindus may not be a false statement. However, the offence taken to Doniger’s textual analysis, (or should I say sexual analysis) of Hindu literature has no bearing on the right to publish these alternative interpretations of them. No matter the alleged depravity and errors in Doniger’s interpretation, translations or method, suppressing her viewpoint is not the answer. The healthy way to counteract dissent is to engage in the conversation and add to the discourse as some people who are equally offended as Mr. Batra is, have done. Indian-American philanthropist and businessman Rajiv Malhotra spearheads one such effort to bring attention to the claim that western indologists are altering perceptions on Hinduism by their psychosexual analyses of Hindu texts. Several academics, too, have compiled a critique of Doniger’s perspectives and methods. Their criticisms of Doniger and other scholars of Indology with a similar bent to interpreting Hindu texts have converged in a book called ‘Invading the Sacred.’ I have not yet read Doniger’s comprehensive (almost 800 pages) ‘The Hindus,’ nor have I read ‘Invading the Sacred.’ But reading excerpts and related correspondence available on the web gives a sense that no matter whose viewpoint one ultimately sympathizes with, the academics connected with ‘Invading the Sacred’ have done well to engage in civil discourse with the Indologists whose scholarship they find questionable. For example, S.N. Balagangadhara (who wrote the forward to ‘Invading the Sacred’) offers, in his own writings, much insight into the nature of offence taken by the religious right. In his letter to Jeffrey Kripal (who interprets the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna as having sexual overtones) Prof. Balagangadhara objects to a Freudian interpretation of Hindu texts. He says:
These interpretations “deny access to our own experiences…. Who or what is denying access to our own experience? It is not a theory, but a theorizing of someone else’s experience.” 
He views Freudian analyses (based on a western culture) as being incapable of understanding the culture of India. He says of Freud: 
“What did he ‘theorize’ then? He theorized upon the European experience of other cultures and upon a theological elaboration of these experiences. Consequently, who or what is denying the access to our experience? The experience of another culture. This lies at the root of the feeling of wrongness: our experiences are being trivialized, denied, distorted and made inaccessible by someone else’s experience of the world. Hence the feeling of moral or ethical wrongness, because such a situation is neither justified nor justifiable. One is made to think that, apparently, there is only one way of experiencing the world: the ‘western way’.”

  The rationale for free speech rests on the tenet of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ (similar to a free market in economics), which assumes that when all kinds of ideas are freely expressed and are accessible to all, the better ideas will eventually prevail. Therefore, silencing ideas that are unappealing is an ineffective and short-term solution to the “problem” of human progress. Here’s an example from libel law:

       Libel laws are meant to protect those whose reputations come under attack by false statements, leading to negative repercussions for the one who is slandered. While it may seem like a good idea to have libel laws, they can be and are abused leading to far reaching negative effects. When frivolous or opportunistic lawsuits take advantage of laws that curb freedom of expression, the fallout is not just a matter of inconvenience and money. Such lawsuits result in strongly negative repercussions on public discourse, with the message: Don’t engage in any form of criticism - even if it is for the public good - or you too will be sued! A case in point is the Food Disparagement laws in the US, also called the “veggie libel laws.”  Remember when Oprah Winfrey was sued by Big Beef in the wake of the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the UK? The Texas Beef Group sued Oprah for saying, on her show, something as ordinary as “Cows are herbivores. They shouldn’t be eating other cows…It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.” 

       Even when libel laws have stringent standards of burden of proof, and frivolous lawsuits are successfully dismissed (as in Oprah’s case) there are detrimental effects on the atmosphere of public discourse. That is why proponents of free speech prefer to err on the side of freedom to communicate rather than on the side of suppressing information. After the Big Beef lawsuit was dismissed, Oprah declined to speak about the matter any further. If that is the effect an attempt at curbing free speech had on Oprah Winfrey, you can imagine the silencing effect it might have on the ordinary citizen. You can read about the Oprah case and Food Disparagement Laws in the US here
       Having laws that protect one’s sense of outrage will breed outrage, just like having laws that protect free speech will breed free speech, even the kind that may be inappropriate and offensive to some. So why is having free speech better than having laws that protect taking offence? Let’s take a look at the two conditions of free speech and no free speech in good times and bad times to determine which one is better for a society in the long run:

The Best of Times:
During the best of times, both free speech states and non-free speech states will do well. If the people in power are good and fair, everybody is mostly happy. In non free speech states, there may be low conflict because people are afraid to offend and get sued. But this is not necessarily a good thing in the long run. 

In prosperous times in free-speech states, potentially offending expressions may be tolerated better than during hard times. Eventually people learn to accept differences and learn some tolerance because any amount of tolerance breeds more tolerance. This is better for society in the long run. 

The Worst of Times:
It is during the worst of times that the difference between free speech and non-free speech states is most apparent. Life has abundant quantities of bad times so this is an important consideration. Let’s assume that during hard times, the people in power are unfair to some groups, and are good only to a select few. They want to promote their worldview only. They oppress and suppress minority groups.
In a non free speech state, you cannot protest this unfairness. There is no free press, and people are afraid to complain lest they be sued for being offensive to those in power. Change is very difficult.

In a free speech state, peaceful protesting is allowed and grievances can be aired without fear of reprisal. It is possible to critique unfair practices and suggest better alternatives. Unfairness can be exposed by the press as well as by individuals. Change is possible. In addition, the free-speech state discourages unfair practices because there is recourse for the ones who are aggrieved. However, a non-free speech state implicitly encourages unfairness because injustice can be sustained through suppression of those who might complain. 

       While India is well past its expiration date, the date of post-independence predictions of fragmentation into it’s multi-ethnic components, and still stands as one nation, the largest democracy no less, it is dangerously veering towards the designation of Highly Insecure Nation that’s Doomed–isthan. Its sense of identity is so precarious that any viewpoint that comes in contrast to the favored view is squashed, often even before this viewpoint has a chance to be heard. For India to regain her confidence, freedom of expression must be dissociated with reactionary terms like outrage, insult and offence. The health of the state should be judged, not by the absence of dissent, but by the nature of it. It is only when healthy dissent is used as a yardstick of measuring peace, that we will have a true tolerance for differences. 

       The premise that the absence of offence lies at the core of maintaining peace among a diverse population such as in India, is a faulty assumption. It is, in fact, the opposite. An environment that does not challenge one’s own views, and does not encourage polite dissent, is an environment that will eventually lead to intolerance. Tolerance is not learned in a void, nor is it fostered in a milieu of agreement and forced acquiescence. It is inculcated and refined only through the practice of accepting ideas novel to one’s own. 

To end with a quote attributed to Aristotle: 

It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.