Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Speak up! Or at least allow me to.

Panchhi nadiyaan pavan ke jhonke
Koi sarhad na inhe roke
Sarhad insaanon ke liye hain
Socho tumne aur maine
Kya paaya insaan ho ke

This beautiful song written by Javed Akhtar for the film Refugee (2000) asks what we have gained by being humans, when birds, rivers, and the breeze can roam free while we have to live within borders. Sure, it’s a flight (pun intended) of fancy to say we’d be better off as birds, but the essential idea of the song is increasingly, frighteningly, becoming true. It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on the day that Wikipedia has blacked out its English language web page in protest against the US government-proposed SOPA (thankfully, I remembered that Refugee was released in 2000!); in the wake of the Indian government’s shocking statement of intent to screen content before it goes up on the web – to negate chances of communal tension, of course; and in the week that has seen the Jaipur Lit Fest embroiled in controversy over the attendance of one of its star speakers, Salman Rushdie, due to threats by certain religious groups.

Let’s take a closer look at these incidents. First, the Internet. That gateway to the world, that free and open well of information and ideas that one may or may not agree with. In the real world, how do we deal with views we dislike or find offensive? We might argue, debate, have it out with the people whose views these are, and eventually, if nothing else works, we just dissociate ourselves from those people. We don’t report them to the cops because they’re just verbal views and we can switch off from them if we choose to. In that case, I would assume that the government would see the Internet as a good thing, because it actually has mechanisms in place to report genuinely offensive content. I have, myself, reported two Facebook groups for racist, sexist content, and both groups were removed from the networking website within five minutes. I doubt Mr. Sibal himself could have done a quicker job. 

In its haste to prevent communal tension from flaring up, the government seems to have given in to a quick-fix, kneejerk solution – prevent content from being uploaded online at all. There's a logical, far-thinking solution if I ever heard one. Also, while I’m touched that our government takes its mai-baap role so seriously and wants only to protect us from evil, I wish they would remember that we were brought into this world by parents of our own, and we are mature enough to deal with people who offend our religion, our parents, our country, our food, our anything. Sometimes, we even like to hear views that are different from our own (this shocking idea will be discussed later in the post, while on Rushdie). It’s called education. Look it up on Wikip– oh. Right.

As for the Salman Rushdie controversy, it is just such a crying shame that even literature, that supposed bastion of free expression and thought, ultimately fell victim to political posturing and bullying. What a hollow democracy we live in, when a major literary figure, who happens to be a Person of Indian Origin card-holder and doesn’t even need a visa to come to India, is dragged into a backroom chat with the government and his visit for the country's largest literary event is now in question. All because a certain hardline religious group feels that a book he wrote 24 years ago, one that played a major role in putting India on the literary map, offends their religion. Why? Because it gives a different spin on Islam? And what about the millions of readers who loved the book because it made them think, question, doubt? Did we learn nothing from the tragedy of MF Husain dying without the joy and comfort of being able to return to his homeland?

It’s bad enough that the book was banned and there was a fatwa issued on Rushdie. But really, the man has visited India (even the JLF) since then, and without incident. Why create a fuss now? And for our government to fall for such ridiculous threats is just laughable. I’m not saying that the government should allow riots to happen, but this is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater! And ultimately, there is only one loser: the hopeful Lit nerd who just wanted to hear a favourite author speak, and maybe get him to autograph a copy of one of his books.

Maybe we would be better off as birds. Maybe it’s not such a flight of fancy after all.

Update: It is now confirmed that Rushdie will not be attending the Lit Fest. Understandably worried for his safety (given that he was not offered any special protection by either the government or the festival organizers), he stated that it would be irresponsible – to his family, to the audience at the festival, and to other writers – of him to attend the festival, in view of alleged Intelligence inputs of underworld assassination attempts. Whether he chose not to attend or was asked not to, the point is that this should not have happened. And our government should not have allowed it to happen.


  1. Great post Sam. Funny how I came across this so soon after I made an observation that mirrors your initial thoughts:

  2. Thanks so much! Just saw your link - what was that someone said about great minds?! You, me, and Javed. We should form a club!