Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Just when you think you've seen it all...

As if the imbecilic Jo Bole So Nihaal controversy weren't enough, now even patriotic period films aren't immune from political hot water. A few days ago, there had been reports that some in Nagwa (Mangal Pandey's puported birthplace, though there is disagreement on that issue as well) were protesting at the omission of any mention of the village from the The Rising. The issue snowballed when some outfits started protesting at Pandey's visit to a brothel in the film (mind you, in the film Pandey goes to meet his lover, not as a patron). The Uttar Pradesh BJP has called for a ban, and the state's ruling Samajwadi Janata Party doesn't want to be left behind: Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav has promised a review of the film, and "immediate action" if any "distortions" are found.

The above would be shocking if it weren't so depressingly familiar; every year, it seems, adds new dimensions to the Indian propensity of thin-skinnedness, one common to those on the left, right, center, what-have-you. In the last twenty years alone, we have had the following:
1. The Satanic Verses banned because the book was offensive to Muslims;
2. A constituent of the Left Front government in West Bengal burned copies of a book containing letters between Subchash Chandra Bose and his Austrian lover/wife;
3. A history book claiming that cow slaughter was common in ancient India was banned when the BJP-led NDA was in power;
4. Just last year, there was violence against a research institute in Maharashtra, accompanied by a ban (imposed by the Congress-NCP coalition in Maharashtra, and enthusiastically supported by then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee), in response to a history book claiming that Shivaji was an out-of-wedlock child;
5. A ban in several states earlier this year on the Sunny Deol-film Jo Bole So Nihaal, because Sikh bodies were offended at the flippant use of sacred text in the film's title;
6. And now it's the turn of Mangal Pandey...

Clearly things are escalating, and why shouldn't they? It seems Indian intellectual life has come to such a pass that anyone with a hundred hooligans to spare can succeed in intimidating with impunity, or in panicking political parties into taking evasive action (also defined as a ban). Note also the utter triumph of Victorian morality (dead though it has been in its country of origin for decades): a sepoy is depicted visiting a brothel! How shocking! How unheard-of (Mr. Karunanidhi, are you listening?)...Never has the time been more right to scrap the law permitting the government to ban books found "hurtful" to the sentiments of any community or dangerous to the public peace (am I the only one to note the audition-like quality of these protests, as groups fall over themseleves to harness the machinery of the state that they know to be available?), and never has such a legislative change appeared less likely.

A radical thought: if you're offended, don't watch the film/read the book, whatever. Or do your own. Or even: live with it. Democracy means equal opportunity offensiveness, not freedom from irritants.

Kaliyuga, man, Kaliyuga.


Anonymous said...

I chanced upon your blog just now. You claim that "A history book claiming that cow slaughter was common in ancient India was banned when the BJP-led NDA was in power". The book was banned by a court in Hyderabad based on a petition by Jain Seva Sangh and Aadi Vipra Samaj. What has BJP-led NDA being in power got to do with it?

Qalandar said...

Well, the general point was to criticize the rising culture of intolerance (and you'll note that I cited examples pertaining to attempts to intimidate authors/ban books by the Congress, Left Front, religious Muslims, Sikh bodies protesting "Jo Bole So Nihaal," etc.)
My comment about the BJP-led NDA was not meant to suggest that the government had banned the book, but that it had called for the book to be banned, as was widely reported at the time (the excerpt in the link below is from Wisconsin Bookwatch):

If your point is that calling for a book to be banned is so different from actually banning the book that it should not even be mentioned in the same blog post, I do disagree, but acknowledge the distinction.

Qalandar said...

PS-- At the time Outlook India reported in a piece on the Jha book on cow slaughter in Ancient India:

"...The bjp followed suit: one of its MPs, R.S. Rawat, wrote to the Union home minister demanding not
>only a ban on the book but also the arrest and prosecution of its author and CB Publishers. But before the book could be burnt or banned, the Jain Seva Sangh stepped in. Outraged by Jha's reported assertion that their founder Mahavira ate meat, the Hyderabad-based organisation sought a court injunction against the book, leaving the nonplussed historian without the words to fight his war."

Outlookindia.com requires a userid and password, but the piece is reproduced at:

Qalandar said...

This piece from the NYTimes is in accord with the Outlook piece:


Anonymous said...

Well, I too agree with your general point. But still, I think your claim about BJP/NDA that "it had called for the book to be banned", needs to be supported by better evidence. A BJP MP asking for a ban is one thing, but the party endorsing the demand, and more importantly, the government accepting it, is quite another. amazon.com even claims that the government wanted the book 'ritually burned'!!. I think it's a plain lie.

I agree that all parties have been guilty when it comes to demanding a curb on freedom of expression. I also agree that both the government and the courts need to be told to lay off this banning business. But I 'd like to make two points.

1. Even tho' the business of banning or at least the demand for it has been on the rise in recent times, the phenomenon is quite old. Even Nehru's government banned a book on Mohammed by Thomas and Thomas, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, after Muslim groups agitated against it. I think Nathuram Godse's 'May it please your honour' was also banned for a long time.

2. Whatever may be its other faults, NDA didn't get to ban any book, probably because they were in power for only 6 years, as opposed to congress' 45, and hence didn't get many chances. Among all the 'banners', I think Buddhadeb Battacharya takes the cake for his comment while banning Taslima Nasrin's Dwikandita: "I've read the book, and it's not fit for circulating among the reading public". I think he imagines himself to be the chief censor commisar, in addition to being the chief minister of WB.

Politicians' behaviour is at least understandable: They'll do what they think brings them votes. But it's the conduct of the 'intellectuals' that grates. Khushwant Singh, M J Akbar, Girilal Jain etc., supported the ban on Satanic verses. Sunil Gangopadhyay supported the ban on Taslima's book. Shameless characters.