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When the State Panders to Parochial Politics Freedom of Expression is Threatened - Select Editorials

by, 16 July 2010

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The Telegraph (Calcutta), 15 July 2010


Reasons of State

As is usual in India, there is a whole array of laws against offending sentiments of all kinds: religious, racial, residential, linguistic — everything except the democratic. Yet the courts have not found adequate ground, amid this wide sweep of hypersensitivities that Indians revel in, to ban the book on Shivaji by the scholar, James Laine. The writing of the book, alleged to contain a ‘controversial’ account of Shivaji’s background, had earlier led to vandalism on Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, with the consequent destruction of priceless manuscripts. The ban had followed. But both the lower court and the Supreme Court have directed that it be lifted. However welcome this direction may be, it is necessary to ask how groups unacquainted with history, research, thought and the practice of reading repeatedly manage to get away with muffling or attempting to muffle scholarship, debate, and multiple points of view.

One clue lies in the court’s response. The courts do not consider a ban improper or unthinkable in a democratic country where freedom of expression is supposed to be taken for granted. That freedom is not a non-negotiable value; instead, it is to be granted by “reasonable” and “courageous” people. Who are these “reasonable” people and who decides on the quality of their reasonableness? Reasonable from which point of view? Why do they need courage? Is it because marauding mobs spouting sentiment enjoy freedoms without limit? The invocation of an imaginary group of censors obfuscates the central question regarding the limits and duties of freedom in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy. That a ban, if imposed on a book at all, should be the rarest of rare exceptions, prompted by clear evidence of malice and the intention to incite hatred, is a statement that no one seems to be prepared to make. This refusal feeds, and is fed by, the mob culture that dominates ignorant and destructive movements against books and paintings, always fanned to create firmer vote banks by nurturing hatred. How politics is inextricable from culture is illustrated in this context by the Maharashtra government’s decision to formulate a law to prevent the defamation of state icons. This defies the spirit of the Supreme Court’s direction, and takes the country back aeons in civilization. But a country deserves the icons it worships.

The Times of India, July 14, 2010


Booking the Book

The political reaction in Maharashtra to the Supreme Court’s lifting of the state government’s ban on American author James Laine’s book on Shivaji - or rather, its upholding the 2007 high court decision to lift the ban - has been disappointing. The controversy, first ignited in 2004, has been manufactured from the beginning. A few sentences in an academic treatise were picked up by parties eager to cash in on the brand of parochial politics that has bedevilled the state. And now, the same opportunism is on display again. Witness the inanity of leader of opposition Eknath Khadse demanding an apology from Maharashtra home minister R R Patil for the government’s "failure" to "defend" Shivaji’s honour in the judicial proceedings. Or of Patil and chief minister Ashok Chavan seeking to outmanoeuvre the Supreme Court by trying to enact a new law to prevent the "defamation" of iconic personalities.

If we are to grow rather than regress we need debate and dissent. Book burnings are a feature of medieval times. It is the function of political parties to shape public discourse in a manner that lifts it above crude populism and rabble-rousing. Instead, in Maharashtra, mainstream parties have entered a game of competitive populism with the Shiv Sena and the MNS. And so we have a state government trying to push through legislation that will ban books incurring the displeasure of politicians. The point about hurt sentiments is that once allowed free play, they will always find more books (and people) to be hurt by. That process creates more social enmities than any book. If any legislation is needed on the issue, it should outlaw the banning of books.

The Indian Express, July 12 2010


The Laine test

The Supreme Court has finally scotched the ban against American historian James Laine, whose book on Shivaji had enraged Maharashtra’s Sambhaji brigade enough to run riot through the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004, destroying rare manuscripts and harassing scholars. The then Congress/NCP-led administration cravenly gave in to their bullying, slapping a ban on the book. Political parties across the spectrum vied with each other to speak for the uninformed hoodlums rather than for scholarship and free inquiry. And institution after institution acquiesced in this unofficial censorship, until even the Supreme Court gently suggested to Laine that he simply excise the offending bits and ponder “how the interests of justice would be best served.”

Now, as the ban is lifted, the old hatreds have come rushing back — the Sambhaji brigade has howled betrayal and threatened that if the government does not take action by August 15, “we will take action in our style.” The MNS promised that it would burn every available copy and see how anyone managed to sell the book. Home minister R.R. Patil, speaking for the Congress-NCP government, said their opposition remained undiluted, and even the Samajwadi party presented the decision as a great insult to Maharashtra’s moral fabric. Nor has the BJP emerged unscathed; it has hardly made an effort to rein in its ally, the Shiv Sena.

As it happens, the James Laine case has indeed become a litmus test for the state. The court’s lifting of the ban has taken Maharashtra full circle, back where it all began — the threats of vigilante justice, the deep and dangerous illiteracy (the book is an excavation of the Shivaji myth, not an authorised biography), and political rhetoric that ratchets up the anger instead of addressing it with a larger vision. What happens next will reveal whether Maharashtra, long disfigured by its politics of violent resentment, can ever hope for better. Why must the agenda for its mainstream politics continually be set by the state’s most obscurantist, hyper-nationalist fringe? When it comes to protecting an intellectual endeavour that has now been vetted by the court, will the state finally have the spine to stand up to the various Senas that menace it?