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Mr Governor save Mumbai from bigots

by Ruchir Joshi, 18 October 2010

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(Published earlier in Mail Today)

To His Excellency, Shri K. Sankaranarayanan, Governor of Maharshtra, Mumbai

Mananiya Governor - Saheb,

I write to you with deep concern at the manner in which Shri Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey has been summarily removed from the syllabus of the University of Mumbai.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind any you that we as a country and as a society are still paying the price of another such peremptory banning of a novel by another distinguished Bombayite — The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie — twenty- odd years ago.

By banning the book, the Government of India meekly cowered when it should have stood up to the ’fatwa’ by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and thus strengthened the hands of Islamic fundamentalists all over the world.

It gave extremists courage and assurance that their tactics of bullying and their blackmail of impending violence could be further deployed to maim and destroy any culture and any criticism they deemed unpalatable.

The quick capitulation of the Indian Government then also signalled to cynical extremists of every faith and political hue the world over that they could, from now on, use the pretence of their religion or their ’culture’ being ’offended’ as a political tool to raise mass hysteria and smother lawful critique and debate.

Bigotry

Sir, we now know that the attack on Shri Rushdie and his novel was an important first victory which led the general assaults on social, religious and political freedom by Islamists from Algeria to Afghanistan.

These assaults went hand in hand with other kinds of violence, some slow and insidious, others immediate and brutal, many of the attacks being aimed specifically at the women and the underprivileged within the very societies the Islamists claimed to be "protecting". It is not difficult to see the connection between that ill- advised ban of 1989 and the horrendous attacks suffered by Mumbai in November 2008, murders that were carried out by young men who had no interest in reading books but were told how to interpret the world and its knowledge by brutal puppeteers.

Equally, a copycat fatwaassault by Hindutva extremists on another one of Bombay’s great citizens, Shri M. F. Husain, has led to us losing one of India’s most illustrious painters, forcing him into exile in a foreign land in the last years of his life. The banishing of Shri Husain is in equal measure shameful and dangerous to India. It is clear to many of us that the goonda- giri aimed at M. F. Husain, again by young men who had no knowledge or interest whatsover in painting, young thugs again run by cynical puppeteers, is but among the first steps of a programme intended to take control our society and have it run by the narrowest, most corrupt, venal and cruel of regressive ideologies.

It is nothing less than an attempt on the life of democracy in our Republic.

Your Excellency, Bombay, Mumbai, Maharashtra and India have already suffered enough from cynical, planned, politically motivated and targeted intolerance.

To let a complex and acclaimed work of art such Shri Mistry’s novel meet a fate similar to books burnt by the Nazis will do nothing other than feed the monster of bigotry that prowls among us. It will fatten that rakshasa and it will further shrink the great Indian metropolis from which you oversee Maharashtra.

Sir, it further disturbs me that a person in a post of such high responsibility as the Vice- Chancellor of Mumbai University has, it seems, capitulated with such unseemly speed to the threats and demands of a twenty- yearold student. It may be significant that the young man is the scion of the city’s most infamous political family, that he speaks softly or un- softly while being escorted by a large concentration of goonda- muscle. That is no justification for a high- ranking guardian of education to pawn his students’ right to knowledge, to literature, to conflicting thought and debate for some percieved notion of peace and safety.

Freedom

There will no peace and no safety for any student of Mumbai University if this ill- judged ban goes through. The students who protest against the removal of Such a Long Journey from their syllabus will face bullying and physical danger — an acute threat to their short- term peace and safety; the ones who sit by and watch, will likely remain unaware that they have just been mugged at knife- point of their freedom of independent thought and enquiry; they will suffer a far longer term degradation to the quality of their life and freedom. To shift from English to American, it is a lose- lose situation for anyone unfortunate enough to be currently enrolled in the august University of which you are Chancellor.

Bombay, Mumbai, Bambai, whatever one may choose to call the city, has a proud history of protest and dissent; it was, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, the urban bedrock of our country’s Independence movement, and that movement faced many overt and underhand attacks from the British, including the banning of ’seditious literature’ that was critical of the Raj.

Therefore, a part of me welcomes this challenge where the privileged young of a city are once again faced with a choice: to renew the fight for freedom of expression or to capitulate and concentrate on their individual careers and advancement. While we will watch with acute interest what the students do about this, the question still looms as large as the Gateway of India: what will you do, sir, you and the other wise guardians in whose care lies the highest education of Western India’s youth? Your Excellency, I would not presume to advise you on how to improve the sanitation of Nanded or Nashik, check farmer suicides in Vidarbha or counter the spread of Maoism in Gadchiroli.

In any case, these are matters for the State Government and its honourable ministers and not under the direct purview of your Office. However, the University of Mumbai and the protection of the Indian Constitition in Maharashtra do come directly under your command.

And, since the Constitution and Indian Literature belong equally to yourself and to me, may I make so bold as to suggest the following:

Legacy

That you declare Greater Bombay/ Mumbai a City of Free Expression and, with an arrangement with various publishers make widely available cheap but well- produced editions of all the important novels written about Bombay and by Bombaykars, in Marathi, Hindi and, yes, in that other important language of the city, English.

That you make arrangements with film- makers and make possible open- air public screenings of all the powerful documentaries made on Mum- Bombay by film- makers both from the city and outside.

That you reiterate the laws of the land which clearly say it is illegal and punishable by jail to stifle free speech in any corner of India.

That you instruct the elected ministers of the State Government to strictly enforce the law against anyone who attempts to use physical or economic force against writers, journalists, filmmakers and other critics of political parties and public figures.

That you instruct the ministers that the law should be particularly firm with people or parties attempting to use the poisonous ’Offence to Culture’ gambit.

May I humbly suggest that if this was done it would go a long way towards completing what has been such a long journey towards restoring the primacy of Bombay- Mumbai as the home of intellectual and creative freedom in India? May I suggest that the tired crown jewels of Dalal Street and Hindi Cinema will likely fall off when one or another city overtakes Mumbom as Money- Magnet- Megalopolis or Flavour- of- the- Month Entertainment Factory, but that this is one aabhushan that no one will be able to snatch once it is properly re- installed in the crown of your city?

Sincerely, Ruchir Joshi