All is well with ‘I’m Charlie’. But, what about ‘I’m Perumal’?

At around the time that TV was breathlessly covering the 3.7 million people rally in Paris, there was considerably less attention on the protests in India against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, whose novel Madhurobhagan was under attack, and who announced his retirement from writing, Namita Bhandare writes.

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There are no Charlie Hebdos in India. Je suis declarations notwithstanding, freedom of expression now seems to be an abstract ideal, a distant dream of our founding fathers.

At around the time that TV was breathlessly covering the 3.7 million people rally in Paris, there was considerably less attention on the protests in India against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Poor Murugan might have at the very least merited a stray nod from all those fulminating talking heads. Instead, the writer announced his retirement from writing.

For 25 years Murugan has written poetry, short stories and novels and single-handedly compiled a dictionary of the Kongu dialect. But it was his 2010 novel, Madhurobhagan (One Part Woman), set 100 years ago about a childless couple who attend a religious festival in the author’s hometown of Tiruchengode where women have consensual sex with men other than their husbands in the hope of conceiving, that has earned the ire of the RSS and caste organisations like the Hindu Munnani.

A sustained campaign included posters, a planned bandh and the distribution of selected pages. Murugan and his family were forced to flee town on the advise of the police. And a peace meeting among the author, agitators and district administration ended with an apology by Murugan and an assurance that future editions would excise the name of the town.

The stark announcement on his Facebook on January 13 was not unexpected: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.” In an earlier interview to The Hindu, the writer said: “I wonder if I can think independently [again]. This was perhaps the intention of the opposing forces.”

There is no censorship tool as sharp as the threat of violence, and this threat is now a well-established principle especially with regard to works that apparently offend religion. Movie halls that show a film depicting a character playing the role of God Shiva are vandalised. A bounty is announced on an artist who paints Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the nude. Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku remains in exile in Finland after he upset Catholic groups for exposing a supposed miracle. Islamic groups succeed in cancelling a planned visit of Salman Rushdie to a literature festival.

Are we to pretend that these individual acts — whether voluntary or imposed — do not censor future books, art and movies?

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (Photo: The Hindu)

Weak-kneed politicians have proved to be willing accomplices to this fundamentalist blackmail. After all, bans on religious subjects become convenient fig leaves for covering up political criticism. So, using one of three tools — criminal sections in law that cover such vague notions of ‘grossly offensive’ (Section 66A); a declaration that they cannot be held responsible for violence (Jayalalithaa with Viswaroopam); or just sheer muscle (Congress threatening legal action against Sonia Gandhi’s biography The Red Sari, which has only just been cleared for publication in India) — they whittle away at our democratic freedoms, one ban at a time.

The liberal voice has its own version of politically correct censorship. I have written about double-standards earlier, and ask again: Why do the voices that support a ban on The Satanic Verses fall silent when inconvenient speakers are barred from university lectures? What kind of political correctness leads to the removal of a textbook cartoon of BR Ambedkar? And what prompts the Censor Board chief to quit because a film she finds unpalatable, the egregious MSG, is cleared for viewing? After all, the principle liberals adopt — don’t like, don’t watch — should apply equally to films that are ‘not substantiated by logic’, to use the Censor Board’s own words of objection. The list of not-to-be-touched topics increases with every new assault. Religion, caste, creed, politics, sex, cartoons….

It only takes a tiny crowd of rabble-rousers to threaten disruption. But where is the response to the now nearly daily disruptions of free speech? Apart from the usual suspects in TV studios, there is no public protest either against the rabble-rousers or the politicians who fail to stand up to them. Je suis Charlie, hell yes. Je suis Perumal. Anyone?

Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal

Aamir’s PK under attack, ‘Achhe din’ in danger

It’s not a coincidence that the attack comes at a time when right-wing muscle flexing continues. But the PM has refused to utter a single word of disapproval, writes Namita Bhandare.

First columns of the year should herald new beginnings. But for me the year begins on a note of disquiet. And nothing exemplifies this more than the controversy around the film PK.

I saw the film before the #BanPK and #SupportPK hashtags began trending on twitter, before cinema halls were vandalised and before Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister Akhilesh Yadav made it tax-free.

Who would have guessed that an entertaining but decidedly middle-brow film would have caused such a stir?

PK traverses already explored territory (OMG! Oh My God has been there, done that): The exploitation of religion. While its chief target is a Hindu ‘godman’, it is careful to include offenders from other faiths. The fact that it denounces blind faith in a country where religion, regardless of the colour of faith, feeds off poverty and illiteracy is to be applauded.

To say that PK isn’t sufficiently critical of Islam or Christianity is to miss the point. The director could have focused on Christian missionaries, but how many of us would have identified with the film then? You could even accuse the director of cowardice and a fear of a fatwa by taking on Islam. Yet these arguments don’t take away from the fact that PK is about charlatans who act in the name of religion (with a few well-deserved digs at the media too).

The subject of Right-wing ire is Aamir Khan who plays the lead. This is strange because actors enact roles. But social media is awash with images of Khan at Haj (real life) and question his sincerity as PK (reel life).

It’s not a coincidence that the orchestrated attack on PK comes at a time when Right-wing muscle flexing continues. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most ardent supporters have finally had to frown at what they persist in calling the loony ‘fringe’. But with Modi – a man not known for silence – refusing to utter a single word of disapproval, we are left to draw our own conclusions: He is either powerless (the kinder view), or else an accomplice in the narrative.

Modi’s silence is worrying for three reasons. The first is because it has set off a sense of fear and unease amongst minorities and what the Right-wing rabble dismisses as the ‘seculars’. A mock drill by the police in Rajkot stereotypes Muslims as terrorists. Reports of ghar wapsi programmes trickle in every day. And there is no reassurance from our prime minister.

Second, the silence coincides with a cascading noise. What began as love jihad now embraces a view that Nathuram Godse deserves both statues and a temple. What was once fringe is now mainstream with ministers appropriating Christmas as a day of governance rather than the birth of Christ. At one point does the head of the state deem intervention necessary?

Third and most worrying is that Modi’s silence places a question over his stand on our Constitutional guarantees. The head of this country is sworn to uphold the Constitution. If our character as a secular republic is to be called into question by his party’s affiliates who declare that India will be a 100% Hindu nation in the very near future, then surely the prime minister must make his position clear.

So, the new year begins on a sorry note of fear and loathing. What we have is McCarthy-style labelling, with both sides looking at the other with suspicion. (When I write in praise of Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a colleague asks me which side I am on.)

At colleges, where even unpalatable ideas must be debated, students at IIT Bombay question the choice of Subramanian Swamy as speaker. The liberals cheer when a news anchor chucks out a guest who sings the praises of Godse. Surely, freedom of expression, as long as it doesn’t break the law, must equally apply to those we disagree with. But there is no longer room for nuance.

A historic mandate on the promise of ‘achhe din’ is in danger of being frittered away. The year has not begun on a promising note. I can only hope that there will not be a further downhill slide.

Twitter: @namitabhandare

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

If a film offends, you don’t have to watch it

The Central Board of Film Certification’s job should be to issue age appropriate certification, not play a public morality nanny with scissors in hand at the slightest whiff of sex, politics and religion. A nation of Perpetually Hurt Sentiment has no shortage of moral minders, writes Namita Bhandare.

For a party that talks of less government, more governance, this was an opportunity missed. The controversy over the resignation of the previous chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) notwithstanding, this was a chance to dismantle what one commentator calls a ‘Soviet-era censor board’.

Instead what we have is one board gone, replaced by one packed with BJP members and sympathisers. The new chairman, producer Pahlaj Nihalani is perhaps better known as the composer of Har Ghar Modi, the party’s 2014 election anthem. Others like Vani Tripathi Tikoo and George Baker are BJP members. Actress Jeevitha is the party’s spokesperson in Telangana.

As citizens, they are entitled to their political views and I’m prepared to grant an innocent-till-proven-guilty certificate. Equally irrelevant is the historical examination of how previous governments also made political appointments. The point is not who started it but who will end it.

This is where the BJP lost its chance.

The world has changed since the passage of the Cinematograph Act in 1952. Technology and social media has enlarged the definition of who is a film-maker (everyone it seems) and you can pretty much download and watch anything. What hasn’t changed is the government playing big brother.

Although we use lazy shorthand to call it a censor board – the original name given by the British to control sedition in Indian cinema – the CBFC, as the name implies, examines issues of certification.

Advisory panels watch films and decide whether they are suitable for children or adults. But panels, like the board, are packed with people ‘affiliated to some political, religious and social group’, finds the 2013 Justice Mukul Mudgal report. And instead of sticking to certification, the CBFC has morphed into a public morality nanny, scissors in hand at the slightest whiff of sex, politics and religion.

A nation of Perpetually Hurt Sentiment has no shortage of moral minders. At any given point, someone, somewhere is outraged. Now, four petitioners want a stay on Hawaizaada for its ‘wrongful’ portrayal of Shivkar Bapuji Talpade – hailed at January’s Indian Science Congress for building the world’s first airplane before the Wright Brothers. How can a nationalist Vande Mataram reciting Talpade be shown in such less-than-lofty pursuits as ‘liquor and illicit relations’?

We tend to quietly acquiesce to bullies, blackmailers and their muscle. We certainly don’t need an additional gatekeeper of morality. The CBFC must recall its nomenclature – certification, not censorship – and just get on with the job of issuing age-appropriate certificates as the American independent agency, Classification and Ratings Administration, does.

Yet, in the short while since he’s taken over, Nihalani has already prepared a list of forbidden cuss words and lamented over nudity on television and the Internet, which are beyond his jurisdiction. And, he says, he will ensure ‘no religious sentiments are hurt’.

We have more than enough sections in our law that ensure our increasingly thin-skinned religious sentiments are kept intact; section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feeling) etc. It is not the mandate of the CBFC to play police or judge.

Film-makers, already piqued by mandatory smoking and alcohol warnings, argue for artistic freedom. Equally, there are concerns about how women, for instance, or violence or religion are depicted. But cinema in addition to entertaining us, must also provoke. It leads to questions about society and the challenges we face. In an environment where books are pulped, art exhibitions pulled down and movies banned how can we expect anything other than Chulbul Pandey’s antics (by the way, offensive to me, but then I didn’t watch).

The CBFC must be alive to the threats to our constitutional freedoms. We need a board that will stand for creativity, not create lists of banned words. We need a chairman who tells bullies, if it offends, don’t watch. And, yes, we need less government in the world of art and cinema, not a ‘censor board’ that decides what we may watch.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)