Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Look at the cause of rebellion

Pankaj Sharma
19 October 2015, New Delhi

The government must engage in dialogue with dissenting writers, activists.

It has been around 15 months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. However, in this period, a sense of distrust among religious communities has grown across the country. Moreover, there is a discernible fear among the intelligentsia that the common man’s right to privacy is being curtailed, in addition to serious concerns over the future of key democratic institutions.

Almost two dozen noted writers have lodged their protest against the Centre’s inability to tackle issues about social harmony in recent weeks. Slamming the move to leave out a large number of information activists from the inauguration of the annual RTI convention, seven invited activists had decided to boycott the session, which was addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ironically, at the event, the Prime Minister said, “The Right to Information is not only about the right to know but also about the right to question. People should have a right to question the government. This is the foundation of democracy. This will increase their faith in democracy. When matters go online, transparency increases automatically. The trust also increases.”

Every year, the government would invite more than 200 RTI activists to attend its annual convention at the Central Information Commission. However, the Modi Government decided to invite only 10 activists this year, citing “security concerns”. Only three of these invitees attended the ceremony. Leading RTI activist Aruna Roy said that they boycotted the event in solidarity with those who did not receive an invitation. While our Prime Minister was heard saying, “in this day and age, there is no need for secrecy,” RTI activists, including Aruna Roy, staged a demonstration outside the venue.

We have a government that does not care for its social activists, writers or thinkers if they do not toe the line. On April 6, at a joint conference of chief ministers and chief justices from across India, Modi urged the audience to rethink the role of “five-star activists”. His scornful dismissal of activists at a gathering of legal luminaries has confirmed what many had already suspected—that he has an innate suspicion of grass roots activism. But, protests of well-known and award-winning writers cannot be treated in a hush-hush manner. One noted writer after another has been either returning awards received from Sahitya Akademi or resigning from honorary positions. Such an impulse is spreading to winners of other prestigious awards. The writers’ revolt has highlighted the attacks on public intellectuals that is part of a larger crisis involving terrible acts of social violence.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who also is the Information and Broadcasting Minister, has called these protests a “manufactured revolt”. Jaitley is the only member of Modi’s council of ministers, whose intellectual faculty I admire. However, I do feel sad when even people like him indulge in acts of intellectual dishonesty.  I am sure Jaitley does not have any respect for those who raise their voice and demand justice. When a vast majority of the Central Board of Film Certification resigned en masse, raising concerns over the freedom and autonomy of the institution earlier this year, Jaitley had shown a similar contempt. He called them, “rebels without a cause”. According to Jaitley, if you have any opinion that is not in line with his or the party’s supreme leader, your very existence is an act of rebellion.

Rather than abusing writers and activists, Narendra Modi and his friends must understand the real cause of the rebellion. To revolt is a natural tendency. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. The vitality and relative dignity of anyone can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt. All serious writing is meant to question prevailing social values that have evolved empirically and those imposed by society over time. This is not for the first time that serious writers and activists are up in revolt. They have been doing it through the ages. They have always revolted against injustice, hypocrisy, outmoded forms of expression, or simply the status quo.

The works of noted historical figures, such as Kabir, Rahim, Prem Chand and Nagarjuna are a testament to the above fact. They were revolutionaries not only in their writings but in their actions too. Our writers, poets and activists have always fought against prevailing social evils and the systems of governance that ignored these causes of social tensions. When Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil” appeared in 1857, both the author and his publisher were prosecuted “for an offence to the public morals,” and the book remained underground for many years. Antonin Artaud, one of the most lucid men who ever lived, spent many years in an asylum and was declared “dangerous”.

The international media has described the recent campaign by our writers as an “unprecedented rebellion by the cream of India’s literary talent”.  More than 40 novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets have now given back their awards. If they feel that India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault, the government must have a dialogue with them before the row grows further. To kill those who stand for truth and justice puts any country to shame in the eyes of the world. We must not allow the global community to develop a perception that rabid rightwing groups have felt emboldened by the mandate won by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The recent sectarian violence did have a significant impact on India’s image overseas.

India should not be known as a country that bans singers and musicians. We should not be seen as a country where authors like Perumal Murugan asks his publisher to withdraw all his works of fiction. Modi must take effective steps to control the growing power of self-appointed censors from displaying a Victorian hangover with a Taliban-like temperament.

No comments: