Tuesday, February 5, 2013

ABC Radio Australia - Intolerance growing as India's intellectuals fight for free speech

Intolerance growing as India's intellectuals fight for free speech Updated 6 February 2013, 15:14 AEST

In recent weeks, writers, academics, actors and artists have come under attack from India's political class and fringe parties for criticizing the established order.

Intellectuals feel intolerance is growing in India and freedoms are being curtailed

Reporter: Murali Krishnan
Speakers : Ritu Menon, publisher and writer; Makarand Paranjape, Indian poet and professor; Santosh Desai, social commentator; Kamal Hassan, south Indian actor

KRISHNAN: It has become increasingly easy these days to offend the Indian government, and to incur the wrath of the censor or even the threat of legal action. Actor Kamal Hassan learnt it the hard way and was forced to reach a settlement with Muslim organizations in southern India, agreeing finally to delete seven scenes from his latest spy thriller.

Earlier the actor had threatened to leave his state and was pained by the response of the authorities to his mega production "Vishwaroopam" or The Gigantic Guardian Figure that revolves around an Indian intelligence agent thwarting a "terrorist" attack by fighters from Afghanistan in New York.

KAMAL: I think I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in. I have lost what I have done. I have nothing to lose, so I might as well choose. And that choice could be a secular state from Kashmir to Kerala excluding Tamil Nadu.

KRISHNAN: Artistic expression is being increasingly given a political and communal color. And over the weeks this has set off protests on the streets, court battles and loud debates on artistic freedom across the country. Ritu Menon, a publisher and writer who has been active in the South Asian women's movement for over 20 years explains this disturbing phenomenon.

MENON: It is actually an indication of two things. One the prevalence of what we call street censorship or laissez faire censorship… which is to say no one can be held responsible …the mob forms and dissolves so no one can actually be criminialized. The second one is that it is happening much more often as we know - the more regressive the state, the more aggressive the mob. The state is simply withdrawing from the public sphere.

KRISHNAN: At the just concluded Jaipur Literature Festival hundreds of people staged a protest demonstration outside the venue demanding the immediate arrest of eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy for his reported remarks against members of the backward classes, scheduled castes and tribes. Though Nandy said he was misunderstood, the clamor for his arrest grew. Makarand Paranjape is a poet and English professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

PARANJAPE: It seems to me the state which is the guarantor of rights which are enshrined in the constitution is extremely amenable to pressure groups, all kinds of minority and fringe elements who have nuisance value And essentially since the state is run by, I mean they are worried about maintaining their power, they kowtow to these interests.

KRISHNAN: The unpleasant events over the last few weeks also saw writer Salman Rushdie being denied entry into Kolkata to promote Deepa Mehta's film Midnight's Children, based on his book by the same name. He was not allowed to enter the city and the reason cited for stopping him was that some Muslims felt the author was anti-Islam.

Last year amid death threats to the organizers and fears of violent riots by Muslim groups, Rushdie was prevented from making an appearance or even addressing the Jaipur Literature Festival through a video link.

Ms Menon again.

MENON: Civil society is becoming much more vocal as a group and individuals are voicing their dissent through the arts. Through cinema, books, film theatre and so on. It is becoming extremely uncomfortable for the state to address this. And in order not to address this, they are allowing a mob which really has nobody's interests at heart to do their dirty work for them. Mr Paranjape agrees.

PARANJAPE: What is actually happening is that the political class is unable to stand up and finds it easier to appease such elements and what they are doing is they are leaving their jobs to other people like the media that will raise a hullabaloo or to the judiciary where people go when they are in trouble. So my point is what is happening is a failure of governance.

KRISHNAN: Social commentator Santosh Desai is a keen watcher of how India faces new threats to artistic freedom.

DESAI: What we are seeing is almost an idealism of earlier times turned out to be a kind of a thin veneer which has worn out and the newer forces that are coming into power are seeing power in more transactional terms as a force to be exercised. And therefore have much less compunction about using the power to restrict basic freedoms.

KRISHNAN: The big question is whether India will be able to be to find the right balance that leans more towards freedom and less towards repression.

Murali Krishnan, Connect Asia, New Delhi.

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