Friday, February 1, 2013

Times of India Op-Ed The politics of protest -Urvashi Butalia

 The Gag Effect

The politics of protest


I chaired the panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival in which Ashis Nandy is alleged to have made casteist remarks that got him into such trouble. The panel, titled 'The Republic of Ideas', and slated as one of the opening discussions on Republic Day, began with an exploration of the idea of a republic, or an imagined utopian future, raising questions about whose ideas were those that were represented, whose future they imagined, whether or not this future was evolutionary, changing, or whether it was static, and whether or not imagined utopias always carried within them their own imperfections, their own dystopias. The panelists were five men - the television journalist Ashutosh, writers Patrick French and Richard Sorabji, journalist cum writer Tarun Tejpal and academic, philosopher, thinker, writer Ashis Nandy.

Initially open and wide-ranging, the discussion soon, inevitably, began to focus on India. It was in this connection that the subject or corruption, so close to the hearts of many people, came up. Ashutosh mentioned it in relation to his book on Anna Hazare, Tarun Tejpal took it up, asserting that in India where the poor were denied any means of upward mobility, corruption provided one such avenue and was a great equaliser. Ashis Nandy then took this one step further, signaling his agreement with Tarun Tejpal and expanding his argument to say that while the rich used sophisticated methods to hide their corrupt practices, the poor were not so skilled at this, and therefore their corruption was much more visible, but that as long as it existed, the republic would survive. His exact words are now accessible on the internet, so do not need repeating here, but this is broadly what I understood him to say.

This exchange took all of five minutes in what was a one hour discussion. Many other things were talked about. They have all disappeared into some black hole. I am not concerned with whether or not Nandy made a pro-OBC /ST/ST statement (which he did) but instead with everything that happened around and about it. Although Nandy's statement gave rise to some quite agitated questions and responses, the session ended, as many sessions at the JLF do, with a buzz and a sense that some interesting things had been said in the course of that one hour. And it made people think.

The trouble began later. One of the panelists, journalist Ashutosh, went on air publicising Ashis Nandy's statement somewhat out of context, giving it the opposite meaning from what was intended. A small time politician, Kirori Lal Meena, readying to launch his political party in Rajasthan arrived and muscled his way through into the festival grounds, pushing two women to the ground to make them get out of his way, and later blamed them for attending nightclubs. Both violated the ethics of participation in such public events: Ashutosh by using his presence on the panel to give him the 'breaking news' edge in what has become an increasingly ugly and competitive media environment and Meena by flouting one of JLF's cardinal rules, that no one will come in without registering, and no one will use their political clout to push their way through. Yet no action has been taken against these men, nor has it been talked about.

Nandy did none of these things. He merely spoke. Is speech then more frightening than physical violence? Do professional ethics stand for nothing? Further, something that no one has remarked upon: no protest took place inside the JLF. There was discussion yes, disagreement too, but no one attacked Nandy, no one shouted slogans at him;they argued, talked, Nandy was very much in evidence in the writers' room, and writers like Kancha Iliah, Ajay Navaria, Meena Kandaswamy and others did what writers do, they engaged in dialogue. The audience of 2, 000 plus that watched and listened to the panel did what literary festival audiences do - they went on to attend other sessions.

The protestors were all outside, which raised an important logistical question: how did they know what Nandy had said? The video of the session wasn't available then (it is now), so clearly all protestors were there on hearsay. Rather like the Vishwaroopam protestors who have not seen the film, but are angry nonetheless that it will hurt their sentiments. Further, when the FIR was filed with the police, was any evidence provided - a video, a recording - of the offending speech? Did the police even ask for it? Or did they just file an FIR on hearsay? Why is no one asking this question?

Many writers have spoken of the bankruptcy of our democracy where we cannot even discuss controversial ideas. Few, however, have commented on the bankruptcy of our leaders - both those who vociferously protest for their own private political agendas, and those who remain silent, for theirs. Why have we seen no statements from any leader that defends the freedom of speech, something a democracy should hold dear?

And finally, there is another question we need to ask: what if the statement Nandy made had been anti-women ? What if he had said it is women among whom corruption is widespread, and that it is the only means of social mobility for them. It doesn't take much to know that there would have been very little protest - except from women's groups - and there would have been no FIR, no political leader ready to take up the cause and Nandy would have been able to walk free.

The writer is a feminist, writer and publisher

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