Millennium Post

Let’s celebrate our illiberal values

The high moralists who rule Indian public discourse at most times were missing when porn actress Sunny Leone took part in the reality TV show Bigg Boss. There were a few sniggers but no burning downs, morchas, threats and so on. Now she is acting in a Bollywood film as well. Well, you may think, how mature Indian society has become. Just a few months ago, there was fear and loathing over writer Salman Rushdie’s scheduled visit to the Jaipur literary festival. Over a decade ago, models Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman were slapped with indecency for posing with a snake and their shoes on [and little else, apparently, I admit]. But now a porn star and we accept it? In a country where
is still banned? In a city where a couple of years ago, the police barged into the home of a woman TV producer at three in the morning and accused her of watching porn on her laptop?

So have we come a long way, baby? Of course not. The same Mumbai which is liberal about Leone is now going hammer and tongs at people who go to pubs and bars, people who dance, drink, smoke, eat in restaurants and in fact, do anything at all which does not comprise sitting at home and watching porn. The police have conducted a spate of raids and detained or arrested people on the most specious of grounds. Women in pubs and restaurants have been tagged as sex workers. Maximum city also means maximum idiocy apparently.

But where we have really been at our recent illiberal best is with political cartoons and satire. It is important to note that the cartoons under the outrage gavel have not blasphemed any deeply-held religious beliefs nor are they a deliberate attempt to provoke. Instead, these do what all political cartoons do – make fun of politicians and political processes.

It has to be said that the outraged parties are the politicians themselves who have suddenly developed completely thin skins. The first to cause outrage was the most innocuous of all – someone took dialogues from Satyajit Ray’s film Sonar Kella
and applied them to the minor political crisis when West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee sacked one railway minister and replaced him with another. A university lecturer was beaten up and booked for forwarding this cartoon to his friends.

The other two offensive cartoons have been around for years – since 1949 and 1968. One by the renowned Shankar was about the delays in the forming the constitution. The other was by the equally if not more renowned R K Laxman about the anti-Hindi riots. Both made the fatal mistake of landing up in a political science textbook. The first was deemed to be insulting to Dalits [the cartoon showed B R Ambedkar sitting on the constituent assembly which looked like a snail, whip and reins in hand, while Jawaharlal Nehru was whipping the snail]. The government, in its now expected pusillanimous fashion, not only banned the textbook but also all cartoons from textbooks.

The Laxman cartoon implied that not only did students not understand Hindi, they didn’t know English either. This is incalculably insulting to students in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. Logic of course has no role here – it is no use pointing out that Shankar’s cartoon came out in Ambedkar’s lifetime and there is no record that he was insulted nor that he felt all Dalits were insulted. So also with the Laxman cartoon.

But of all the elements of the constitution India has found it difficult to deal with, freedom of expression has been the toughest of all. Banning books because of ‘sentiments’ is not seen as unusual or anti-constitutional by the authorities because humour, satire and criticism make them uncomfortable.

The other problem has been a liberal mind set and way of life against a traditional conservative approach. Most of our lawmakers come from the traditionalist mindset, regardless of their political affiliations. As long as a liberal way of life was limited to the rich, conflicts were few. That is how they behaved but everyone below was pristine in thought and deed. Rich people drank alcohol and gangsters drank alcohol and no one in between. If the in-betweeners did it openly, they paid the price. The problem escalated because rising incomes have meant that many more can aspire to and achieve a high end lifestyle, including drinking and dancing. This sets many teeth on edge.

To many of our lawmakers, Anna Hazare’s punishment of flogging drinkers and the khap panchayats’ system of killing young couples in love are both quite legitimate courses of action. It keeps the facade of high living and good thinking intact. The same people will not have the same outrage for incest, child abuse, domestic violence, female foeticide, dowry harassment and so on, all of which upset the liberal mind.

We have convinced ourselves that all Indians are intrinsically good and spiritual beings. Interestingly, most of the current rage at corruption comes from the middle classes – not from the bulk of India. For instance, eating a cow is sacrilegious. But a cow wandering the streets so hungry that it eats plastic packets in desperation does not bother many – except liberal-minded animal activists.

Everyday, however, our fault lines are being exposed. If not now then sometime soon, we will have to address our inability to understand the constitution and our fear of modernity and change. The change is coming. If change comes with a fight rather than understanding, it will be painful. We should welcome it the way we have with Sunny Leone.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
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