We, here in India, are going through another frenzy of attack against artistic freedom. Two instances in the past week have delineated this for the observer. One is the banning of Salman Rushdie from the Calcutta Literary Festival and the other is the protest by Muslim organisations over actor Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam.
Firstly, Rushdie is in India to promote the film based on his novel Midnight’s Children which gave him fame and, obviously, fortunes. While Bombay, his native city, didn’t protest, the chief minister of West Bengal Mamta Banerjee, a firebrand, has banned him from appearing at the Calcutta Literary Festival because of a book – Satanic Verses – he wrote decades ago, in fact, in 1988. Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam is on the subject of terrorism and Muslims have objected to its exhibition in theatres because of some objectionable content.
Now, freedom of expression has been guaranteed by the Indian constitution. However, these days this freedom has been exercised more to suppress the freedom of artists and writers. Most of these suppressors haven’t read or seen the artistic work in question but work on the basis of some assumptions, as in Rushdie’s case the very title of his novel. Indian politicians are reluctant to act on behalf of artists because they have the votes of the protesters to think about. The Muslim community’s vote is a big decider in any state of the country and so those in power do not wish to antagonise them. Even earlier, in 2012, the Jaipur Literary Festival had to cancel Rushdie’s appearance in it because Muslim groups protested against it. This year they expressed their displeasure at a few authors who read from Rushdie’s book in 2012 which must have led to Rushdie abstaining on his own.
Such diktats kill artistic freedom and drive a stake into the intellectual backbone of society. The lack of intellectual discourse which can be engendered by books and films have thus been curtailed. It’s so sad. An atmosphere of fear has been created in writers’ and artists’ mind about the consequences of their writing, which has led to self censorship, or, their reluctance to write about controversial subjects. The corollary is stunted development of Indian thought and the throttling of the work of emerging writers and artists. A lot of new talents exists who have not been given their share of fame because of the reluctance of publishers and self-styled censors to accept their work. Also, the partisan way in which the politicians in power look at artistic endeavour needs to be examined, though all of them profess to be patrons of the arts.
Which is to say all is not gung ho with the Indian literary and artistic scene.