Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP
Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

The right to be offended

The constitutional right to speak is now subordinate to the non-existent right to be offended

Salaam,

To everyone, salaam

To the hand that holds

And brandishes the rod, salaam,

With my left hand on my rear

For fear of the boot,

A right-handed salaam,

To the one who watches me closely, salaam,

To the one who doesn’t watch and doesn’t care, salaam,

To the one who’d like to buy me out, salaam,

To his unseen boss, who orders him to buy me out, salaam,

Salaam, dear friends, to everyone, salaam.

From Mangesh Padgaonkar’s Marathi poem Salaam

Translated by Vinay Dharwadker

The struggle for freedom of expression in India has just become harder. Writers and artists, challenged by self-appointed gatekeepers, have opted to surrender. They have been acquiescing because the humourless government has succumbed to the gatekeepers and, instead of protecting them, it charges them under loosely-worded laws that restrict freedom of expression.

Last week, the comedy team that makes the Internet-only show All India Bakchod issued a grovelling apology to Mumbai’s auxiliary bishop, Agnelo Gracias. It is likely to be the first of many apologies. It followed the furore which had forced the comedians to take down their roast, or a comedy show laced with insulting humour, which had several Bollywood stars. Reportedly, the script had already been scrubbed to avoid offending a few favoured folks. The humour was bawdy, possibly juvenile, and not to everyone’s taste. But it was performed before an invited audience and nobody there objected, and nobody was forced to watch it either, since it could only be seen on the Internet. The comedians’ abject apology shocked and disappointed many who had defended them when members of the Central Board of Film Certification, politicians, and assorted busybodies complained, forcing them to yank the show off the Web. The comedians are driven by self-preservation—the scenario is gloomy. Dismayingly, now their apology tour may begin.

Anthony has protested and won: can Amar and Akbar be far behind?

Barely a month ago Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel Madhorubhagan (2010) suddenly aroused the fury of Hindu groups in his village, Namakkal. Madhurobhagan is a fictional story about a couple keen to have a child. The woman participates in a chariot festival where, as per custom, on one night, consensual sex between any woman and man, regardless of their marital status, is permitted. The novel sharply examines the community’s tyranny, which tears the couple apart.

In a bizarre development, local authorities called Murugan ostensibly to settle the dispute with the aggrieved community members, during which the author’s supporters say he was forced to agree to withdraw the novel. Murugan withdrew all his works and said he would not write anymore. In a statement he said: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone." (At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, at a session called Ankahee: What Must Not Be Said, the novel’s publisher Kannan Sundaram read an excerpt from the novel and I read it from its English translation, One Part Woman).

In Mumbai, Shirin Dalvi, editor of an Urdu newspaper called Awadhnama, published a cover of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in her newspaper to illustrate a story about the terrorist attacks on the controversial magazine. She apologized later; she has now not only lost her job, but the newspaper has been shut down, and she is now forced to live under a burkha. Remarkably, it wasn’t a religious figure who filed a police complaint against her, but a group of Urdu journalists. Professional rivalry and misogyny may have played their part, wrote Jyoti Punwani last week on the website Scroll.

This is where we are: groups claimed offence and forced apologies from an editor, a novelist, a bunch of comedians, and shut them up. The constitutional right to speak (although weakened by caveats) is now subordinate to the non-existent right to be offended. Such groups hound publishers who have withdrawn books, newspapers whose offices have been attacked; art galleries have been ransacked, and cinema halls vandalized. Religious demons bare their claws; the author, the artist, the comedian, and the journalist are forced to give up; the government is silently relieved: peace has prevailed. Padgaonkar wrote about the Emergency when the government terrorized us. Now we are afraid of shadows and the government lurks right there, complicit and smug, silently cheering the mobs, stoking fears, and ready to pounce.

Salaam,

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

To every one of you, a reverential salaam.

If I had several arms and hands,

Like our sacred pantheon,

With every one of them I would have salaamed.

Forgive me, mortal as I am,

That I have only two:

The left I reserve for my rear,

And with the right I offer you

A simple, one-handed salaam.

Salaam, dear ladies and gentlemen, to everyone, salaam.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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