Anil Dharker, Madhusree Dutta and Mallika Sarabhai speak out
Artistic freedom, with which to explore and push the boundaries of creative expression, has, in recent years, been limited through extra-judicial means of intimidation, coercion and fear mongering. Politics of Art speaks to Anil Dharker, Madhusree Dutta and Mallika Sarabhai, all prominent individuals at the helm of the cultural sphere, on issues affecting cultural freedom in India.
Politics of Art: Freedom of speech may be a major pillar of any democratic construct, yet India, which boasts a constitutionally secular and democratic platform, has a progressively weak track record of defending this inalienable democratic right. Government has mostly been a passive onlooker vis-à-vis private and public forms of censorship. Do you think there will be a fundamental impact on cultural freedom in India under the new administration?
Anil Dharker: I don’t think the new government will change things either for better or worse for the simple reason that Congress-led governments or past BJP governments have made no effort to stop the erosion of freedom of speech. The usual pattern is for local police to take arbitrary action based on individual complaints against a speech, writing etc. Increasingly, self righteous individuals have been joined by so-called cultural organisations to take up cudgels on behalf of religions and personalities (‘icons’) against publishers, writers, academics and so on. The state turns a blind eye to these threats, so publishers, organizers of debates and festivals have no option but to buckle under. Salman Rushdie and Wendy Doniger are the two most prominent examples.
Madhusree Dutta: I would like to make a distinction between Freedom of Speech and Censorship. There has been an easy equation in popular perception between public morality, state control and censorship. The prevalent argument follows a simple linear line that, responding to the periodic outbursts of public morality, the government, as a populist measure, steps in with censorship clauses to curb the freedom of expression of progressive sections of the population – writers, filmmakers and artists. There is also this notion that censorship is the major, if not only, way of curbing freedom of expression. This implies that if censorship was abolished, opinions and expressions would float easily and freely in the public domain.
Censorship is a state act which certifies cultural works, mainly films, as fit for commercial, (read public) ticketed exhibitions. If denied a censor certificate the artist/producer can always appeal – first with a higher committee within the censor board and then to the judicial system. But the recent chain of events that has curbed freedom of expression is actually initiated by political outfits (Shiv Sena cadres against the screening of Fire in 1996, the VHP attack on Husain-Doshi Gufa in 2006, the 2014 case of Penguin withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book The Hindus on behest of the Hindu outfit Shiksha Bachao Andolan) or their offspring, in the guise of morality crusaders.
It is a law and order issue when the state cannot and does not provide protection to its citizens – in this case, artists and their works. It involves the basic human right to life and work. I believe this is not a simple case of arguing over nomenclature. We should be very careful about not bracketing the criminal act of vandalism with the state act of censorship, as by doing so we only give goons validity within the structure of democracy. Goons are criminals and act as such irrespective of the tendencies of the government in power. Certain governments, I feel, are likely to be more lenient toward these criminal acts than others. So my argument is that we should consider the attacks on art as criminal acts or as cultural terrorism – just the way we do communal violence, sexual violence and caste violence. And not gentrify it as a debate on Freedom of Expression. For a debate on Freedom of Expression to prevail in society, the moral license given to these criminals needs to be addressed, revoked and dealt with.
Mallika Sarabhai: Operating out of Gujarat and running a performance venue that produces many shows, I have seen how the censor board bans plays and performances. Two major examples: When Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi and Zohra Sehgal planned a play based on Anne Frank a few years ago, the censor board wanted so many cuts that it would have been impossible to retain the integrity of the performance. A few years later, after I had been slapped with spurious and false cases for Kabutarbazi, and when I was performing Colours of the Heart at our venue Natarani, the entire first row was made up of officials from the censor department and policemen in uniform. It was a not so subtle form of intimidation. Now artists, like so many sections of the media, will self-censor to continue working.
Politics of Art: The legal system in India tends to be favourable towards plaintiffs that allege offense or defamation. Literature is occasionally suppressed before publication and artwork vandalised by self-appointed moral brigades. In these cases, legal protection is never extended to the accused –nor are legal constraints imposed on vandals. Artists, writers, academics and filmmakers and other cultural producers as well as members of press have had to bulwark themselves against active threats of violence and intimidation from major and minor groups for ostensibly hurting religious or class, sentiments. As a society, don’t we have a responsibility to oppose the tyranny of censorship?
Anil Dharker: I do not agree that the legal system has booked plaintiffs the way you suggest. In fact, our legal system has consistently supported freedom of speech and expression. For example, Anand Patwardhan’s films or even Bollywood movies which have run into trouble with censors over ‘unacceptable’ themes. If Penguin had not gone under in the Doniger case but continued their legal battle, I am quite sure the court would have supported the publication of the book.
The problem, however, is the snail pace of our legal system. The Doniger case was in the courts for four years without resolution. How can you expect a publisher to continue to withstand pressure over so many years? The multiple cases brought in by Hindu zealots to harass M.F. Husain banked on this sluggishness: none of the cases came up for hearing otherwise Husain would have been vindicated.
Is there a case for fast-track courts? Does any government think this subject is important enough for fast track courts? I doubt it. So, sadly, the only recourse we will have for the time being is to persist with the judicial system, develop Zen like patience and beg the government for physical support. The media is an essential ally in this.
Madhusree Dutta: True. The issue is that we never had any provision either in law or in constitution for the rights of an artist. The rights of an educational institution are spelt out as are the rights of a religious institution or a sports association. But there is no provision of protection for a film society, an art gallery, a publishing house – these are not even recognised as institutions. The problem is that the artist community, in general, does not engage with civil society, unless the water literally rises above its head. In peace times, we do not ever think about the rights of artists and art institutions. In times like this, it becomes too vexed and contentious.
I would also like to ascribe some of the blame on ourselves. When such legal cases of appeal against art, literature and film occur, we hardly see the general public engaging with it. Over the last few decades the gulf between artists and others have widened and this has not caused any alarm among the art practitioners. Spaces of art education, initiatives for dissemination of art and courses on art appreciation are shrinking steadily and we are allowing it to happen. This does not mean that I am advocating for every artist to go out on the street or don a populist role. But we do need to think of ways of connecting with the public domain and the public, so that when such controversies erupt, ordinary people feel connected.
Mallika Sarabhai: With the demise of the credibility of newspapers and magazines like Tehelka, all we can do is depend on social media to voice protest. Save that now the trolls of the Right are ever vigilant there too. Artists have to create without being obvious, so that we get our message across without being too confrontational. The law courts are just not dependable because of the huge backlog. Petitions will help and so will solidarity. Although, when I was being targeted, there was little support from other artists.
Politics of Art: The consequences of an endemic failure to protect the rights of citizens’ are already dire. Intellectuals, the press and cultural producers live in constant fear. Argument and dissent is being snubbed by bigotry and conformity. And still, pragmatic wisdom indicates a further freeze on freedom of speech with the new administration. What can ordinary citizens do to safeguard themselves and the cultural capital that continues to be compromised by our government and the courts?
Anil Dharker: The current Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, himself a former journalist, has taken pains to affirm the new government’s intention to guard freedom of speech and expression. The media needs to laud him for this, and also needs to keep pressure on him to keep true to his word. The role of the media is paramount in this.
Madhusree Dutta: We refer to Mumbai as cultural capital – but we need to install this pride into the citizens of Mumbai. The city’s cultural institutions, its artists, its art history need to appear like the asset of the city, a source of its pride. We need to become pro-active now – before the onslaught begins. You may remember that in a few occasions both Shiv Sena and MNS tried to launch campaigns against stars of Hindi cinema, either for being North Indian or Muslim, but it never worked and they had to unceremoniously withdraw those campaigns. This happened because of people’s deep affection for Hindi cinema. The same applies for the country. We may not be able to work at that scale as critical art practices can never enjoy such popularity. But still we need to try to make art part of a general legacy of the city and we need to think creatively and constructively towards that.
Mallika Sarabhai: I feel dejected. Does the ordinary citizen care? Does she/he care enough to protest a shrinking of her/his world? Cultural capital is in fact seen as cultural baggage. As long as cinema exists, the rest can go. We just have to brace ourselves for the long haul of darkness and hope that more and more people rise against the destruction of that intangible thing called culture – an intangible which, people fail to realize, is the bedrock of the nation.
Politics of Art acknowledges the distinguished discussants:
Anil Dharker. Well known Journalist, Writer & Member of Citizens for Justice and Peace
Madhusree Dutta. Filmmaker & Executive Director of Majlis.
Mallika Sarabhai. Dancer, Choreographer, Social activist.