The Cultural Emergency

In the past month, two fairly high-profile men in India were charged with hate speech. Akbaruddin Owaisi, a Muslim and a member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Andhra Pradesh (from an openly sectarian party), made unappreciated remarks about Hindus. Soon afterwards, Praveen Togadia, a leading light of the VHP (a Hindu-chauvinist organization with a large following among expats), made some comments that the government decided were anti-Muslim. The charges filed in the two cases included incitement to rioting, promoting enmity between groups, commission of public nuisance (which, in Indian legal jargon, can also mean pissing on the sidewalk), deliberate outraging of religious feelings, and criminal intimidation.

What exactly did these gentlemen say to get into so much trouble? Well, if you follow the major newspapers and television channels, you would never know, because the media understands that repeating ‘hate speech’ is itself a cognizable offense. So in a classical rabbit-hole scenario, we have crimes committed and prosecuted that nobody is allowed to talk or hear about. Of course, in these days of the Internet this sort of information is very hard to suppress, and a quick scan of the Web reveals who said what: Owaisi said that if Hindus did not have the police to protect them, Muslims would kick their collective Hindu ass, and Togadia lamented that even the police could not prevent Hindu corpses from piling up during riots. (I had to laugh.) Owaisi did not, you might notice, actually threaten to kick anybody’s ass, although that may have been the implication. And Togadia, a bigot who I am loath to defend, did not threaten to pile up Muslim bodies. In fact, both men have said worse on occasion. But this time they got the Indian Penal Code thrown at them.

The rationale behind such policing of ‘hate speech’ in India is that talk of ass-kicking and piles of bodies ‘hurts the sentiments’ of some ‘community’ or the other. And sometimes this fear of pain takes on bizarre administrative forms. On the eve of the Jaipur Literary Festival recently, the police declared that the annual schmooze-fest of self-admiring authors could proceed only if the organizers gave a guarantee that ‘nobody’s sentiments would be hurt.’ (The assurance was given.) This was a reaction to what happened a couple of years ago, when a few authors read aloud from Salman Rushdie, causing great anguish to people who are not his fans. Rushdie has of course been on the frontlines of these sentimental politics since the late 1980s. Most recently, he was refused entry into the city of Calcutta, where the delightful Chief Minister, who has been said to dabble in literature herself, feared that he might hurt people’s feelings. Rushdie was informed that if he came, he would be put on the next plane back to Bombay. It was illegal and utterly cynical: the West Bengal government had first engineered the ‘hurt’ by reminding conservative Muslim leaders to protest Rushdie’s impending visit. The organization that had invited him (for another literary festival, naturally) bravely denied having invited him at all, prompting an angry Rushdie to brandish the reservations that had been made for him and declare that a ‘cultural emergency’ is in place in India.

Now, Rushdie’s outrage about censorship is highly selective: he does not seem to be all that disturbed by, say, the imprisonment of Bradley Manning for spilling the beans on an American massacre in Iraq. But he is right about the cultural emergency. ‘Hurt sentiments’ are its rhetorical signature, and like the original Emergency of 1975-77, it is politically very handy: not only does it facilitate political pandering, it provides a gag for critics of the state. So we have a convergence of silencing maneuvers: Rushdie, M.F. Husain, James Laine, Taslima Nasreen, R.K. Laxman, Ashis Nandy and Kamal Haasan slapped for cultural offenses, and Binayak Sen, Aseem Trivedi, Arundhati Roy and assorted Facebook posters for ‘sedition’ of one kind or another. The Ashis Nandy case (again, in Jaipur!) is particularly interesting, because his defenders and detractors among academics, activists and journalists have commenced an earnest and self-defeating fight over ‘what he really said.’ Not too many have protested that it doesn’t matter what he said – he should not have been threatened with criminal charges and arrest. Heckling, arguing, walking out of the room, and simply refusing to buy the book have evidently gone out of fashion: Indians whose ‘sentiments are hurt’ now go straight to the police and file a First Information Report. (When they don’t resort to physical intimidation, that is.)

Since ‘communities’ and the state are both so easily outraged, it has become rather dangerous to open your mouth within earshot of any audience whose approval you cannot absolutely take for granted. The ramifications for the press are a mixed bag. Established Indian newspapers like the Hindu and the Telegraph are still scathingly critical of the government, although they occasionally take curious vows of silence (what Owaisi/Togadia said) and indulge in coy euphemisms (‘a certain community’). But the upstart media, like, has not always been so immune from censorial pressure, and the citizen without press credentials is even more vulnerable. In a recent survey of freedom of expression in nearly two hundred countries, India was ranked somewhere south of 140th.  Even allowing for some reasonable skepticism about how the ranking was calculated, this is hardly a point of pride for a democratic society.

How did this state of affairs come to pass? The first thing to bear in mind is that the situation is not straightforwardly undemocratic: more and more Indians want restrictions on free speech when it comes to ‘hurting the sentiments of the community.’ In other words, the problem has gone hand in hand with the growth of an identifiable Indian public. As the public has expanded, room for free speech has actually receded. And that is ironic, because if hurting the sentiments of the community was consistently proscribed and punished, then Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Syed Ahmed Khan, Ambedkar and Nehru would all have been locked up or lynched. Without their willingness to offend, there would be no democratic republic to provide a platform for those who are unwilling to be offended. Indian nationhood has historically been inseparable from reformism: from the very outset, even its reactionary wing – Bankim, Tilak, Savarkar – has been reformist on social issues, to the degree that words like ‘reactionary’ become slippery and unhelpful. Since it is impossible to be reformist without also being offensive, the emergence of a virtual ban on the hurting of ‘sentiments’ marks a crisis within the ideology of the Indian nation, in which the democratic impulse and the liberal impulse have effectively blocked each other.

The impasse cannot, however, be blamed entirely on democracy itself, i.e., on the enfranchisement and mobilization of the illiberal masses. We can see it in the Constitution, which was not written by the rabble. Yet this document, in spite of its radical disregard for John Stuart Mill’s insistence that illiterate peasants should not be encouraged to think of themselves as citizens, does not get to freedom of expression until Article 19. It then immediately hedges its bets with ‘reasonable restrictions’: a jungle of clauses and sub-clauses that have, over time, nearly strangled the main article.

While these developments are shaped by factors ranging from court decisions to electoral calculations, they also reflect a construction of ‘tolerance’ that may have been a feature of Indian statecraft for a very long time. Romila Thapar observed, for instance, that the civic ideology of tolerance in the Mauryan Empire was essentially repressive: speech that offended any social group was punishable by the state, according to the Ashokan edicts. I am not suggesting anything as ahistorical as a straightforward continuity between the third century BC and modern India, but the latter has borrowed quite a few of its icons from the Mauryan Empire, which has become, in nationalist discourse, the foundational episode of the Indian state. Other foundations closer to the present throw up similar perspectives, in which tolerance is imagined as appearing before the state as a collection of respectfully silent communities: separate collectives going about their own business. The elite-level political culture of late-Mughal India represented itself as ‘the Hindus and Mussalmans of Hindustan,’ Rajat Ray reminds us, and certainly the colonial era produced its own powerful vision of corporate peoplehood, made up of ‘peoples,’ ‘tribes and castes,’ ‘two nations,’ and so on.

Such arrangements may have been viable in a pre-modern or a colonial polity, but pose severe  problems in a democratic nation-state, not least because they underline that ‘communities,’ not the nation and its individual citizens, are the major claimant upon the state. Indian nationalism, which has drunk from all the above-mentioned historical wells (and the colonial one in particular), has a strong communitarian aspect: citizens and would-be citizens have represented themselves in public more often as members of ‘communities’ than they have as individuals. The man or woman who does not belong to a recognized ‘community’ can be all but invisible to the state. And even belonging to a community can have unpleasant consequences if there is a falling out, as it did for Shah Bano and Roop Kunwar: the former a reluctant outcast, the latter a dubiously consenting super-insider. Indeed, consent – that old flogging-horse of nationalism and gender history in India – becomes incompatible with tolerance if tolerance is defined  as a matter of community relations.

The right of the individual to speak freely is thus already rendered somewhat daring and transgressive. It needs a strong state to protect it, and the Indian state is not strong or confident enough. It is, however, often ‘hard,’ in the sense that it is ready to ban films and entertain First Information Reports about who-said-what. A ‘hard state’ – marked by repression – compensates for the lack of the strength that flows ultimately from consent or hegemony. Consequently, the element of farce is never far away. After the Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi last week, newspapers carrying the story were confiscated by the police in Kashmir – as if this would prevent people from knowing about the execution. What matters more than the actual control of information, as usual, is the posturing of power as the public face of panic. The liberal vanguard of the republic, fundamentally embarrassed by its inability to conjure up a strong state, has fallen back on hardness as a substitute from the very outset, compromising on the liberalism of their class. Patel is the best example of this, but Nehru (who signed both the Constitution and the AFSPA) is not exempt either. In the present time, the most prominent such figure is probably P.C. Chidambaram, the current Finance Minister and former Home Minister: very much an upper-class liberal, and also very much an authoritarian.

There is, however, a difference between the sheepish liberals of the Nehru-Patel generation and those of Chidambaram’s. The former understood that when a liberal democracy is assembled in violation of Mill’s principles of self-government, the vanguard and the state necessarily take on a pedagogical role. Liberal democracy and its various institutions – like free speech – had to be taught even as it was put into practice; otherwise either liberalism or democracy would cease to exist. This was in fact a common assumption, approaching a consensus, among the nationalist elite as they contemplated the future Indian state in the decades preceding independence. Since then, it has been steadily undermined, not least because the vanguard – defeated by the combination of the mob and the genuine reactionaries, and diverted into new channels of self-aggrandizement – have abdicated the pedagogical project. In the process, they have managed to sound a lot like Mill. ‘We are not ready for that kind of freedom of expression,’ said the late great Sunil Gangopadhyay, explaining why his friend and fellow-novelist Taslima Nasreen should be censored.

Moreover, the concept of the pedagogical state has been undermined by the liberals themselves, particularly the intelligentsia, which has not only lost its nerve, but become apologetic about the elitism of the liberal-nationalist project. (Ashis Nandy, ironically, is among the most prominent culprits here.) It is one thing if the anti-elitists have an alternative ideology of the state, or of an anti-state, and the courage and honesty to pursue it in their own lives. They do not. Their anti-liberalism is entirely of the bourgeois-armchair variety. They are too comfortable for the Gandhian anti-state, and the Maoist utopia is not really to their liking either. But as self-hating liberals, they will not acknowledge that the nation-state, in order to remain even moderately democratic, requires the robust and constant promotion of bourgeois fetishes like free speech and individual rights. The widespread and disingenuous contempt for the individual that emanates from this class tends to facilitate a nexus between the community and the state that has more than a veneer of fascism. The community of ‘hurt sentiments,’ banned books and gag orders is not, after all, what Partha Chatterjee had in mind in his theorization of political society. (And even that is not as benign as Chatterjee would have us believe.) It is sometimes a convenient political fiction – since it often has leaders and spokespersons, but few followers – and always a bully. When it poses as the nation by hijacking the state, it is an especially cancerous form of nationhood. I must admit that I have a distinctly Goering-like reaction when I hear the word ‘community.’

February 12, 2013