The events of past few days have made us realise that our days are numbered. If cartoons in school textbooks are the stuff that can make our parliamentarians’ blood boil, then surely those who mouth barbed words will be officially silenced soon. But let us not digress. Even the not-so-bright underage student understands that the fundamental right that guarantees freedom of expression isn’t unfettered and reasonable restrictions on free speech must be accepted. The problem is who decides what is reasonable? If Kapil Sibal and company are allowed their way, it will not be long before the billion-plus Indians shall be deafened by thundering eloquence of silence. The moment you utter a word, it’s bound to hurt the sentiments of some individual or community or the other. UPA II, stung by the charge of policy paralysis, suddenly springs to hysterical (re)action whenever the sensibilities of a fickle ally or self-appointed custodian of any vote bank are involved.
This isn’t the first, or alas the last time that heckles are raised over perfectly legitimate pedagogical exercise. In past too offending passages have been expunged, textbooks withdrawn and authors and editors pilloried for the crime that is ‘unpardonable’ — daring to critically examine our leaders, mythic heroes or holding a mirror to our leaders full of warts. Hindu fundamentalists are called fascists and damned, but no one in power has any problems claiming ownership of ‘Holy Cows’ whose hordes keep multiplying. The Father of the Nation had a lively sense of humour and wasn’t bothered about harsh criticism. He was capable of giving out as good as he got. Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s greatness can’t be diminished by caricatures. Chhatrapati Shivaji, Gurudeva Tagore, the Sikh gurus, Maharaja Surajmal and now Sri Aurobindo — the list of revered ‘untouchables’ is ever increasing. The battle cry is ‘keep off our icons’. Much before the textbook fiasco happened, Sibal had started grunting and groaning about irresponsible postings in social media that ‘denigrated’ national leaders. With Justice Katju at the helm of the Press Council of India, the age of quasi-parental control over immature/illiterate minds was beginning to dawn.
It’s difficult to comprehend the diabolical minds of our present rulers. In the same breath they can suggest lowering the age of consent and express grave concern about seduction of innocent minds by deadly academics. Eighteen-year-olds can vote these raging bulls out of power but their siblings, just a couple of years junior, can’t be trusted to ‘understand’ a cartoon or a quip.
The irony is that the nation was treated to melodrama of mindless intolerance by our elected representatives just the day after celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. They had united in hypocritical display of civilised discourse pronouncing loudly that the greatest strength of our democracy is the respect for dissent and opposite point of view. As Jaswant Singh was constrained to remark, for a day the all-powerful embodiment of our sovereignty forgot that its task is legislative not inquisitorial.
Raging Bulls, we must admit, aren’t confined to the political class. Our actors, spoilt by their fawning fans and brats from super-rich families, too seem to believe that obnoxious behaviour is an essential badge worn by those belonging to ruling class. What else explains Shah Rukh Khan’s arrogant antics at Wankhede Stadium and Siddharth Mallya’s vulgar tweets in extreme bad taste after Luke pooped a party in Bangalore? Not long ago Chhote Nawab Saif Ali Khan had got involved in a brawl in a five-star hotel and had resorted to a similar defence — ‘Everyone likes to frame a celebrity.’
The saddest part of all this is that those who habitually flout the law of the land and care two hoots about decent behaviour aren’t shy of boasting, ‘I will do that again if someone touched my child’. It’s as if only the children of the rich and the powerful are ‘untouchable’ in our democracy. Others equally tender and innocent remain vulnerable to predators on the streets or place of work. Legislation seeking to protect them is pushed from the headlines by the latest IPL-related scandal.
CCTV footage has a tendency to get misplaced or damaged beyond repair when celebrities are involved, eyewitnesses suffer amnesia and in any case public memory is short. Our honourable ministers are so busy managing one-day cricket that there is little time for real crises like the disastrous fall of the rupee or over the fortnight-long strike of Air India pilots that has cost the taxpayers more than `200 crore.
Perhaps we must be grateful for small mercies. The once easily-aroused-to-anger home minister has mellowed. He doesn’t emulate his colleagues who snort and kick earth with their hooves at slightest provocation. He has started quoting the scriptures and striking a thespian pose when attacked.
;The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own