Bangalore: Sometime in 2012, young cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, also an Anna follower, was thrown into jail over a cartoon. Within hours of his arrest, the social networkers made his cartoons go viral and signed petitions. A few questions were asked. Was making fun of corruption unpatriotic? Are political leaders sacred symbols of our nationhood that must never be laughed at?
Recently, before the new government was sworn in, memes on various social networking pages made fun of a comic book series, where a super hero was inspired by Narendra Modi. Even though the debate about his politics had always been virulent on Twitter and Facebook, the situation snowballed into a few arrests. History has deminstrated that every government regardless of its political manifesto is intolerant of inconvenient criticism that targets scams, riots, dams, nuclear plants or corruption.
Do commoners count?
It is not often that we get to hear the voice of an ordinary citizen on news channels or in the mainstream media. We only get to hear politicians, journalists or political commentators. Creative voices and media watchers feel that regardless of who is helming our political destiny, nothing should threaten the spaces where citizens, artists, activists without an invested agenda can speak their mind.
The politics of oppression is usually unfathomable and unreasonable. When two young girls in Uttar Pradesh are killed and hung from a tree, it is somehow not as protest worthy as M F Husain's paintings, Deepa Mehta's films about widows in Benaras or a Salman Rushdie reading at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Riots are fine but not films like Black Friday, Parzania and Firaq that talk about them. Artists, filmmakers and writers have never been immune to political bullying. Decades ago Shabana Azmi used the platform of an international film event in India to speak about the murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi and was furiously critiqued for being "anti national." Recently U R Ananthamurthy , the well-known Kannada writer, was issued threats for making his political opinions known.
Censorship is not new in India. This newspaper suffered its brunt during the Emergency but it is the voice of the ordinary individual that is under fire not just in India but across the world. Governments across the world, are in their own way beginning to monitor the Internet. In India, it has been happening since Internet activism began to take part in political discourse. The question is simply this. How is it possible that while some people do not have the freedom to express themselves through films or cartoons, or books or even a Facebook status, some others have the freedom to burn books, issue death threats and indulge in vandalism?
Mumbai-based actor and director Mona Ambegaonkar has always been vociferous in her opinions on public forums as also about her support for the Aam Aadmi Party but her posts when political in nature attract a lot of negativity. "Given the ideologies espoused by the current government and its affiliates, the voices of dissent, specially in the arts and the artists fraternities, have become more important than ever. The slightest turn away from the sycophantic chant-like worship of their political deity or social dictate is met by vicious and nasty insult and punishment, whether it be of a punitive physical nature or across cyber space. She adds,"In this scenario, the responsibility of the arts to keep the freedom of thought and preserving human rights has increased. I have been using theatre for education and sensitisation for years now. I know what damage will be done if I am stopped from continuing just because my work and my ideas are perceived as a threat to extremist ideologies. "
She concludes, "This is the time for the arts and all its practitioners to prove that they have courage as well as the stomach for revolution."
Bangalore based writer and theatre activist Nimi Ravindran, however, believes that every government is primarily intolerant to opposing view points and cites the example of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi who was killed in full public view by the henchmen of the Indian National Congress.
On 1 January 1989, while performing a street play, Halla Bol (Attack!), during the Ghaziabad municipal elections, in Sahibabad's Jhandapur village, Hashmi was attacked and died the following day. It seems important to mention that his message of protest was carried forward by his wife who went to the same place two days later and completed the play.
Nimi also points out that artist M F Husain was never supported visibly by the ruling party or told that he could return to India and would be protected. She says yet in the same cauldron of intolerance, playwright Vijay Tendulkar has repeatedly fought for his controversial plays to be staged and most often, managed to have his way. About documentary film maker and activist Anand Patwardhan, she says, "He spends more time in courts than lawyers but he has fought for his films to be shown and he has succeeded too."
So as long as there is a space for dissent and to defend creative freedom, there is hope, regardless of which political regime is in power? Nimi says, "I have an optimistic outlook. When we are debating politics, we all think we know better and at some point communication breaks down. No one is making an effort to have a half-decent conversation. But we need the space for debate, for different points-of-view where everyone feels free and yet responsible. We may say the Right-Wing politics will clamp down on ideas and speech but the liberals have not done too well in that area either. Artists have always faced opposition, books and films have always been banned and so I will say, that things will be no better or worse now. They will be the same."
She also cites the example of Blank Noise facilitator Jasmeen Patheja who has been wordlessly but with damning acuity, addressing sexual harassment on streets for over 10 years. Protest is always possible and always relevant, she conveys.
Arundhati Raja of Jagriti Theatre recently saw the unthinkable happen. A ticketed show of Ali J, an Evam play had to be cancelled because of fundamentalist threats. She says, “We did not have enough protection to go ahead with it and we felt we were being held at ransom because we had to protect the audience, the premises, the cast and there was nothing to protect them with. The frightening thing is that those who create such circumstances get away with it while we have to reconsider everything we are doing or saying or creating. When ideally we should not be thinking at all before doing creative work.”
Karthik Kumar, actor, director and the co-founder of Evam was the one who faced the maximum backlash against Ali J. The protests and threats came from fringe fundamentalist groups who had not even seen the play before they decided to take offence and the play’s performances had to be cancelled in multiple venues. In the current political climate, what does he think are the chances for fearless, creative expression?
He says, “What is significant is that Evam has moved court and will be fighting two fundamentalist organisations through legal means for the right to stage the play, to uphold the value of freedom and creative expression.”
He says he feels secure in the fairness of the legal system. A system that may not take Evam’s side but will consider their point of view. He feels secure though he laughingly shares, the brouhaha over Ali J has subjected him to detentions and even a little prison time! That is not the frightening part though, he insists.
“Even if someone comes and attacks us with lathis, it won’t matter. We are not afraid of prisons. Of persecution. The frightening thing will be when we are told, “Don’t protest.” If the general population grows silent because of fear and artistic voices are not heard.”
He continues, “This country was built on non-cooperation. The freedom struggle thrived on protest and peaceful defiance. We will continue to do the same. To make ourselves heard. I am sure that the new government will have progressive policies about development. But there maybe attempts to impose cultural changes and that is why it is important to keep our voice alive. To resist. To fight for the idea of democracy.”