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20 January, 2015

Confrontation with obscurantism

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Across India battle lines are being drawn as forces of modernisation face forces of obscurantism. Two spectacular manifestations of the developing confrontation took place last week.

Led by Leela Samson, the chairperson, the members of the Central Board of Film Certification walked out, alleging corruption and governmental interference in the working of the institution.

The immediate provocation for their action was the government’s role in granting clearance to a film which did not meet with the board’s approval. Embarrassed, the Minister who oversees the board’s working dubbed them rebels without a case.

The film at the centre of the controversy is “MSG – the Messenger of God”, a self-glorification project of Punjab godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, who has financed it and acts as himself in it. A tribunal which has the power to review the board’s decisions granted it clearance.

The Central government claimed it did not interfere in the matter. However, two circumstances cast doubts on the claim. One is that the tribunal was reconstituted just before “MSG” was referred to it.

The other is that the tribunal, which ordinarily takes months to conduct a review, cleared this one in 24 hours with record speed.

Samson and her associates, who were appointed by the Manmohan Singh government, had completed their term in May last year.

The Narendra Modi government asked them to stay on until a new board is constituted. There has been no explanation for the inordinate delay in the appointment of new members.  

In the south, a noted Tamil novelist, Perumal Murugan, facing the fury of casteist elements who have the tacit support of the official establishment and feeling isolated, dramatically announced his literary death and the withdrawal of all his books from the market.

Murugan’s agonised response brought forth a wave of sympathy for him in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in the country. Breaking its silence on the subject, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the main opposition party of Tamil Nadu, extended support for him. Public readings from his novel were held at places as far apart as Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram.

Writers, publishers and readers attending an annual literary festival in Chennai adopted a resolution strongly condemning attempts to silence Murugan and expressing full solidarity with him.

Instead of protecting his constitutional rights, the state administration had abetted the campaign of intimidation against him, and made him sign a statement under duress, the resolution said.  

Instances of books being blocked under pressure from political, economic and social or religious groups are not rare in India.

Lately many highly respected authors and their works have come under attack from sections of the majority community, influenced by the communal propaganda of Hindutva forces. 

In 2000, the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government halted the publication of a 10-volume history of the freedom movement by eminent scholars Sumit Sarkar and KN Panikkar under a project taken up by the Indian Council of Historical Research, apparently because it showed the Hindu Mahasabha in a poor light. Publication was resumed after the change of government in 2004.

A violent agitation by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, during which a professor was manhandled, led to withdrawal of an essay, titled Three Hundred Ramayanas, written by renowned poet AK Ramanujam, from Delhi University’s BA (History) syllabus in 2008.

The ABVP, or rather its mentors, were annoyed by the reference in the essay to a version of the epic in which Ram and Sita are siblings, not man and wife. 

Mumbai University dropped Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey from its BA (English) syllabus after the Shiv Sena’s student wing alleged that it contained passages critical of that organisation and derogatory to Maharashtra.

In Karnataka, police arrested Yogesh Master on a charge of creating illwill among communities after Sri Ram Sena, a Hindutva outfit, lodged a complaint alleging his novel “Dhundi” contained objectionable references to Hindu god Ganesha.

In an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bhachao Andolan, another Hindutva outfit, Penguin India last year agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of the Indian edition of US professor Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

While acts of literary and cultural vandalism have been widespread, until now there was no collective nationwide response to them.

The concerted action by Leela Samson and her colleagues and the spontaneous effusion of support across the country for Perumal Murugan who was little known outside the circle of Tamil readers are the first indications that progressive sections of society are ready to take on the forces of obscurantism. 

It is too early to conclude what forms the confrontation will take and how protracted it will be. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 20, 2015.

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