As you probably know, my writings mainly revolve around international affairs, foreign policy, conflict and so on. Pardon me, however, as I divert my usual discourse this week to something more within our shores, and around our immediate society.
I, along with being a journalist and writer, am also a musician during my free time. Having played in bands in India, Australia and Europe, I have seen music being criticised by all walks of society, including in some of the most developed countries. However, criticism of art in most cases that I have experienced personally has been constructive, non-intrusive and usually via the proper mediums of free speech such as newspapers, magazines, radio and so on.
The shimmering line between politics and freedom of speech and expression in India is showing signs of strain and both cultural and legal confusion. From M F Hussein and Aseem Trivedi to the recent cases of Ashis Nandy and now Kamal Haasan, governance bowing in front of fringe groups demanding curtailments in art (and in some instances even science) in order to ‘not offend’ a particular sect, religion, caste, political or business cartel is something, which if gone unchecked, can come back and bite the concept of democracy that India so proudly boasts of.
Today India is a fast developing society being continuously challenged by globalisation. The country’s bulging middle class that travels around the world, learning and soaking in different cultures, now wants the best of all the world has to offer. But the clashes between generational divides mixed with political leverages may see the country in repeated trouble over its implementation of laws protecting freedom of speech and expression.
In art of any kind, the concept of protecting one’s right to offend is very significant. An artist via his or her canvas, pen or instrument, will one way or the other end up offending some section of a society. This trait has been an important aspect of popular-culture as well, going as far back as the civil rights movement in America, where black musicians via blues and jazz communicated their pain, suffering and misery. Songs were a method of actual discussion during the peak of slavery, as slaves sang in order to spread messages of the resistance movements that they may have been a part of. Music, poetry, literature and so on have always been a big part of social activism, from James Weldon Johnson in the early 1900s America to poet Namdeo Dhasal in Maharashtra, working for the upliftment of Dalits. Another great example is the Kabir Kala Munch, a Dalit cultural troupe, which was driven underground after the police accused them of links with the Naxals. How you interpret a piece of music or a page of poetry is your personal process, however, asking for it to be suppressed is nothing short of cultural genocide.
In more recent past, the Russian punk-feminist band Pussy Riot held the torch high for the freedom of speech as they were “punished” by Moscow for being critical of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The group, through its music and music videos stood up for their personal beliefs and perspectives, and were rewarded for this with jail time.
Closer home… an American band called The Black Lips touring India in 2009 were chased out of Chennai and subsequently left the country after authorities of all dimensions (under the law, outside the law) took offence to ‘homosexual and violent tendencies’ that the band had somehow portrayed during their gig. In a letter later released by The Black Lips, on the fiasco in Chennai, the band signed off by saying “…we hope Western rock bands will be able to tour there (India) in future”.
Today, with Kamal Haasan struggling to release his movie in Tamil Nadu and author Salman Rushdie avoiding going to West Bengal, such cases are becoming far too common for comfort, it is worth reflecting on why the laws designed to protect these rights and the judiciary responsible for upholding the same, are failing to do so, and for what reasons.
A society is a miserable failure without a vibrant and unchained intellectual movement which includes everything from literature to two people discussing something over coffee. Supporting intolerance due to political mileage will eventually leave a vacuum, both social and political, and historically the kind of entities that end up filling these vacuums will only make democratic processes more challenging in the future.
As Pablo Picasso puts it: “the chief enemy of creativity is good sense”.