All that the Shiv Sena had to do was to get one its youngest pups to bare his milk teeth and let out a couple of tentative yips, and Mumbai University fell to its knees, gibbering with fear. My chest is fairly swelling with pride in the efficiency of that institution: the Vice Chancellor took Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such A Long Journey, off the syllabus within twenty-four hours of being yipped at about how it is offensive to Marathis and the Shiv Sena.
Of course, the Shiv Sena is not to be trifled with, since its critical mass of brainless morons have always believed that the sword is mightier than the pen, and hold that vandalising property and beating up people is an attractive alternative to all that fussing about with democratic debate. The Sena is by no means the only collection of brainless morons (see the MNS, the Ram Sene, the Bajrang Dal and so forth), but it is one of the most tediously consistent bullies.
The case of Rohinton Mistry is not a call for a ban, merely a specific veiled threat directed at a university curriculum. The Sena’s lawyer says that the notion that the university acted under any kind of duress is merely an assumption. But it’s a fair assumption that if the Vice Chancellor was not under direct political pressure, the university has responded with what Rohinton Mistry calls the ugly notion of self-censorship. That says something horrifying about the effectiveness of intimidation, or the cravenness of our institutions, or both.
Lucky Rohinton Mistry, though. I bet the sales of his book will enjoy a bump on account of this, because there’s nothing as magnetic to most people as a thing that has been deemed inappropriate for their consumption—especially if it is so deemed after ten years of being deemed perfectly appropriate.
The lawyer for the Shiv Sena said, on a television debate earlier this week, that nobody “in the right frame of mind” could possibly tolerate certain passages in Such A Long Journey. This phrase, a brick wall of absolutism, disallows the possibililty of dissent other than on grounds of—what? Inebriation? A bout of melancholy? Childhood abuse? All-out madness?
On the other side, people opposed to the Sena’s stand point out that the “objectionable” critical views of the Shiv Sena in the book are espoused by a fictional character who cannot be equated with Rohinton Mistry. They point out that the book tears into not just the Sena but also the Congress and all kinds of Indians. These arguments are as short-sighted as those of the Sena—yes, the character happens to be fictional, and is not the same person as Mistry, but what if this had been a work of non-fiction by Mistry, presenting Mistry’s take on Maharashtrian politics? What if it had focused purely on one political organisation? Would the Sena then be justified? And would the University cave in?
If the answer to that is yes, then we are indeed the kind of tinpot nation that artists and dissenters of all kinds like to leave skidmarks in as they shoot over the border (though in this neighbourhood that would have to involve getting on a plane). The fact that the Congress chief minister of Maharashta has thrown his weight behind the Sena is disappointing at best, and confirms only that no political party will stand up to a bully and stand up for the freedom of speech.
So I suppose it will be left to the artists and dissenters to keep writing, from wherever they’re writing, and for everyone else to keep reading. One can only hope that the rate of production and consumption remains too high for the tiny-minded to keep pace with.
*Business Standard said that they were uncomfortable using the term "brainless morons" because (wouldn't you know it) the Shiv Sena "could cause trouble for the paper". I told them to black it out, a la censor's pen, to make it clear that they were self-censoring. Unfortunately they changed it to "@&*#$" instead, and did not run that change by me. I wouldn't have approved it because a) it's cowardly and b) it's meant to cover for an expletive, and 'brainless morons' is not an expletive, it's a descriptor.