The cultural legacy of 2015 can be summed up in two words: beef and intolerance. But in the midst of it all, the year brought some cheer for free-speech advocates with Section 66A of the IT Act being struck down

For the Chinese, 2015 was the Year of the Sheep. But in India, as we all know by now, it was undoubtedly the Year of the Cow. It was neither the economy nor politics that dominated the headlines. What did, was culture. And if we were to sum up the cultural legacy of 2015 in two words, it would be ‘beef’ and ‘intolerance’.

2015 was a year when culture became a matter of life and death. We were witness to what can only be described as ‘cultural murders’— the killings of M.M. Kalburgi and Mohammad Akhlaq in India; and of Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman, and Niloy Chakrabarti in Bangladesh. And these were preceded by the literal ‘death’ of an author as Perumal Murugan ended his writing life.

Culture hogged the national discourse again when the senior-most of the Pandavas, ‘Yudhistir’, was appointed the chairman of the Film and Television Institute (FTII), prompting students to go on strike for several weeks. The culture wars spread to other fronts, as leading cultural and academic institutions in India underwent an intellectual blood transfusion of sorts, with secular or Leftist scholars giving way to saffronites sympathetic to the Hindutva agenda.

Then we had the so-called ‘award wapsi’ phenomenon, where writers and artists took to returning state awards in protest against a deteriorating climate for free speech and communal harmony. While the ruling NDA government sought to dismiss it as ‘manufactured rebellion’, there ensued a national debate on what came to be framed as ‘the problem of intolerance’.

If the core of the ‘intolerable’ was beef-eating, radiating outward from this core was a range of cultural expressions that drew the wrath of the culture police — from not standing up for the national anthem, to celebrating Valentine’s Day, to marrying outside one’s religion, or voicing an opinion even mildly at variance with that of the culture police (ask Aamir Khan/Shah Rukh Khan).

Even as the cultural wars raged on, the state began to encroach on the very basis of cultural freedom — the fundamental right to free speech and expression. For instance, in October this year, a folk singer, S. Kovan, was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police and charged with sedition for singing songs critical of the state government. At the national level, the state went berserk on social media censorship, blocking as many as 844 pages in 2015 alone (as of November 30).

But it was not all doom and gloom. 2015 also gave free speech advocates something to cheer about, as they got rid of the dangerous Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act. This was a draconian provision under which any message transmitted using an electronic device (such as an email), if found to be “offensive”, could put you in jail for up to three years. In 2014, a total of 4,192 cases were reported under 66A; 2,423 persons were arrested, 1,125 charge-sheeted, and 42 convicted — all for ‘offensive’ messages shared online. But with the Supreme Court striking down this provision in March this year, those victimised by it, and potential future victims, got a reprieve.

On occasion, the restraints on cultural expression took a ludicrous turn. The Pahlaj Nihalani-led Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) became the butt of jokes on social media when it censored amorous scenes in the recent James Bond release, Spectre. It sparked a series of SanskariJamesBond memes, in one of which, a sari-clad Bond girl displaces Ursula Andress in a bikini.

The CBFC’s antics became even more absurd in the case of India’s first female buddy film, Angry Indian Goddesses. Typically, it is the expletives that are beeped out. But the words muted in this film included ‘lunch’, ‘sarkaar’, and ‘Indian figure’, while among the censored visuals were images of goddess Kali.

The whole intolerance phenomenon, while salient through 2015, is not new. This year merely saw the consolidation of tendencies that had gathered steam in 2013, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and grew dominant under the benign gaze of a Right-Wing government.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame only the Parivar-affiliated NDA government for it. What we are witnessing in India today is part of a wider trend in free market democracies around the world — a phenomenon the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has described as ‘the culturalisation of politics’.

With the major political questions on economic policy left to unelected experts and international trade agreements, there is a tendency for democratic national politics to be emptied of substantive content. What then takes the place of traditional political battles over justice, equality, and end of exploitation — which are now strictly off the table — are cultural issues to do with what we say, what we eat, how we dress, and who we marry.

Such culturalisation is fairly commonplace where authentic political choice in the theatre of democracy is ruled out. The rising influence of culture-obsessed right-wing political forces across the world — from the Muslim-baiting Trump in the U.S. to Golden Dawn in Greece, and Front National in France, among others — are a testimony to this larger trend.

In India, there were a couple of blips this year when it actually looked like inflation, especially the rising price of pulses, might become a talking point that could lead to substantive political debates about food security, social security, and, in the context of the caste census, equity, as integral parts of economic development. But almost as if on cue, some Parivar rabble-rouser would spout something outrageous, and public attention switched back to the cultural domain.

As we approach the final days of 2015, the cultural politics of intolerance rages on, the latest being the cancellation of the screening of Bajirao Mastani in a Pune multiplex due to pressure by BJP workers, and a similar treatment meted out to Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Dilwale in Mangalore by VHP and Bajrang Dal activists, who wanted to show the actor what “real intolerance” was.

And yet the year has not been without hope. Perhaps the most emblematic episode in the Year of the Cow was the minor skirmish over a bovine installation that occurred in Jaipur last month which, miraculously, the cow-natics lost.

November 21 was a bright sunny morning in the pink city, and floating in the blue sky above the Jawahar Kala Kendra was a black-and-white cow. As the preceding months had made clear, 2015 was the wrong year to be fooling around with a cow. Yet an intrepid artist participating in the Jaipur Art Summit had found it imperative to suspend a Styrofoam cow from a gas balloon. It was an art installation intended to raise awareness about how abandoned cows end up eating plastic and choking to death. Within 30 minutes of the cow structure going up, cops arrived, and citing offended sentiments, forced the cow down. Two artists involved with the project were detained.

The police then advised the artists that if the idea was to raise awareness, they should write essays and make paintings — why fly a cow? The hitherto high-flying Styrofoam cow was duly garlanded and subjected to a small puja. It could have been just another day in cow-rashtra. But it wasn’t.

Acting swiftly, the state administration pulled up the cops involved, and transferred them out of the area. The police commissioner apologised to the artists. Rajasthan’s BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje tweeted that she was saddened by the incident. Art had beaten back fanaticism — at least this once. And in befitting irony, it took a plastic cow to put one over the cow brigade.

2016 in the Chinese calendar is the Year of the Monkey. We don’t know yet which animal will reign over the New Year in India — hopefully, it won’t be the cow again.