These are difficult times to be a rationalist. To be a writer. To be a dissenter. To be different from the mainstream narrative being played out across India.
Around the country, small but significant encroachments are being made on our public and private freedoms. The freedom to eat what we choose. Watch what we choose. Read what we choose.
Bans. Cancellations. Disruptions. They’ve become the norm in our public life. But in recent months, we’ve gone further.
Today, we will kill because we are offended.
Two days ago, Nayantara Sahgal made a statement announcing her decision to return her Sahitya Akademi Award. She was protesting the brutal lynching of Mohd Akhlaq and the silence of the prime minister. Others, including writers Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi have done the same.
We reached out to a cross section of public figures to talk to them about freedom, dissent, and the ever-more urgent role of cultural icons in public life.
Anand Patwardhan is no stranger to controversy. A veteran documentary filmmaker and vocal critic of Hindutva politics, he has received the National Award for Ram Ke Naam, among others, and is no stranger to either censorship or the ire of political factions.
Edited transcripts from an interview:
They’re made up of strong fascist forces so I don’t expect them to change their stance anytime soon.
But the real battle is to win the hearts and minds of people. and there, for the Indian public, these actions do make a difference. When people of stature take a position and are willing to speak up, it’s good for society, and I’m glad this is happening.
AA: Perumal Murugan decided he would no longer publish his work, so disillusioned was he with the violent protests against his book. Do you feel that helps the cause of dissent or defeats it?
AA: Why does culture, and cultural conversation, so threaten governments and states around the world?
AA: In recent times, what has stood out for you as an important point of view that was unfairly suppressed?
It happened with Shubhradeep Chakravorty and his film En Dino Muzaffarnagar which he was trying to release. He applied to the Censor Board, which banned the film. He appealed to various authorities, fighting to get a release. He died last year, he wasn’t even 50, from the sheer trauma the Censor Board caused him.
His wife filed a case with the Delhi High Court which ordered the Censor Board to relook at the film. The Board subsequently asked for some minor changes that she complied with and re-submitted the film – but the Board hasn’t cleared it till date, they clearly don’t want to give it a certificate. She’s gone back to the Court now, to say their order hasn’t been followed. So it’s reached a stage when even the High Court order isn’t being followed by the Censor Board.
I took my film Jai Bheem Comrade, which won the National Award, to Doordarshan so it could be telelvised. After 2 years of sitting on it the previous government finally acquired the film.
But then the government changed and the Modi government came to power. Now they’re in a curious position where they’ve acquired the film and have paid me, but they aren’t showing it. So now I have to go back to court because they’re sitting on it and wasting public money!
My reason for going to DD was not to make money but to ensure the film is seen. But now I have to go to court to force the government to show a film they’ve already acquired but don’t want to show.
AA: How would you counter the growing, and vehement, opposition to dissent?
AA: Is there any fundamental difference between the oppressions of one regime from another?
Now, though, a lot of people aren’t aware that censorship is happening on a major scale, and a large part of that censorship is done via free media – which really isn’t that free. Only a tiny spectrum of opinion filters through in mainstream media.
AA: Stand-up comedy, theatre, films, literature…. is there any aspect of culture you feel hasn’t been targeted yet?
AA: Do you feel oppression of dissent can help the arts birth newer forms of protest – a forced improvisation of sorts?