Book burning in Berlin. Germany, May 10, 1933.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
-The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
The Rushdie Affair of 1988-89, is seen as a significant landmark in the continuing history of repression of the Freedom of Expression, in Post-War literary history. As soon as the book was published, it led to controversial reactions, with many Muslim leaders across the world alleging that “The Satanic Verses” contained derogatory remarks and material against Islamic teachings and history. The years that followed, Rushdie was forced to lead a ‘hidden life’ in order to save himself from the ‘fatwa’ that had been released against him by the Ayatollah of Iran. There were massive incidents of protests and book- banning in various countries including India and even public events of Book-burning, in cities like Bolton and Bradford (2nd Dec, 1988 and Jan, 1989 respectively).
We are not concerning ourselves here about whether or not the allegations were true. Rather we shall focus on the culture of censorship and repression that has existed as long as human history itself, and maybe even before.
These seemingly sporadic and independent incidents in human history remind one of the long-standing culture of censorship and silencing of dissent. From Socrates to Ovid, human freedom of expression and disagreement has always been subject to the state’s whimsical attitude and fluctuating ideology. The barbarism and intolerance of the Nazi regime stands out, with massive public Book-burnings of May 10, 1933, by several student groups claiming the literature to be -un-German’. Books by writers like Bertolt Brecht and Ernest Hemingway were banned and declared unlawful. The tone for a world of censorship and silencing was set; a world where freedom of speech and expression always remained subservient to the larger and seemingly more important ideals of Patriotism and adherence to one’s identity- based upon uniformity of religion, race, culture, etc.
George Orwell’s book titled “Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel” remains a commonly talked- about work; portraying how repressive behaviour of the state and its regulatory approaches can and does result in a world of dystopian chaos and persecution of ‘individuality and independent thinking’. The debate of ‘individual vs community’ has been going on, with alterations in the popular opinions depending upon the state. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ also prophesied an American future where banning and burning of books is routinely carried out.
In recent times, we have evidently witnessed attacks upon individual freedom and against all forms of art- cinema, literature, politics, journalism. The arrests of hundreds of journalists, academicians, rights-activists under the pretexts of preventing unlawful activities have not only created an uproar in ‘progressive’ circles, but at the same time incorporated an inexpressible fear in the lives of common people, who have no political backing or support to fall upon. As the tradition of intolerance continues to rise, more and more words of disagreement are swallowed before being articulated, for the fear of losing one’s social-standing and in many cases, life as well. Everything is tolerated as long as everyone thinks and says the same things. The problem arises with disagreement and contradiction. This obsession with forming a homogeneous cultural and historical unit, by dismissing any and every element of difference between widely dissimilar groups is based on ‘ethnographic’ mania, not very different from what was employed by the anti-semitic German state, led by Adolf Hitler.
The widely critiqued Sedition Law of India falls under the Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, and has existed since 1870, and its use has been mostly reserved to emergency situations. However its unwanted popularity saw a rising trend only after 2014; when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded 47 cases of sedition, which eventually rose to 70 in 2018. Since then, laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have been formed to prevent terrorist and anti-state activities and it’s not unknown that these laws have been often misused to curb free speech and genuine demands of the masses.
From threats on the crew of ‘Padmavat’ for allegedly demeaning the titular Rajput queen, to slapping the Anti-sedition law against 3000 protesters in the Anti-CAA marches, from curbing internet services in dispute-ridden regions to arresting and using violence against thousands of farmers simply raising their voices against undesirable laws, states across the world have been mimicking the Big-Brother role and descending from democratic and safe spaces to highly surveilled and authoritarian zones.
This trend has become institutionalised and most of the social structures can be evidently seen gravitating towards it. This includes our media, which has clearly become state-sponsored and fluctuates with the change in the regime. There is hardly any independent thought- process involved and the audience is fed only the mainstream narrative, leading to majoritarian ganging up against minorities and marginalised sections on one hand; whether Muslims, people from North-East, so-called ‘lower caste’ people, and even those who dare to harbor or express political ideologies that run parallel to the ongoing discourse, and radicalization triggered due to unfair and biased treatment on the other.
2019 was a year of turbulence and things have only worsened ever since. Controversial laws, acts like NRC-CAA etc. were passed and many people agree that these processes lacked any traces of democratic or liberal fervour. February 2020 saw a mass level of communal clashes in India’s capital city and as people died and lost their livelihoods on both sides of the very abstract and fanatic conflict, hardly any words of reassurance or condemnation were received from the state. This attitude put the country on a difficult political and social terrain, where the poor and often less-educated masses blindly follow the majoritarian narrative, as they try to garner any available support-system to alleviate their unprivileged routines, while the culturally marginalised groups face violence; both mental and physical in the form of threats and lynchings etc.
As the Covid-19 pandemic raged across the world, the alienation felt by the Indian population can hardly be put into a concise set of words. Migrant workers, without any resources to fall back on, walked hundreds of miles to reach their homes. Many died on the way. The sheer negligence and betrayal on the part of the state has been growing ever since. Farm laws, lack of availability and accessibility of vaccination and healthcare through the two devastating waves of the pandemic and the many unsaid provocations have numbed the fragile hearts and minds of all.
Even at present, there is no dearth of misguided acts that continue to affect and alienate the larger social groups, while those who try to put these tragic atrocities into words are constantly hunted and penalized for speaking ‘truth to power’.
As truth stays veiled due to draconian laws put in place by states like in China, nations have started resembling bio-bubbles, separated by one another by shadow lines; while inside each one of these seemingly disparate spaces, a state of disarray and discontentment exists and the gap between the rulers and the subjects widens with each passing day. While extreme and unwarranted use of the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the state as seen in brutal acts of violence against several marginal sections in India, should not only be condemned but also acted against, at the same time true dissent should be protected and applauded at any cost. There is no world possible if we do not incorporate within ourselves the tolerance needed to accept and embrace differences in opinion and action and build safe havens for those who raise their fragile, vulnerable voices against powerful processes and structures.
*Sania advocates for equal gender and human rights, and calls for a free world for all. She has a postgraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Delhi and is currently studying and researching Gender perceptions and manifestations. She is currently interning at kractivist.org