I am dismayed, angry, heartbroken, and positively blue in the face. I am talking about the Vadodara incident, of course. But I am not surprised. I am not surprised that freedom (artistic and otherwise) was curtailed in such a disgusting, dramatic show of bluster. That legal machinery was used to do it. That the Vice Chancellor of a reputed university would choose to support goons rather than the Dean and the students. I am not surprised because this is, after all, a country where sex education is banned because it is considered immoral. Where ministers want to keep women at home after 8 pm because this is in keeping with our ‘culture’. And Vadodara is in a state where just a few years ago, people were killed for just being something (let alone, saying anything).
I am not surprised because this is a country where Article 19 of the Constitution, which talks about freedom of speech, lays a thick blanket of conditions on this freedom. The conditions include “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
Given the number of elements, it would be hard to create art that is not violative. What we have is a crippled freedom. You are free to speak — only as long as you offend nobody. In a country of a billion people, that means you have to cover a lot of bases. You may as well shut up.
Freedom is the cornerstone of democracy. Scratch the surface of our democracy and it falls away easily. All it takes is an upcoming election. A whim. A mood. A slow day for the saffron brigade. Anything will do really.
Art and politics have always had a complex, mostly conflicted, relationship. Even in the United States, despite the First Amendment, Giuliani went purple in the face when something upset his delicate religious sensibilities. The difference is two-fold. Firstly, he used more sophisticated methods of bullying such as threatening to withdraw funding. Secondly, the Brooklyn Museum of Art had legal recourse. They went to court — and won.
This sort of clarity can hardly be expected from our courts. A few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the government has the power to ban or forfeit any publication that endangers public order even if it means restricting the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. This was in relation to the banning of a novel on 12th century saint Basaveshwara. “If forfeiture is called for in the public interest it must without a doubt have pre-eminence over any individual interest,” said the judges.
Why should the individual right to freedom of expression be subordinate to some concept of a vast, homogeneous “public”? What is “public interest”? What does “endangering it” mean? Who decides? Usually, some old fart of a judge who has his own prejudiced views about those hydra-headed monsters — morality and culture — and probably has little understanding or appreciation of art.
Art, and other forms of creative expression, spawn new thoughts. It is in their nature to be provocative. Provocative stuff is most likely to offend somebody or the other. Art cannot survive in an atmosphere where one has to constantly look over one’s shoulder, fearful of offending someone. We may as well ban creative thought altogether.
The truth is that as long as antiquated notions like “morality” and “decency” continue to be part of legal parlance, there can be no progress, there can be no freedom in any real sense and art will continue to be at the mercy of anyone who cares to object. We need to seek a revisitation of what these terms mean, how or why they are relevant to the law, and whether we need laws that are based on ancient and false assumptions in a country that is hurtling to catch up with the rest of the world in other ways.