“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson said nearly 250 years ago, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” These days in India, the adage can be safely applied to nationalism. There is no other explanation of the threat to arrest and try Arundhati Roy on charges of sedition for what she said at a public meeting on Kashmir, where Syed Ali Geelani too spoke. I was not there at the meeting, but I have read her moving statement defending herself afterwards. I feel both proud and humbled by it. I am a psychologist and political analyst, handicapped by my vocation; I could not have put the case against censorship so starkly and elegantly. What she has said is simultaneously a plea for a more democratic India and a more humane future for Indians.
I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago, when I wrote a column in the Times of India on the long-term cultural consequences of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. It was a sharp attack on Gujarat’s changing middle-class culture. I was served summons for inciting communal hatred. I had to take anticipatory bail from the Supreme Court and get the police summons quashed. The case, however, goes on, even though the Supreme Court, while granting me anticipatory bail, said it found nothing objectionable in the article. The editor of the Ahmedabad edition of the Times of India was less fortunate. He was charged with sedition.
I shall be surprised if the charges of sedition against Arundhati are taken to their logical conclusion. Geelani is already facing more than a hundred cases of sedition, so one more probably won’t make a difference to him. Indeed, the government may fall back on time-tested traditions and negotiate with recalcitrant opponents through income-tax laws. People never fully trusted the income-tax officials; now they will distrust them the way they distrust the CBI.
In the meanwhile, we have made fools of ourselves in front of the whole world. All this because some protesters demonstrated at the meeting that Arundhati and Geelani addressed! Yet, I hear from those who were present at the meeting that Geelani did not once utter the word “secession”, and even went so far as to give a soft definition of azadi. By all accounts, he put forward a rather moderate agenda. Was it his way of sending a message to the government of India? How much of it was cold-blooded public relations, how much a clever play with political possibilities in Kashmir?
We shall never know, just because most of those who pass as politicians today and our knowledge-proof babus have proved themselves incapable of understanding the subtleties of public communication. They are not literate enough to know what role free speech and free press play in an open society, not only in keeping the society open but also in serious statecraft. In the meanwhile, it has become dangerous to demand a more compassionate and humane society, for that has come to mean a serious criticism of contemporary India and those who run it. Such criticism is being redefined as anti-national and divisive. In the case of Arundhati, it is of course the BJP that is setting the pace of public debate and pleading for censorship. But I must hasten to add that the Congress looks unwilling to lose the race. It seems keen to prove that it is more nationalist than the BJP.
It is the hearts and minds of the new middle class—those who have come up in the last two decades from almost nowhere and are middle class by virtue of having money rather than middle-class values—that both parties are after. This new middle class wants to give meaning to their hollow life through a violent, nineteenth-century version of European-style ‘nationalism’. They want to prove—to others as well as to themselves—that they have a stake in the system, that they have arrived. They are afraid that the slightest erosion in the legitimacy of their particularly nasty version of nationalism will jeopardise their new-found social status and political clout. They are willing to fight to the last Indian for the glory of Mother India as long as they themselves are not conscripted to do so and they can see, safely and comfortably in their drawing rooms, Indian nationalism unfolding the way a violent Bombay film unfolds on their television screens.
Hence the bitterness and intolerance, not only towards Arundhati Roy, but also towards all other spoilsports who defy the mainstream imagination of India and its nationalism. Even Gandhians fighting for their cause non-violently are not spared. Himangshu Kumar’s ashram at Dantewada has been destroyed not by the Maoists but by the police. I would have thought that writers and artists would be exempt from censorship in an open society. As we well know, they are not. The CPI(M) and the Congress ganged up to shut up Taslima Nasreen by saying she was not an Indian. As though if you are a non-Indian in India, your rights don’t have to be governed by the Constitution of India!
There are times when a national consensus is neither possible nor desirable. The best one can do is to contain the violence and negotiate with those who act out their dissent. That may not be easy in the case of the Kashmiris because their trust in us is now close to zero. Psychologically speaking, the Kashmiris are already outside India and will remain there for at least two generations. The random killings, rapes, torture and the other innovative atrocities have brutalised their society and turned them into a traumatised lot. If you think this is too harsh, read between the lines of psychotherapist Shobhna Sonpar’s report on Kashmir.
What is it about the culture of Indian politics today that it allows us to opt for a version of nationalism that is so brutal, self-certain and chauvinist? Have we been so brutalised ourselves that we have become totally numb to the suffering around us? What is this concept of Indian unity that forces us to support police atrocities and torture? How can a democratic government, knowing fully what its police, paramilitary and army is capable of doing, resist signing the international covenant on torture? How can we, sixty years after independence, countenance encounter deaths? Could these practices have survived so long and become institutionalised if we had a large enough section of India’s much-vaunted middle class fully sensitive to the demands of democracy?
The answers to these questions are not pleasant. We know things could not have come to this pass if those who are or should be alert to these issues in the intelligentsia, media, artistic community had done their job. Here I think the changing nature of the Indian middle class has not been a help.
We are proud of our democracy—the consensus on democracy still survives in India—but unaware of a crucial paradox in which we are caught. The democratic process has created a new middle class, a large section of which is not adequately socialised to democratic norms in sectors not vital to the survival of democratic politics but vital to creativity and innovativeness in an open society. The thoughtless, non-self-critical ultra-nationalism, intolerant of anyone opposed to the mainstream public opinion, is shared neither by the poor nor the more settled middle class. Ordinary Indians, accustomed as they are to living with mind-boggling diversity, social and cultural, have no problem with political diversity. Neither does the settled middle class.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, for instance, wrote an essay savaging the middle class in mid-nineteenth century. We had to study this in our school and it has remained a prescribed text in Bengal for more than a century. Today you cannot introduce such a text in much of India without probably precipitating a political controversy and demands for censorship.
Recently, at a lecture organised by the Information Commission of India, I claimed that the future of censorship and surveillance in India was very bright. It’s not only the government that loves it but a very large section of middle-class India too would like to silence writers, artists, playwrights, scholars and thinkers they do not like. In their attempt to become a globalised middle class, they are willing to change their dress, food habits and language but not their love for censorship. We should thank our stars that there still are people in our midst—editors, political activists, NGOs, lawyers and judges—to whom freedom of speech is neither a value peripheral to the real concerns of Indian democracy nor a bourgeois virtue but a clue to our survival as a civilised society.
When Ashis Nandy in his column The Great Indian Love Affair with Censorship (Nov 8) quotes Samuel Johnson about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel and then extends it to “nationalism”, he’s just putting forth an opinion voiced 250 years ago. Despite that, however, we Indians will remain proud citizens of what, going by Nandy’s opinion, is a nation of scoundrels. If people like Nandy and Arundhati Roy are democrats as they claim to be, they should appreciate how they can live in a nation of a “scoundrel” majority. No one’s forcing them to live among scoundrels like us rather than among genteel souls elsewhere.
Amba Charan Vashisht, New Delhi
It’s amazing, the hue and cry over Arundhati’s statement on Kashmir, which even the home minister, an eminent lawyer, has said is in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law. India provides us freedom of speech, but only a few, like Arundhati, speak their mind with courage. Keep it up, Ms Roy!
Rakesh Roy, New Delhi
As if the likes of Arundhati Roy and Nandy have raised themselves above the middle class! They seem to forget that their speeches and writings are heard and read mostly by the middle class, whose liberal-mindedness lets them earn their bread and butter.
P.C. Jain, Allahabad
Ms Roy’s speeches and writings are nothing compared to what many critics of the state or the establishment in other countries have said or written. Unfortunately, there is a growing section of people in our country who’re intolerant.
Censorship became part of the Indian establishment in the 1950s, right under the watch of eminent “middle-class” leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. It is an oversimplification to attribute the current phenomenon to shortcomings in the new middle class.
Amit Joshi, Pune
So we need lessons in Indian history from people like Arundhati Roy?
Dr Shyam Sarvodey, Mysore
Nandy comes across as the lone voice of sanity in the current environment of bigotry and hate. One only needs to go through Outlook’s forums to realise how power-crazy the new middle class has become.
Varun Garde, Bangalore
I pity the likes of Arundhati and Nandy who call themselves the intelligentsia in their delusions of grandeur. These busybodies should realise there is no unbridled freedom in any sphere—anywhere. There are millions galore who are wiser than them and silently carry out constructive work for the nation.
V.K. Rayadu, Bangalore
Arundhati is what is well-known in Delhi as a Khan Market revolutionary. I don’t understand why she should be censored. Nor do I understand why precious time must be wasted in talking about her.
Rabindra K. Ghosh, Gurgaon
It’s not a question of the old or the new middle class, Mr Nandy. There will be extremist elements in any society, while the majority will remain moderate and silent—expressing itself only when democracy provides them the right platform to do so.
Harinder Garga, Singapore
What do you expect when the decadent elite and the lower classes form an alliance against the educated middle class, which is the guardian of democracy and civil society? India can work its way out of the morass it’s in only by restricting voting to the educated middle class.
Ram, Santa Clara, US
Please don’t put down the new middle class, Mr Nandy, by describing them as “those who have come up in the last two decades from almost nowhere and are middle class by virtue of having money than middle class values”! They achieved this money by working hard, unlike the condescending elite who grew up by scratching each other’s back in the ‘people-centric’, state-controlled economy!
Millions of people in Kashmir are dissatisfied with the government of India’s attempts to bring peace to the region. But that has not deterred them from participating in elections. If Arundhati subscribes to the view that only Kashmiris are dissatisfied with India, she is wrong. There are many others who feel the same way but India cannot be broken up for that reason. She should realise that she derives her freedom of expression from the Indian constitution and must be more careful. She should not go against the concept of a united India enshrined in that constitution.
Padmanabhan Sogathur, Hyderabad
Liberals have all of a sudden found virtue in political dissent and against violence. In Kashmir, all that’s in the air is azadi. Any political expression supporting being with India has been crushed by the gun and made to flee the Valley. People who support this need to stop and look at what they are supporting.
Abhishek Drolia, Raipur
If a Booker-winning intellectual uses vulgar, extreme language and makes sure that any truth in what she says—and I’m sure there is plenty—is eclipsed by hyperbole and bias, is it fair to expect more sensitivity from the new, ill-informed middle class?
Aman, New Delhi
Thinkers are not always good writers; good writers are not always thinkers with vision. Ms Roy should work at increasing the thought and vision in her writing.
M. Balakrishnan, Bangalore
Arundhati Roy, a failed actress who wrote “shock value” literature to become famous, does not have the credentials to discuss something close to the hearts of millions of Indians. But I suppose sensationalism is the first resort of the pseudo-intellectual.
Anupam K. Sinha, Faridabad
The love affair between Ms Roy and Outlook must end. Else, we have the freedom to look elsewhere.
Yeshwant Alway, on e-mail
Ashis Nandy’s article (The Great Indian Affair with Censorship, Nov 8) left me flabbergasted with the contorted logic used to justify seditious statements of people like Arundhati Roy. Agreed, the troops have committed atrocities in Kashmir, but don’t you think the problem has to be solved within the framework of the Indian Union? Spare a thought for what will happen if Kashmir becomes a theocratic state or part of a failed state like Pakistan. And when did the Indian middle class, which he so vehemently derides, “want to give meaning to their hollow life through a violent, 19th century version of European style nationalism”? It’s a shame but India is safer dealing with bomb-wielding terrorists rather than pen-wielders like Roy who kill the very idea of India.
Dr Shyam Sarvoday, Mysore
Nandy goes overboard when he castigates the new middle class. He should know that they really don’t have time to attend meetings and are influenced by what the media tells them about these meetings. If the information is incorrect or spiced up, why blame the middle class?
G. Venkatesh, Chennai
It is because artists, writers etc debate and test the extremes of society’s value systems that it remains vibrant. The middle class is now in a mindless funk, power-drunk as it is in its new-found economic freedom. Once the hangover sets in, it will realise, painfully, that the goalposts of achieving a more humane society have shifted. It will also realise the movement towards intolerance was brought about by itself.
Harish Menon, Mumbai
Occupation troops will commit atrocities because after all troops are human. For every atrocity commited by the troops there must be dozens of instances where troops have helped the local populace.These usually go unreported.
Kashmiris, the majority of whom are muslims are to blame for this for they have let themselves be used by Pakistan to put India on the spot. Most of them have allowed themselves to be led by the nose by 'seperatists'
To blame India's middle class for this sorry state of affairs is to acknowledge that Indian democracy is a failed democracy. This in many ways is true.
Aristotle said that being a good man and a good citizen is not always the same thing. Maybe this is where the middle class has failed the country. But why not blame the media which is owned and operated by persons from the middle class.
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