Save Culture From The “Banned-It” Gangs and The Culture Cops

Kavita Krishnan

It hasn’t taken Uma Bharati long to drop the mask of BSP i.e. ‘bijli-sadak-pani’ on the strength of which she won the elections. The ‘Banned-It’ Queen and her courtiers now say “off with its head” to anyone or anything which refuses to toe the Hindutva line. First, it was the Christians at Jhabua. When the rape and assault on tribal Christians took place, Uma Bharati echoed Modi’s interpretation of ‘Newton’s Law’. She said the assaults were a reaction to ‘provocative’ conversions by missionaries in the area.

Next, it was the turn of progressive Hindi magazines Udbhavana and Samayantar. These magazines are well-known for their forthright stand against the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda. But Newton’s Law as interpreted by the Sanghi physicists causes a neat inversion of the meaning, allowing people to be accused of the very crime of which they are the victims. So, Samayantar and Udbhavna could be labelled ‘controversial’ and capable of ‘disturbing communal harmony’, since they are no doubt capable of provoking the Sanghi goons to attack them. Uma Bharati’s lieutenant who is also Vajpayee’s nephew, Madhya Pradesh Culture Minister Anup Mishra objected to the sale of these magazines in the bookstalls at the MP Sahitya Parishad and the Bharat Bhavan. For the offense of making such ‘provocative’ literature available to the public, the heads of the directors of these institutions had to roll.

The Culture Minister also raised a profound question: “So-called intellectuals had named the Allauddin Khan Sangeet Akademi at Maihar town after a ‘Bangladeshi gayak (singer)’. By doing so, who did they want to please?” Who, we may ask, did Anup Mishra want to please by casting this slur on Ustad Allauddin Khan? Surely not any real lover of Indian culture – only the ignorant saffron brigades whose notion of ‘culture’ always needs an enemy to hate. Musicians like Umakant Gundecha and Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar pointed out – how could a music academy in Maihar be named after anyone but Allauddin Khan, known and loved locally as ‘Maihar ke Baba’, who had named his daughter Annapoorna after the deity of the Maihar temple? Music had no religion or nationality, they asserted, and Maihar was proud to have been the home of this musician. It wasn’t the Indianness of Allauddin Khan that was in question but the Culture Minister’s knowledge of our culture. But how can we expect the Culture Minister to know that it was foolish to pit Allauddin Khan’s name against Tansen’s? Even if someone were to tell him that Tansen sang khayals which was a new form created by mixing the dhrupad with the Persian styles imported by his Mughal patrons, Anup Mishra would probably not hesitate to brand khayal-gayaki too as a ‘foreign’ musical form!

After her ban on cow slaughter, Uma Bharati’s new offensive on dietary practices has been to impose a ban on the sale of liquor, eggs and meat in the ‘temple towns’ of Amarkantak, Maheshwar and Ujjain. But she won’t rest till she has saffronised the very definition of development itself. She announced that, as in ancient India, her ministers would be given posts depending on the number of cows under their protection! No mention, of course, of the number of people a minister would have to protect from pogroms, hunger and unemployment in order to deserve her/his post. Uma Bharati also had three temples and a cowshed constructed in the Chief Minister’s bungalow before moving in. Her security officers, who must have learnt science at the shakhas where Anup Mishra learnt history, declared that the temples’ deities Shiva, Ganesh and Hanuman would act as a ‘security cover’.

This kind of saffron mumbo-jumbo would be comic. Unfortunately, what makes it frightening is the increasing trend of those in power to decide what we can be ‘allowed’ to eat, wear, view or read. In Ahmedabad, the Modi government banned the anti-globalisation play ‘Suno Nadi Kya Kehti Hai’. In Surat, VHP and Bajrang Dal goons attacked a private art gallery and vandalised the paintings of some of India’s leading modern painters, simply because MF Hussain had inaugurated the exhibition. They object to the fact that Hussain, being a Muslim, has often painted images like Ganesh and Saraswati. Why should an artist, simply because he happens to be a Muslim, be banned from using the images that are a part of the shared visual, cultural and semiotic universe of all Indians? Do the saffron culture police have any right to declare a monopoly on these images?

This year, Valentine’s Day passed with the usual threats of violence by the Shiv Sena and the Sangh brigade. They claimed that through Valentine’s Day, foreign MNCs were promoting western culture in order to boost the sales of their products. One may well ask: if these groups object to foreign MNCs, why not attack the Vajpayee Govt. that is selling our sovereignty to these companies, instead of threatening couples? In any case, MNCs don’t just promote ‘western’ culture. Take the example of Star TV which shows serials like ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, which blatantly promote anti-women stereotypes and practices like pre-natal sex-determination, all in the name of ‘Indian culture’. The mindset promoted by such MNC-sponsored serials meshes perfectly with that of the Shiv Sena and the Sangh.

Unfortunately, the politics of censorship is not limited to the BJP or the Sangh alone. The BJP is setting the terms of political discourse, and most ruling parties are choosing to compete with the BJP on the same terms rather than change or challenge those terms. In his book on Shivaji, a historian Prof. Lane, had, in his ‘Acknowledgements’, named various scholars as well as the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune. Claiming that the book was offensive to Shivaji, last year the Shiv Sena blackened the face of one of the scholars acknowledged by the book. Going one up on the Sena, the Sambhaji Brigade, which many believe is a Congress front, vandalised the Bhandarkar Institute. What made the book objectionable, it seems, was not its research or referencing, but a few lines referring to a joke about Shivaji’s parentage, which was prevalent in Shivaji’s time. Far from punishing the goons who destroyed irreplaceable archives, the Congress-NCP Govt. banned the book and slapped a case on the author and the publishers. This isn’t the first time the Congress position on a piece of historical scholarship was indistinguishable from that of the Shiv Sena. In 1993, in my final year of college, a young woman from another college wrote an article in The Illustrated Weekly, critiquing the nationalist hagiography which strips heroes like Shivaji or the Rani of Jhansi of their real historical situation, and reinvents them to fit political exigencies. She gave the example of the construction of a Kshatriya lineage for Shivaji, a Kunbi by birth. The Sena and the Congress alike reviled that article, and the Congress Govt. slapped a case on the writer and banned that issue of the Weekly. The Weekly cravenly disowned the article, leaving the 19-year old writer to fend for herself in the courts. However, the court upheld her scholarship as well as her right to write the article.

The Congress’ tendency to adopt the Sangh’s definition of nationalism and culture is by now too common to be surprising. But when the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government too is infected by the ban-bug, it is time to worry. Most disturbing is the fact that the Govt. lacked the courage to declare the real reason for the ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandita – namely that its revelations of the private sexual misdemeanors of Bengal’s literary Who’s Who, had offended the powerful writers who had lobbied for the ban. Rather than admit this, the LF Govt. took the familiar excuse of claiming the book was offensive to Islam, and could ‘provoke communal tension’. No doubt the LF Govt. found it convenient to shift the blame upon the presumed ‘intolerance’ and thin skin of the Muslim community. Remember, this is the same Govt. whose Chief Minister had declared that madarsas were ‘ISI dens’. In both cases, the LF Govt. is only reinforcing the stereotypes of ‘Muslim Intolerance’ and ‘Muslim Appeasement’ – a phenomenon which in the long run can only create fertile ground for communal fascism. In reality, it is well known that Taslima is critical of all religions for their patriarchal, anti-woman attitudes. The ban is simply catering to middle-class prudishness and double standards. No one demands a ban on gossip columns which routinely demean women. People only laugh indulgently at Khushwant Singh’s autobiography, which is certainly as sexually candid as Taslima’s. But when the writer is a woman writing about men, the literary fraternity of Bengal got together like a ‘band of boys’ and got the Govt. to hush her up! By catering to this mentality, the CPI(M) has weakened the legitimacy of the Left in the struggle against cultural policing by the Sangh. q