By Ramachandra Guha:
In India today, we imagine our heroes to be absolutely perfect. I wonder if this was always so. Yudhishthira and Rama were capable of deceit and deviant behaviour—and our ancestors were not surprised or angered to know this. But now Bengalis shall be enraged at even the mildest criticism of Subhas Chandra Bose, Tamils at the mildest criticism of Periyar, Maharashtrians at the mildest criticism of Shivaji, Dalits at the mildest criticism of Ambedkar, Hindutvawadis at the mildest criticism of Savarkar, and so on.
Bose, Savarkar, Periyar, Ambedkar and Shivaji were all remarkable figures, to understand whose significance one needs many books, films and plays about them. But where are the writers, scholars and playwrights who can write fearlessly about these leaders, juxtaposing their achievements with their failures, contrasting their qualities of courage and character with their angularities and their prejudices?
Strangely, Gandhi is today the only great and controversial Indian of the last thousand years (or more) about whom anyone can write as critically as they want without threat to their life or work. For, unlike Bose, Ambedkar, Shivaji or Periyar, Gandhi belongs to everyone and to no one. There is no angry, aggressive, insecure, thin-skinned sect that protects or is protective about Gandhi.
Even those who seek, instrumentally, to ‘protect’ Gandhi from criticism generally fail. In 2011, the American writer Joseph Lelyveld wrote a book that speculated Gandhi had been in a homosexual relationship in South Africa. Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, and seeking a national platform, banned the book in his state, hoping to present himself as a defender of the Mahatma. The Congress government at the Centre, purely out of a sense of one-upmanship, contemplated a countrywide ban. However, the Mahatma’s own grandsons, the biographer Rajmohan Gandhi and the diplomat and civil servant Gopalkrishna Gandhi, intervened to allow the book to circulate in all of India, except in Gujarat. They argued that a ban would be contrary to the spirit of Gandhi, who always welcomed argument and debate; it would also call into question India’s democratic credentials. Sadly, this principled commitment to free expression is not shared by those who are the biological or ideological descendants of other major figures in Indian history.
In a multireligious society with a history of sectarian violence, perhaps artists and writers ought to show some sensitivity in depicting or describing religious icons such as Krishna, Mohammed, Christ or Guru Nanak. But when one cannot honestly discuss the lives and legacies of real historical figures, it does not bode well for the health of our democracy.
Let me return to the definition of freedom of expression introduced at the beginning of this essay. I had, adapting what Gandhi said when his book Hind Swaraj was banned under the Raj, suggested that in any self-respecting democracy, ‘Every man or woman has the right to hold any opinion he or she chooses and to give effect to it so long as in doing so she or he does not use or advocate physical violence against anybody.’ By these standards, Indian democracy fails the test. Indian courts and governments are too ready to—on their own, or at the instance of agitators—have books, films or paintings banned or withdrawn from circulation even when these do not, in any way, advocate or endorse the use of physical violence.
These works might have displeased some people, but that is all. In any mature democracy, the answer to a book whose arguments one does not like should surely be another book. A film whose theme or tenor one may not approve of can easily be boycotted. But, in a mark of how far we are from being a mature democracy in this regard, groups taking offence at artistic or literary works resort to thuggish methods to (often successfully) coerce the state or courts to have them banned or withdrawn. Thus, our definition is turned on its head—in India, even when violence is not advocated or used by the author or artist, violence is used or threatened by those seeking to suppress his or her voice.
Note: Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India from “Democrats And Dissenters” by Ramachandra Guha.