In a land which has valued creativity and creative freedom since time immemorial, there are new glass ceilings — and sometimes steel ones — coming up all around. This sense of creative claustrophobia is the direct result not of “reasonable restrictions”, but subjective biases in those who either have the power to decide, or think they have the right to do so because of their proximity to power. The cumulative result is a sense of trepidation and apprehension, even fear, among the artistic fraternity about what they can depict, and what is likely to cause offence, and render them liable to arbitrary legal and punitive action.
The area of morality, religion and societal behaviour is the most contested area. We have new custodians of morality who are easily outraged by anything that does not fit into their conservative, upper-caste, patriarchal and outdated notions of “correct” behaviour. Newly appointed CM of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, waxed eloquent on this gem of wisdom just a few days ago. Ladies who wear ripped jeans, he said, “pave the way for societal breakdown leading to substance abuse”. He was outraged that this “kainchi ka sanskaar” actually enables females “to reveal their knees” (what sacrilege!), when “the most important thing for women is to look after their family and children”.
So much then for women’s liberation, and the decades of struggle that has gone into empowering women rather than confining them only to the home and the perpetuation of progeny. It could be argued, of course, that these are the personal views of a certain Mr Rawat. In a free Republic, anyone has the right to their opinion, and if Rawatji is an unapologetic male chauvinist. so be it. Alas, it is not that simple. People like Rawatji are in power today. They live in a time warp, and the greater their misogyny the more their conviction that they are right. More worrisome, is the fact that they quote sanskaar or culture as the reason for their indignation. The corollary to this appropriation is only logical: anyone violating sanskaar must be reined in, brought to book, dealt with, and Bharat that is India must remain unsullied from all these evil progressive tendencies.
But sanskaar becomes even more lethal when it is coupled with religion. So, the religious sentiments of two BJP leaders were outraged by the fact that a serial was named Tandav, which they interpreted to be an insult to Lord Shiva. Such an allegation needs to be laughed out of the room, simply because the word Tandav is both an adjective and a proper noun, and when used as the title of a serial, the content of the story itself makes it obvious that there is not even a remote connection to the dance of destruction of Mahadeva. But a case was filed against Amazon Prime Video, and such is the fear, that the production house issued an abject apology, deeply regretting the unintended “hurt” that may have been caused, and agreeing to cut out any “objectionable” scenes. What is even more inexplicable is that the Allahabad high court, instead of providing protection to the serial makers, proclaimed that no one has the right to hurt religious sentiments.
The real reason for the ire against Tandav may be quite different. In the serial, there is a university suspiciously sounding like ‘JNU’, whose students “subversively” shout slogans of “azaadi”, and politicians are depicted as having no compunctions in fueling religious divides for political dividends. The whole script sound strangely familiar, and what better way to put this impudence in its place than to file an FIR against the impertinent producers on grounds of hurt religious sentiments?
We are fast becoming the Republic of Hurt. Some people were hurt by a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl with a temple in the background in the Netflix adaptation of A Suitable Boy. The iconic Marathi playwright, Vijay Tendulkar, recently faced a posthumous storm of protest because his play, Jaat hi Poocho Sadhu ki, used the Hindu word “sadhu”, and thus hurt Hindu religious sentiments. The fact is the play is not about faith at all, but about the ills of casteism. But obviously, the Bajrang Dal, which raised objections, does not read beyond the title of the plays they want banned. In any case, it succeeded. The staging of the play was cancelled in Madhya Pradesh.
The real problem in our Republic of Hurt is that one doesn’t know what will next cause someone to be hurt. For instance, just the other day, the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh government decided to remove eggs from the midday meals given to Anganwadi centres. The decision to provide high-protein eggs was taken by the previous Congress government. At the time the BJP had protested, seeing in this “nefarious” move the attempt to change the dietary habits of Hindus. But this begs the question: don’t Hindu children eat eggs too? Those who don’t are welcome not to, but the decision to replace eggs by milk has been questioned by child health experts. Such experts would, of course, then be called anti-national. The dilemma before filmmakers is that if their next production shows people eating eggs, or eating non-vegetarian food, would they have an FIR filed against them for “hurting religious sentiments”. One never knows.
A highly unwarranted subjectivity driven by medieval cultural notions and political hubris is seriously threatening creative freedoms in India. It is in this light that we need to see the government’s latest guidelines to control social media and OTT platforms. These guidelines may talk about self-regulatory mechanisms, but the final decision in the three-tier process lies with the ministry of information and broadcasting. If Tirath Singh Rawat becomes the minister of I&B, ladies in ripped jeans exposing their knees, and eating eggs to boot, must watch out.