The Offensive Republic

The self-righteous liberals in India are shocked by Penguin India’s decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. They are disseminating and signing petitions, and writing articles that express a range of emotions, from disgust to dismay. A few others are (rightly) concerned that the actual blame may lie with the antiquated Indian laws and not with the publisher. Among the latter is Doniger herself.

Indian liberal give an impression that India is mostly a benign Republic , except periodically when it kowtows to fringe rightwing groups. This Indian elite, which cloaks its nationalism—a nationalism not so different in form from the explicitly Hindu rightwing nationalism—in a liberalist discourse, would have us believe that Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book is either just a rare case or an unexpected thing to happen in India. But it is certainly not rare. As different articles written in the last few days reveal—and for anyone following the story of censorship in India—the list of banned books, films, and other creative works is long.

Most of the books banned are those that diverge significantly from the narratives of Hindu nationalism. More significantly, however, what gets books or films banned is if they shine any light on the deftly veiled violence of the Indian state either during its formation or in places still being coercively incorporated into this postcolonial empire. There are mounting cases of intellectuals and activists who have been harassed at home, or have either been denied entry into the country or deported, for touching on ‘sensitive topics’ like Kashmir. One can imagine how careful the authors and researchers have to be before taking up issues that the government has deemed as ‘sensitive.’ The Indian state likes to make examples of people. Ban a book or deport somebody, and the rest will get the message.

Yes, there is the odd Rushdie in the mix (of course he was not bothering the Hindu nationalists or the Indian state), but my feeling about Rajiv Gandhi government’s surprise decision to ban his novel is the following: First, it was Congress trying to take revenge on Rushdie for saying unsavory things about Indira Gandhi in his earlier books. More importantly, by banning Rushdie’s book, only a few days after its publication, may have actually provoked and exacerbated Muslim calls for the ban than would otherwise have been the case. The book would most likely have gone largely unread or unnoticed, as is the case with most books anyway. The first defense for the calls for banning Rushdie’s book came from the apologists of the Indian government, mostly politicians who were in the government. The argument that most Muslims didn’t even read Rushdie’s book but felt strongly about it only goes to indicate that had the Indian state not galvanized public interest in the book by banning it, the so-called “Rushdie affair” would have never even started.

Why I refer to Rushdie is because of the tendency of Indian liberals to often trot out Rushdie to suggest that the Indian state is at least ‘secular’ in its intolerance; that India worries about the hurt feelings of both Hindus and Muslims. It may be true, but then if the Indian government cared about Muslim sentiment so much, perhaps they would have prevented a historical mosque in Ayodhya from being demolished or brought to justice people responsible for the pogroms in Gujarat, or the ones behind violence in Muzaffarnagar.

Indian liberals claim that the state is often hand tied to act the way it does because the Indian public is too sensitive and takes offense easily. That is why much of the present Liberal anger is directed against this imagined public, and not the state. (Some of these same people justified Afzal Guru’s judicial murder by referring to the hurt and offense the “public conscience” had apparently received in India because of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001). One would imagine that the state–often seen as an embodiment of ‘rational modernity’–would pause to distinguish genuine offense from a concocted one. Now, is it not ironic that some of the truly offensive books of the previous century, which include Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva, and many more such works that explicitly call for genocidal politics, actually remain in circulation and very much read in this Republic of Offense? Why should the state care more for the supposed offense taken by some and not others, if truly anyone indeed is taking offense? Who decides whose offense is greater or lesser?

I don’t think even a fraction of people in India would know Wendy Doniger or want to read her voluminous ‘The Hindus’; and even if they did read it somehow that they would take offense enough to support a court case against the book. The only reason censorships and bans work in India is because the state makes the decision to censor or ban. The Indian state, and the elite establishment that controls it, want to control the narrative of Indian nationalism. They want to retain the power to arbitrarily decide what needs to be out there in the public sphere and what doesn’t. It is the Indian establishment that keeps talking about the ‘public opinion’ without ever bothering to reveal which barometer has been used to measure it.

Having read ‘The Hindus’ four years back when it came out, I found it to be just a mild critique of certain right-wing portrayals of Hinduism as a masculinist, orthodox cultural system. Although, the book brings out some of the historically suppressed voices of women and lower castes (as is now being highlighted), ‘The Hindus’ retains an essentially orientalist fascination with ancient texts. In fact, Doniger defends Hinduism against the critiques of those who see it as a religion structured around the caste system. She talks about its “plurality,” “richness,” “inclusiveness” and “openness.” ‘The Hindus’ is the best advertisement for Hinduism in the West, and Indians, in the US in particular, use these orientalist depictions to the hilt to generate a positive fascination for their culture. Despite the ostensible freshness of the book, Doniger does not stray far from the beaten track of unifying so many different traditions and multifarious practices in South Asia under the overarching system called ‘Hinduism’, which as many scholars, including Peter van der Veer, have shown was first organized in the form of a religion through the efforts of the colonial scholars with the help of Brahmin Indians during the early decades of British colonialism. That is why it is surprising that the Hindu rightwing would be opposed to someone like Doniger, when there are so many more formidable critics out there.

It is curious to me that there is often not a single review for any of the banned books, films, or art works out in the public domain before the Indian government bans them, which would have gone on to suggest that there is truly some public out there which feels offended. Does it not make sense then to ask who is this imaginary public that is offended, to which Indian courts refer to freely? If one closely watches incidents like the Hindutva brigades attacking the Bhandarkar Library in Pune, or M. F. Hussain’s paintings, or installations by Pakistani artists (about which indeed no petitions have been circulated, nor has it even caught the attention of the Indian Liberals), these all happen through a close connivance with the police or local politicians. And the politicians who organize these turn their history of vandalism into political capital–instead of cooling their heels in jail. If this has been happening over and over, can one not detect a pattern, which could plausibly question the intentions of the state establishment?

There is talk that liberals are feeling a ‘chill’ because of the ‘Modi-wave’, but one wonders if they fear him, or secretly admire him. One has heard of death-wish, but because there is just a very muted reaction to the very real possibility of Modi coming to power, it seems Indian Liberals somehow do not mind testing  him out. It is likely that Modi’s campaign might rejuvenate a surface liberal opposition–mostly in the English language press. Perhaps Indian liberal nationalists would like to be seen as warriors against fascism, if the Modi phenomena allows them a chance to claim moral superiority. But is opposition to Modi’s fascism enough? Liberals give an impression that the state would have been decent had these openly Hindutva brigades not been out there. But fascism does not belong to rightwing Hindutva-wadis alone; fascism has been the modus operandi of the state for long. And state fascism affects many more people, not just a few writers or academics. No Indian liberal petition has gone around seeking signatures to demand the Indian government to stop arbitrarily banning access to the Internet in Kashmir, like the one that is in place there right now, or to stop military operations in places in Chattisgarh, or to remove Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir, Assam, and Manipur.

My contention is not that each time Indian Liberal nationalists find a cause worthy enough in their eyes to dispatch petitions that we ask them what about so many other peoples who live in degrading conditions in and under India. It is to argue that Indian Liberal nationalism produces a systematic blindness which prevents them from facing the real violence of their Republic. For those under military jackboot or under the strictures of the caste system, Indian Liberals’ inability to see these oppressive conditions puts them almost in the same league as the Hindutva extremists. What lies at the crux of the issue is this: India’s Liberal elite believe their freedom of expression is much more sacred than the freedom of expression of ordinary people. That is why, the latter does not even merit a consideration. They would vigorously defend their right to publish and say whatever they want (which is fine by me). But they would maintain a complicit silence when it comes to the forced inability, for instance, of Kashmiris to speak freely. No petitions would go around to seek removal of laws that imprison Kashmiris and other oppressed nationalities in India under charges of sedition.

So, if there is really a ‘public’ that takes offense because a Wendy Doniger wrote a few pages that didn’t go well with them, who is it that takes offense if a Kashmiri seeks freedom from the Indian empire? Has the Indian state asked the Indian public if they want Kashmiris to live under oppressive conditions? If not, then it seems it is the Indian state itself that takes offense when Kashmiris ask for freedom. And, if the domain of offense-taking belongs to the “public”, does it mean states have sentiments too? More than an offended public it seems like it is the offensive state that is calling the shots. Why should Liberals feel uncomfortable with fascist forces, but perfectly comfortable with a fascist state?

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