x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

India's politicians are trying to control its narrative

Action against writers Rohinton Mistry and Ahrundhati Roy highlight India's attempts to control how it is seen.

 
 

The night of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the New Delhi sky is lit up with fireworks. Cracks and bangs, loud enough to deafen and frighten, are heard at random. In the more densely populated areas of Old Delhi, signs request residents not to buy or use firecrackers - and are cheerfully ignored. "This is how we like to enjoy Diwali," a resident says. "Why should politicians tell us no?"

Such a scene is a metaphor for what is happening to India, where leaders seek to impose regulations on a country used to bending them. It is through that lens that two recent events with implications for free speech in the world's second-most populous nation should be seen. In the past few weeks, one of the country's oldest universities bowed to political pressure and removed a respected book about India from its syllabus, followed, separately, by the government threatening to charge one of the country's best novelists with sedition.

For a country that prides itself on being modern and democratic, these are serious setbacks. But they are also part of how India wants to remember its past.

Start with Arundhati Roy. Last week, the author whose novel The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize told a gathering: "Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this."

Kashmir, which both Pakistan and India claim as their own, is still an emotional topic for Indians and her words drew instant condemnation and vitriol from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which called for Roy's arrest. "Anyone speaking against India should be hanged," declared the BJP general secretary. That is no small statement coming from the second major party in India's parliament and made many, within and without India, wonder what was happening to the country's freedom of speech.

The local media reported last week that the Congress-led government had decided not to charge Roy with sedition, but the rhetoric against Roy remains fierce: her home in Delhi has been besieged by protesters threatening the author and demanding she retract her statement or leave the country. Roy issued a short, restrained statement addressing her critics, saying: "Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds."

The Roy saga comes just two weeks after the banning of Such a Long Journey, the Canadian-Indian author Rohinton Mistry's novel about a bank clerk in 1970s India, from the literature syllabus of Mumbai University. Mistry's book, which was nominated for the 1991 Booker, paints the Shiv Sena, a political party that pushes for the rights of the Marathi community, in a less than flattering light. The grandson of Shiv Sena's founder - now a student at Mumbai University - took exception and motivated the party to burn the book and campaign against it. Abruptly, the book was dropped from the syllabus. Mistry called it a "sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning".

There are two worrying aspects to this incident. One is the speed with which the novel was dropped, without even an attempt at due process. The other is the explanation, with a catch-all clause. In a statement, the university's vice chancellor said: "Our constitution guarantees complete freedom of expression to every citizen of India but with a qualifying clause of enjoying it without hurting the sentiments of any section of society."

Two stories of modern India. A novelist cowering in her home after saying a few sentences, and a book removed after politically motivated protests. It is tempting to see both these stories as politically driven. And they are that. They are also about the limits of free expression in a country where speech acts can quickly escalate into violence.

But they are also part of a different story of modern India, of political attempts to impose a standard narrative on a fractious and too diverse nation.

The clearest recent example of this was an Indian court's ruling over the mosque at Ayodhya. What has become known as the Ayodhya dispute is centred on a piece of land in Uttar Pradesh state.

Until 1992, the site housed the 16th-century Babri mosque. But Hindus claimed the site was the birthplace of the deity Lord Ram and that when the Babri mosque was built hundreds of years ago, it was constructed over the site of a previous Hindu temple. Such were the passions aroused by this small plot of land that, in 1992, a Hindu mob tore down the historic mosque in a single day. In the days that followed, the country experienced some of its worst rioting since British rule, leaving thousands dead.

Since then the issue has been clogged in the courts. When a verdict was handed down in late September amid heightened security, the court decided Hindu and Muslim groups should share the site, but denied a request for the vandalised mosque to be rebuilt.

The Ayodhya verdict is an attempt to delineate in law something that is the product of years of civillisation, to draw lines across history. One of the things that makes India so unique, so awe-inspiring, is its complex and mixed history - the sheer complexity of its myths and deities; that the Taj Mahal, the most famous landmark in a Hindu nation was built by a Muslim ruler; that, as another author claimed, the best novels of India have been written in the language of the departed colonial power. It is a country of overlapping histories, of competing narratives, where it is unclear where one era, one story (and, in crowded places, one person) ends.

Faced with this background, some of India's leaders want to knit that plurality of views into a cohesive whole - usually for their own ends. This is what happened with Roy and Mistry. The politicians who were quick to jump in were trying to impose a narrative on the country, to police the limits of what can and cannot be said. The situation in Kashmir is still unresolved, decades later, but even the way of talking about it in the Indian public sphere has not been settled.

If Roy was saying something utterly without resonance among Indians, such an outcry would not have happened. It is because she is chipping away at the narrative suggested by the right-wing political parties that they find her so dangerous. Ditto with Mistry's book. It is not new. But Shiv Sena is keen to own the narrative space surrounding its history, to decide what is remembered.

Part of the modern battle for India is a battle for how things are described, how the world is remembered. As politicians want to clean up the country, they also want to clean up the messiness of its history, distilling its dynasties and monuments, its political intrigues and arguments, into a cohesive whole. But in a country as large and diverse as India, how can that be done without casualties?

Political leaders - as the firecrackers booming across the Delhi skyline show - have enough difficulty telling their citizens how to celebrate the present. They will struggle to tell their citizens how to remember the past.

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist and Churchill fellow for 2009/2010. You can follow him at twitter.com/faisalalyafai