16 September 2019 10:32 PM


Ritu Menon | 15 AUGUST, 2015

Censorship By Remote Control


The recent show-cause notice by the government to three television channels on Yakub Memon's hanging, and its temporary ban on 857 porn sites, have rekindled apprehensions about overt and covert censorship, and of the kind of coercive constraints on free and fearless expression that is a fundamental right guaranteed to every Indian.

Perumal Murugan and Puliyar Murugesan in Tamil Nadu. Before them Megha Kumar. And before her Wendy Doniger. Any number of others in the last ten years or so who have been hounded, pilloried, beaten to a pulp, silenced. Not hacked to death yet, but almost.

We should remember, though, that in all the cases mentioned above, only two have been the subject of a government order. All the others are examples of bullying and / or violent action by those claiming to act on behalf of usually unnamed (but not unknown) communities or groupings. Long ago, we coined the term 'laissez faire censorship" to characterise that form of mob or street censorship that is backed by no obvious authority, either official or other, but is nevertheless assured of tacit support by it. For no action is ever taken against individuals or groups who flex their muscles and threaten or use violence to achieve their ends. Yet in every recent instance of such violence they have broken the law and inflicted injury.

Individuals and institutions are equally vulnerable. Perumal Murugan was grievously dealt with to such an extent that he preferred metaphorical death as a writer, to the living death that might otherwise have been his lot. But Murugan's publisher, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachavadu, was also at risk, compelled to acquiesce to his author's decision to destroy all his books. Much against his own wishes. As did Penguin with Wendy Doniger's book, and Orient BlackSwan, preemptively, with Megha Kumar's manuscript on the 2002 Gujarat massacres.

Every attack on an individual's right to freedom of expression is simultaneously an attack on her right to free association and free movement. And every challenge thrown to a private institution -- in this case to publishers -- is an attack on their right to freely and fearlessly associate with, disseminate, and further the views of those with whom they wish to associate. It seems to me that there is an underlying anxiety in the concerted and often violent attempts to silence that remains unarticulated; and that that anxiety has to do with the fear of losing control. Let me elaborate.

Governments today don't really need to ban or censor -- "non-state actors" can do that for them very effectively. They can take care of the odd individual or institutional "transgressor" either directly by the use of violence, the threat of it, or by legal action. The government's hands remain clean, even as its dirty work gets done. A kind of remote control comes into being. That leaves the large public institutions, primarily educational and cultural, that can neither be arm-twisted into submission like an individual, nor be dealt with violently, because they are not evidently "transgressive". But they can be dangerously out of line; they are potentially subversive, via their students and their academic pursuits and enquiries; and because they are large and public andaccountable, they can challenge the status quo. They can also induce considerable anxiety in whoever is worried about not being in control. This is what our judiciary has been doing recently, for examlpe, by refusing to be controlled by the excutive.

The "non-state actor" is no use here. His tactics won't work. And so you place -- or replace with -- actors who will speak your lines, who have official sanctity, who will take off-stage direction, and rewrite the script. This is still remote control, but it is more direct and purposeful because the stakes are higher. We would do well to remember, though, that both "non-state actors" and officially appointed ones work towards the same end: mind control.

But the thing about ideas is that they have a life of their own. Once uttered or written they circulate like currency, and it's difficult to control their trajectory. So a Penguin might drop a Wendy Doniger but a Speaking Tiger will pick her up. An Orient BlackSwan might reconsider Megha Kumar but an independent publisher will take the risk and publish her book, unredacted. Similarly, should Perumal Murugan ever allow his books to be made available again, Kalachavadu will reissue them immediately. And histories, as we know, get written and rewritten because no one really can control the past.

Governments that proceed from, and base their actions on, their anxieties unwittingly reveal a deep-seated insecurity, not only about losing control but about losing their identity.

Ritu Menon is an Indian feminist, writer and publisher. She runs a publishing house a feminist publishing house Women Unlimited