A matter of difference or a different matter?

back to issue

THE battle around the 2002 riots in Gujarat has been one of the great dramas of modern Indian democracy: no struggle around a riot has been fought so committedly and no other case has produced such a rich history of debate and achievement. At one level, the protagonists seemed unevenly matched. On one side is a group of survivors and activists, and on the other, the popularly elected regime of Narendra Modi. For a long time the battle seemed almost zero-sum, with Modi growing in strength, winning votes, creating investments, and even being projected as a future prime minister by Time magazine and The Brookings Institution. The final SIT (special investigation team) report insisted on a closure of the riot investigations, claiming that there was no legally admissible evidence about his role in the riots. The BJP and part of the media rejoiced, claiming a clean chit for the CM. In an act of legalistic piety, the BJP claimed that the harassment against Modi had gone too far and by the tenth year of his regime, Modi had won on all three counts. His victory was one of governance, of electoral legitimacy and the rule of law.

Democracy has a way of making assurance double sure. When the Supreme Court appointed the SIT to investigate the investigations, it also took an even rarer step of appointing an amicus curiae to advise the court on the role of the SIT. An amicus curie is a great invention. The word amicus literally means ‘a friend of the court’. An amicus curiae educates and addresses the court on points of law and procedure. He raises issues which the court may miss, emphasizes aspects of a case hitherto ignored. An amicus holds a neutral position. He is a friend of the court but not of the parties involved. He is a tuning fork for the fairness of the law.

When the Supreme Court appointed R.K. Raghavan, former head of the CBI, as chairman of the SIT, it had set in place the beginnings of a great ritual. When it followed by appointing Raju Ramachandran as amicus, it had set the stage for a feast of law. When the two reports were released on 7 May 2012, a drama unfolded which went beyond the law.

The 540 page SIT report with its elaborate appendices of evidence called for a closure of the investigation. The 25 page final report of the amicus curiae provided a different reading. The contrast between the two reports created sheer drama. The media had a field day contrasting the two efforts. There was something cinematic about the story. On one side was a policeman trained as a political scientist; on the other a lawyer, an additional solicitor general famed for his liberal views. Raghavan was also well known for his op-ed columns in The Hindu. Ramachandran was co-editor of a major set of essays in honour of Soli Sorabjee, an eminent jurist. Raghavan was on the board of Jindal Law School and a consultant to Tatas. Ramachandran was involved in the investigation against Justice V. Ramaswami and even better known as Ajmal Kasab’s lawyer. Two professional men, two competent reports and the stage was set for a legendary drama.

There was a political fallout. If the SIT gave Modi a clean chit, paving his way for a third term as CM, the Ramachandran report triggered a sense of doubt about Modi as a future PM. The newspapers, by playing up the contrast, seemed to be tacitly defining the geography of his power to Gujarat and no further. What was set in stage was not just a political contouring of Narendra Modi but a pedagogic and philosophic exercise with fascinating implications.

The two texts need to be examined together. Raghavan’s report is a tracing. It retraces the outlines of an investigation without investigating further territory. Ramachandran was a theory of the map and not of territory. He reread the SIT reading, showing that there were other possibilities. The SIT read the investigation as text and method and examined fairness. Ramachandran’s was a report on justice and judgment. The SIT report was an act of evaluation, Ramachandran’s was an appeal to judgment. If one mapped actual contours, he looked at context to read further possibilities. The juxtaposition of these two acts of professionalism provided two perspectives on the law. There are areas of agreement but the distances are delicately yet firmly stated. There is a pedagogy of frames, of languages that one must deconstruct. It is present in the choice of words used, and questions asked.

There were differences of tacit perspective which need to be enticed out. First, the SIT seems to be an old style public administration report while the amicus’ sensibility approximates an idea of governmentality. Second, Raghavan searches for correct procedure as a framework for accountability, while Ramachandran looks for responsibility. Third, SIT reads the law bureaucratically, almost denying autonomy and ethical agency, while the amicus is sensitive to political context, its limits and possibilities. The two reports tacitly smack of different worldviews, creating as a result a different reading of the situation. This leads to the final logic of labelling. The SIT seeks to provide a closure report, contending there was little admissible legal evidence. While reading the SIT with care, the Ramachandran report suggests a need to reopen the case, looking at it with different lenses. The rituals of law, of investigative interpretation, are still incomplete. The amicus thus creates a philosophical bracketing, leaving the case open to judgment, allowing a leeway for other possibilities and interpolations to be worked out in a court of law.

The SIT report is a reading of the investigative process as a text of law. Ramachandran adds to it the context of decision making. Raghavan looks into the nature of ritual correctness. Ramachandran implies that correctness needs ecology and that one has to read both acts of omission and commission, statements and silences. One looks for categorical statements, the other hints even at the validity of body language. The two reports becomes the battle between said and unsaid, done and not done. There are two models of communication and judgment being outlined.

The SIT was appointed to investigate whether Narendra Modi had taken all appropriate steps to handle the riots. It declared that Modi had taken all the steps for the protection of minorities. The implicit distinction seems to be between guilt and responsibility. A bureaucratic approach may absolve Modi of guilt but may not clear him of responsibility. Guilt is about the technical act; responsibility is about the terrain of action read bureaucratically, ethically and politically. Think of it as a drama, as a set of realistic possibilities. The SIT claims that the allegation that Modi instructed senior officers to allow Hindus to give went to their anger is unconfirmed. In support, it argues that none of the top police officials or bureaucrats questioned the alleged instructions. The reading is minimally correct. But the amicus suggests a list of what he actually did on 28.02.2002 would have been decisive, but no top officer present provided any detail of Modi’s actions. Such a listing would be critical. The amicus notes that ‘neither the top police nor bureaucrats have spoken about any decisive action by the CM.’

The amicus next evaluates whether Modi was responsible for inciting the riots by publicly displaying the bodies burnt at Godhra station. The amicus looks at the logic of action. Consider first the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) General Secretary, Jaydeep Patel’s statement that he did not meet Modi at Godhra. The amicus asks how the bodies were then handed over to him? The amicus observes that Patel’s statement ‘does not inspire confidence.’ It has to be examined as ‘the mamlatdar would not have handed over the dead bodies to a non-governmental person, i.e. Jaydeep Patel, until and unless somebody very high told him to do so.’ One is left wondering at the identity of the said person. The SIT accepts Modi’s explanation that the bodies were sent to Ahmedabad as relatives were waiting. It sees no malign intention in the act.

Consider once again the fact that cabinet ministers I.K. Jadeja and Ashok Bhatt were ‘positioned in the DGP’s office and the Ahmedabad city control room on 28.02.2002.’ The implications of this are read differently. Even the SIT concludes that this was a ‘controversial decision’, but limits its reading by admitting their presence but minimizing their impact. It states that, ‘No evidence is available to suggest that they ever interfered with the police operations to bring the situation under control or that they conspired in the perpetration of the riots.’ The amicus is surprised at the immaculateness of presence without any signalling of interference. The ministers sat like wax pieces at Madame Tussauds. He observes that such a reading is too literal, based upon the statements of police officers. He raises the question of context while differentiating between presence and interference, omission and commission.

The amicus observes that the case is curious. First, it is difficult to explain their presence as neither of the ministers concerned had anything to do with the Home portfolio. Was the presence fortuitous or did it imply that they were acting on ‘direct instructions from the Chief Minister’? The amicus suggests that ‘It is obvious that the CM had positioned these two ministers in highly sensitive places.’ The question then is what did they do? The answer seems to be they sat still as in a silent movie. The amicus then states that if they were present, they should have acted as responsible ministers. The fact that ‘they did nothing speaks volumes of about the decisions to let the riots happen.’ The amicus adds, ‘It appears unlikely that they would have been silent, and that two cabinet ministers of the government of Gujarat would not have given some kind of directions when the CM had directed them to be present.’ The case cuts both ways. If their presence in the police room was curious, their ‘silence’ was even more questionable. As responsible ministers, they should have intervened. The amicus notes that the two ministers were fully aware of the developing situation in Gulbarg Society, Naroda Patya and Ahmedabad city. The case of benign neglect is too naive. It smacks of indifference and irresponsibility.

One starts wondering about the relation between craft and consciousness in each report. Can two separate professions provide such different readings of the same event? Is the policeman’s reading of bureaucratic correctness and fairness as duty so radically different from a lawyer’s reading of truth and responsibility? Or does it go beyond the world view of two professionals to something deeper? One is left wondering at the Rashomon effect of the two reports. The SIT smacks of the surreal in its ability to take the literal as correct or true.

The amicus curiae then proceeds to look at the behaviour of bureaucrats during the riots. He focuses particularly on two police officers, M.K. Tandon, then Joint Commissioner of Police, Sector 11, Ahmedabad and P.B. Gondia, then a DCP, Zone IV, Ahmedabad. The SIT reads the performance as one of neglect but claims that no criminal offence is to be made out against these officers. The amicus begs to differ and make three notings. First that M.K. Tandon had no relevant reason to have left the Gulbarg/Naroda area. There was ‘no bigger problem elsewhere in the jurisdiction.’ He then adds that there was no reason not to have rushed back to the area after 2 pm, ‘when he knew the situation was out of control.’ The report notes that the complete absence of supervision on Tandon’s part was a prima facie case of negligence. It adds in a similar tone that there was no need for P.B. Gondia to have left Naroda Patiya at 2:20 pm, ‘when the situation was explosive.’ The amicus wishes that their negligence of duty went beyond the ambit of a departmental enquiry to a charge of criminal negligence. One wonders about the literalness of an investigation that seeks to shrink the nature of responsibility rather than meeting it head on. Does bureaucratization narrow the base of justice or is Raghavan right in seeing formal correctness as a form of ritual professionalism?

Any report has to be a reading of both the subjective and the objective, of empirical fact and the response to it. In reading behaviour, one has to look at motivation and consequence. One has to construct the complexity of motivation that drives one to protest or to acceptance. These issues emerge in the fascinating case of the police officer Sanjeev Bhatt, who claims that Modi is guilty of inciting communalism and, therefore, directly responsible for the riots.

Bhatt, a DIG of Police has been a controversial character. The question is: does his controversial past, his last minute entry into the case, his strange mix of accusations and silence, make him a suspect witness or does one look at him with a more secular lens, letting his evidence speak and not let it be coloured by the career of the man. The question of judgment demands that we answer how one can be fair to such a complex man who raises such a confusion of responses.

The SIT is matter of fact in its dismissal of Bhatt’s claims. It questions Bhatt’s contention that he was present at the critical meeting at Modi’s residence on the night of 27-02-2002 at 11pm as incorrect. It argues that no senior officer present supported his statement. It suggests that his silence of nine years, without any proper explanation, is also suspect. It also sees Bhatt as motivated given the number of departmental enquiries and investigations against him. Sanjeev Bhatt is read as a man with an axe to grind against the Gujarat government. The SIT then darkens the picture by claiming that his presence at a subsequent meeting at the CM’s house was even more suspect. The SIT notes meticulously that Bhatt’s claim that he was present at 10:30 am at the CM’s house was not credible because his own mobile phone records showed that he was at Ahmedabad at 10:57 am. By the laws of physics and transport, Bhatt could not have reached Gandhinagar before 11:30 am. Bhatt’s attempt to present evidence from his driver Tarachand Yadav is dismissed as an act of coercive tutoring. To the Government of Gujarat, Bhatt is seen as part of a larger conspiracy, a Congress lackey, critical to an effort to keep ‘Godhra alive’ on the basis of concocted facts. The SIT is virtually dismissive of the man and his antics.

It is clear that Bhatt lacks a good conduct certificate. The question is: can one expect truth only from truthful men, or can we allow evidence from those with a controversial reputation? Do goodness and truth inevitably go together or can a ‘crooked’ man occasionally be honest? Does one look at his motivation or at his evidence? It is not an easy choice to make. Context becomes critical again. How does one locate and evaluate Sanjeev Bhatt within the costume ball of senior officers who gave evidence to the contrary?

The amicus admits, in fact acknowledges, that Shri Bhatt is a problematic figure. His behaviour was not that ‘of a detached officer who is content with giving his version.’ He is also described as actively ‘strategizing, through keeping in touch with groups who might benefit from his testimony.’ Yet the amicus feels that this by itself does not allow us to ignore his evidence.

The amicus locates Bhatt in a ‘parade’ of officers present after the riots. Citing the SIT preliminary report, he suggests that Bhatt is not that offbeat. According to SIT itself:

* Some of the public servants, who retired long back, claimed loss of memory, not wishing to get involved in any controversy.

* A second category of public servants who had recently retired and have been provided with good post-retirement assignments, felt obliged to the state government and, therefore, their testimony lacked credibility.

* Finally, serving public servants avoided being at loggerheads with politicians in power.

Given this atmosphere of silence replete with incentives for compliance, Bhatt’s evidence acquires a different value. The amicus states that one must be open to it, even if Bhatt himself had canned his evidence for nine years.

The amicus then addresses the question of Bhatt’s presence at the crucial meeting. The amicus feels that Bhatt’s evidence must stand the test of cross-examination, arguing that ‘the stage for believing or disbelieving a witness arises after trial.’ To dismiss Bhatt would be pre-emptive at this stage, especially as there was no conclusive evidence to prove that he was absent at critical moments. The amicus, seeking to separate the stories surrounding the man from the evidence he might give, appears to be hinting that in law it is the second that counts.

The amicus’ fascination with Bhatt is clear. He states his skepticism about Bhatt and yet recognizes the need to be open in the eyes of the law. Oddly, the overwhelming presence of Bhatt as a case study minimizes the importance of other key witnesses. The registers of the then IGP (Intelligence) Sreekumar, a major witness, are pushed aside by Ramachandran, contending that they are private records. Yet even here the amicus admits that Sreekumar’s integrity is not in question.

The amicus curiae’s report is alert, sensitive to the issues of evidence and witness. But one wishes he had a wider social framework of the event. The Gujarat violence of 2002 was not a spontaneous conflagration. Violence was unevenly distributed across the 26 districts and four commissionerates that constitute administrative Gujarat. In 2002, there was little or no violence in 11 districts. In four districts, the casualties mounted to less than five people. Consider Surat, the second most populous area in Gujarat. In 1992, after the post-Babri riots, the causality rate was around 300. Rape and videography of rape was rampant. But in 2002, there were only seven killings, of which three were stabbings in bye-lanes which police cannot control. A similar situation operated in Kutch under Suresh Mehta, a senior BJP leader. As one observer put it, ‘Kashiram Rana was the uncrowned King of Surat. Rana and Suresh Mehta refused to tolerate violence and today both are in oblivion.’ The nature of evidence demands we understand why violence happens and who allows it. Yet, it is equally important, in an evaluation of violence and responsibility, that we consider those who fight to minimize violence. Such a sensibility is missing both in the SIT report and consequently in the amicus curiae’s observations.

Another shrewd journalist, a historian, felt that the reading of responsibility was still too technical. She cited as an example the case of ministers in the control room. ‘It was seen too clerically. It was not just a question of presence as a form of attendance but the consequences of such a presence, the message it sent, the nature of the impact. The very act of occupying the control room was political and might have cost innumerable lives.’ There is a sanitization of such events.

The historian also raised the issue about appointment of public prosecutors as yet another example. The appointment of many prosecutors with an ideological bias allowed easy anticipatory bail to perpetrators. The historian added that since a report is an act of mapping, the silences in the two reports needed a deeper study. ‘Just think of the destruction of records,’ she said, ‘and the accompanying amnesia of police officials. They carry a magic wand, letting records appear and disappear at will. The amnesia, real and contrived, and the destruction of records need some attention. Justice without memory is incomplete.’

A third observer added that there is a higher and lower octave to the report. ‘Take the initial report of Raghavan and the final SIT report; there is difference in the sharpness of observation. There is a similar difference between the amicus reports of 10th January and 25th July. If you look at the final report the observations are more muted as if searching for a wider consensus. The bite is missing in the reports. There could be an appendix explaining the transition in judgments.’

The responses to the release of the two reports were amazing. Activists and survivors felt a sense of vindication that the debate was still open. The media blurred the ritual avoidance between the two reports, creating a jugalbandi of overlapping readings. Yet, there are still limited but hopeful efforts. The amicus’ report seeks to construct violence along a somewhat narrow grid. Violence is seen as a problem in rule of law. Both reports need a wider anthropology of violence. Nevertheless, by putting all the reports in the public domain and being open to critique, the archives of violence are acquiring a public space to enable people to think through the debate. This might be the great achievement of the investigative battles. The reports become, as it were, small archives of memory, a sliver of hope anticipating the greater insights that might follow.

Shiv Visvanathan


Regional leaders and foreign policy

THE increasing relevance of states in India’s foreign and economic policy was once again reiterated by the fact that a meeting with the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee was part of visiting US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s itinerary. While there is no clarity as to whether the two discussed the issue of FDI and the role of West Bengal in Indo-Bangladesh ties, greater economic engagement between West Bengal and the United States was something both sides agreed on. Last year, during the course of her India sojourn, Clinton had visited Chennai and had a meeting with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa.

This ever increasing importance of states in foreign policy – which is traditionally a preserve of the Centre – is not restricted to India, but in fact has become an important matter of debate in international relations. The concept of ‘constituent diplomacy’ propounded by Robert Kincaid, deals with the phenomenon of ‘international activities of a foreign-policy character undertaken by the constituent governments (e.g., states, provinces, cantons, and Länder) and local governments (mostly municipalities) of federal countries and decentralized unitary states, as well as by citizen organizations and non-governmental organizations.’ Constituent diplomacy cannot be attributed to any one specific factor, but a combination of many. The ever increasing role of states in India’s foreign policy – especially neighbourhood policy – is also a consequence of multiple factors.

The primary reason is the increasing clout of regional parties and regional satraps in coalition governments, a consequence of their ever increasing numbers. It is for this reason that regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), DMK and National Conference (NC) have asserted themselves on foreign policy issues such as the Teesta River Water Treaty, relations with Sri Lanka and the relationship with Pakistan. States have also become important in the context of neighbourhood policy due to the current UPA regime’s concerted efforts on improving relations with its neighbours through increased bilateralism. Serious overtures have been made towards neighbours within the SAARC such as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan and others such as Myanmar – which is outside the SAARC framework. Connectivity with many of these countries through rail and road has naturally increased their relevance.

This focus on bilateralism is a consequence of two realities. First, the South Asian Regional Forum for Cooperation (SAARC) has long been held hostage to bilateral disputes, principally between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, it has not been able to facilitate cooperation between its member states. Apart from this, the organization has been extremely bureaucratic and not really facilitated progress. Second, for giving shape to its Look East Policy and developing closer ties with Myanmar, bilateralism was imperative. As a consequence of this bilateralism, border provinces have become crucial. While some such as Kashmir and Punjab in the West and Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh Mizoram and Nagaland in the East, which share land borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar respectively, have been pitching for closer ties for economic benefits, others such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have been more belligerent and rather than pitching for a better relationship, have got bogged down by local political constraints.

The other important reason for states becoming crucial players in foreign policy is that members of the strategic community and even those in government have begun to realize the importance of these border provinces for greater connectivity within the neighbourhood. This feeling within sections of the government and outside has also increased because of comparisons with China. While in India the borders have been thought of as mere frontiers or outposts rather than bridges or gateways, in China border provinces have been utilized as connectors with neighbours in both East and West.

While there is a definite consensus over the fact that states are beginning to play an important role in India’s neighbourhood policy, chief ministers have not followed any one specific path – some are helping Delhi in reducing tensions with neighbouring countries, while others are not. The role being played by some of the chief ministers and regional satraps, in this process, contradicts conventional wisdom. An in-depth analysis of their role would reveal more than one irony.

First, certain chief ministers who have left no stone unturned in selling the fact that they are pro-business have refrained from making any substantial overtures towards neighbouring countries – even in the economic sphere. One example which clearly stands out is Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, who has been making desperate efforts to improve his anti-Muslim and anti-minority image – without much success – and to become more acceptable, has not made any attempt to come at the forefront of the Indo-Pak relationship. This despite his state sharing a long border with Pakistan and in spite of great potential for businessmen from his state carrying out a significant amount of business with Pakistan through the state’s ports. In fact – at least in the short run – the biggest beneficiary of trade with Pakistan is likely to be Gujarat. Note that the number of commodities being presently traded between Gujarat and Karachi – 5000 – is much more than those traded through the land routes between the Punjab’s, which is 137.

Interestingly, while the US continues to deny Modi a visa, businessmen from Karachi have invited him but not received any response! Significantly, Modi even went with a delegation to China to sell the Gujarat story. Thus, in spite of his political compulsions, it is strange that he does not see any sense in reaching out to Pakistan at all.

His behaviour also challenges the argument that economics is the single-most important consideration for politicians from the right of centre. On the contrary, left governments in the North East have been doggedly pushing for greater interaction between their respective states and neighbouring Bangladesh. One good example of this is the role being played by Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar in pushing for closer Tripura-Bangladesh ties. Sarkar invited the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina to his state in January. The latter was conferred with an honorary degree. In fact, so keen is Sarkar for a better relationship that he even urged Hasina to speak to Mamata Banerjee about the Teesta River water issue so that an amicable solution could be found to the current impasse.

The second interesting aspect is that many allies of the UPA government have taken a contradictory stance, the prominent examples being the TMC in West Bengal and DMK in Tamil Nadu, which compelled the government to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations. The contrary stand taken by allies of the UPA has clearly shown that one of Rafiq Dossani’s arguments, which up until now was a commonly held assumption, in Indian Federalism and the Conduct of Foreign Policy in Border States: State Participation and Central Accommodation Since 1990, was a bit premature. In his study, Dossani stated that, ‘... the passive role of the ruling state parties in Tamil Nadu and Kashmir in Sri Lanka’s and Pakistan’s affairs, respectively, at a time when these parties belonged to the national ruling coalition (1998-2004). Further, during the tenure of the subsequent national government (the Congress-led UPA), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu since 2006, the DMK, has been passive on co-ethnic foreign policy issues. So has the ruling PDP coalition in Kashmir.’

Interestingly, certain governments which are not part of the UPA alliance have supported the government’s overtures toward neighbours – they include the North Eastern chief ministers and Punjab Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, who is a member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). At the inauguration of the integrated checkpost at Attari, for example, Badal urged India’s home minister to ease the visa regime for citizens of both countries in general and the two Punjabs in particular. He also spoke about the need for opening up more trade routes with Pakistan through his state. More recently, his son and Deputy Chief Minister of the state, Sukhbir Singh Badal, urged the central government to allow sale of surplus wheat produce to Pakistan. Of late, even the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is part of the NDA, has been making serious overtures towards Nepal, as was evident from the recently held global Bihar summit in February.

While there can be no single explanation for the above point, it is perhaps political constraints – arising out of public opinion – and the logic of geography along with economic incentives which propel some regional leaders to think beyond their narrow political considerations.

It might be mentioned that in the previous NDA government, the PDP, which was an ally of the Congress, also received support for all its initiatives vis-a-vis Pakistan. The Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus service was conceived by the PDP and received the support of the NDA government. It was inaugurated during the UPA regime though.

Third, one would imagine that regions such as Punjab – which have been witness to a traumatic partition and wars with Pakistan – would be more jingoistic and averse to ameliorating relations with India’s neighbours. On the contrary, Punjab is willing to take a lead role in acting as a bridge with Pakistan. In fact, today if there is anything over which the mainstream parties of Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, are on the same page, it is closer economic ties with Pakistan. Both sides have been pitching for easing visa restrictions and increasing the number of land routes for trade. In this context, the old argument of the pre-1947 generation playing spoilsport in the bilateral relationship is also beginning to lose relevance, as the current Chief Minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, is part of that generation, and was in fact the last Indian to graduate from Lahore in 1947.

In conclusion, one can safely assume that while the role of regional satraps in India’s neighbourhood ties is bound to increase, the actual trajectory is extremely unpredictable – like Indian politics – since they traverse divergent tracks.

Tridivesh Singh Maini


The habit of banning

‘We shall have to pay out in soul value for what we purchase as material advantage.’

– Rabindranath Tagore in ‘The Call of Truth.

THE escalating demand to first censor the cartoon on Nehru-Ambedkar in the NCERT political science textbook, then all cartoons, and finally the whole textbook has all the disturbing elements of a politics of outbidding. It is alarming that an initial claim by one group, that it had been deeply offended by a particular object, soon produced a chorus of rising indignation by other groups not wanting to lose out on the short-term political gains that such outbidding would yield. First one cartoon in the textbook was considered offensive, then all cartoons, then the whole book, and now finally perhaps the whole series of textbooks. Faced with such righteous sentiment, the political authority removed, in summary fashion, the offending object from the public domain without considering, even for a moment, the implications of such removal for our constitutional republic. A cynic may call this ‘textbook’ outbidding.

This demand, across party lines and with near unanimity inside both the Houses of Parliament, for the removal of a 63 year old cartoon from a textbook that had itself been initially reviewed by officials at NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), then peer reviewed by a monitoring committee, and finally by CABE (Central Advisory Board of Education), is a ground for deep concern. Whatever happened to good sense? Where were the elder statesmen who should have counselled calm? Why was there no significant dissent inside a fractured house, where majorities are hard to come by, leave alone near unanimity? Why did no one (except the lone National Conference member) stand up to say that we should refer the concern to NCERT? How come there was no appeal to constitutional values which required that due process be followed since what was at stake was the freedom of expression and censorship? Would not the correct thing to do be to ask the sanctioning authority, in this case NCERT and CABE, to address the claim of offence? Of course, everything is political but surely after 65 years we can hope for a higher level of politics or is this hoping for too much?

Summary action is too summary. It is bad for a constitutional democracy, especially when such action is on the floor of the house. Is the dynamics of our politics producing a divergence between the processes of democracy and our constitutional values? Perhaps we can explore these questions by looking at the history of responses of the Indian Republic to books, plays, films, photos, articles and cartoons that were considered by some to be offensive.

Within four years of the Constitution coming into existence, the satirical version of The Ramayana by Aubrey Menen of Kerala was banned for a few years, when orthodox Hindus, upset by his treatment of the great epic, demanded its proscription because it offended them. This was one of the first instances when the claim of being offended by a book was raised and a demand made that the state take action against the offending material by banning the book. In 1987, the book by Dr Ambedkar, Riddles in Hinduism, published by the Maharashtra government, was banned by the same government that had published it when some Hindu groups raised their opposition to it on grounds that they were offended by it. This action of banning produced a counter claim that the banning had caused them offence and a huge Bheem rally by Ambedkarites on 5 February 1988 was organized to demand that the book be published as part of the Complete Works of Dr Ambedkar.

In 1988 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was not allowed to be imported under section 11 of the Customs Act on the grounds that it was deeply offensive to the Muslim community. India’s action, it is worth noting, taken three months before the fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeni, was the beginning of a worldwide protest against the book. Rushdie had to live in hiding for several years and even today his visits to the country produce controversy, as happened recently during the Jaipur literary festival where he was not allowed to make a public appearance. The demand to ban The Satanic Verses produced a me-too syndrome in 1988, with Christians demanding that the film by Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, be banned because it hurt Christian sentiments. It was banned in some Indian states. In 1996, a movement was launched across the country against M.F. Husain, claiming that his paintings of the Hindu goddesses Durga, Sita, Saraswati and Lakshmi were deeply offensive and that he had done this deliberately. His exhibitions were vandalized, his paintings were withdrawn from the India Art Summit, and cases were filed against him in several courts. As a result, the 95 year old painter, regarded by many as India’s Picasso, had to go into exile in Abu Dhabi. He died in sadness away from his homeland. The chariot of our constitutional order dropped six inches that day.

Another incident of banning, which probably escaped our attention since it was not a high profile case, was the ban in 1998 by the government of Maharashtra of the play Mi Nathuram Godse Boltey which angered Gandhians since it was considered sympathetic to Gandhiji’s killer. In 2000, the film Water by Deepa Mehta on the widows of Varanasi was not allowed to be filmed in the holy city because it was seen as pandering to foreign stereotypes and depicting the holy city in a poor light. In 2004, the scholarly book by James Laine, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India was not only banned because it offended the Marathas but worse, the library of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a treasure-trove of texts on Indian culture, was vandalized because the author had consulted and drawn on the documents in its archive when writing his book.

It is indeed ironic that an institute devoted to studying Indian culture was vandalized by those who felt that Indian culture had been denigrated by the book! The hecklers had established their dominant presence in the public domain and, as a result, censorship and self-censorship as habits of mind have taken hold. A photograph of the head of Dera Sacha Sauda which allegedly portrayed him in a posture similar to Guru Gobind Singh, caused outrage and public disorder. A comment by Khushwant Singh, in his weekly column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’, that Gurudev Tagore was no great writer produced such indignation that he had to express regret. Just imagine! A statement by the Tamil actress Kushboo that premarital sex in Tamil Nadu is not uncommon resulted in such anger that she had to apologize on television for hurting Tamil sentiment.

The preceding potted history of banning books, films, plays and paintings, serves to give us a sense of the practice of banning that has been so readily adopted by successive governments in India. John Stuart Mill, the leading philosopher of freedom, argues in his book On Liberty,that the practice of banning an opinion produces a habit of banning which ultimately results in a weakening of the fabric of society and of the protections that liberty gives.’ This habit becomes the path of least resistance that is adopted by political authority as demands for banning grow louder among a multiplicity of groups – from ethnic to caste to ideological to religious – who claim that they have been offended by a book or a film or a painting or a play. In plural India, the habit of banning has grown and the demand to ban has become more frequent. The threshold at which one is offended has got lower and lower. The polity seems to have lost its core commitment to freedom of expression, a value that 64 years earlier was considered central by the members of that august house, the Constituent Assembly, when they debated it on 1 and 2 December 1948. In the process of allowing this habit of capitulating to the heckler to grow, we have lost the different (perhaps dissenting) opinion that is so vital for our well-being as we ponder the various paths to build a sustainable and decent future. For a political culture to grow more robust, more valuable as a resource for the conflicts inherent in a plural democracy, we need such dissenting opinion, other ways of seeing. The Carvakas and Dara Shikoh would have no place in the politics of contemporary India. Nor would Ambedkar have access to the Buddha to help him challenge Brahmin orthodoxy.

This erosion of our commitment to the freedom of opinion is evident in the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, from the syllabus of Mumbai University when the Shiv Sena demanded that it be removed for offending Marathi sentiment. The deletion from the course material of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’, on the grounds that it hurt Hindu sentiment is yet another illustration of authority, in this case the Delhi University Vice Chancellor, yielding to the heckler. The current debates on the cartoon, and the subsequent demand that all cartoons be removed from the textbooks, is the final confirmation, if one was needed, that we have travelled a long way from those inspiring two days in December 1948 when the Constituent Assembly debated on the right to freedom. Freedom was defended then. It is abandoned now, just as we have abandoned those poor orphans, to be abused and exploited, by the care givers in our protective homes. We seem to be no different from the colonial government that banned Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj because it was said to contain material that was ‘seditious’.

Peter Ronald deSouza

* Views expressed are personal.