Utpal Borpujari

April 19, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: Freedom of expression, anyone?

By Utpal Borpujari

This is the Rongali Bihu season, and the whole of Assam is under the spell of a joyous mood. It is also the time when everyone would be proudly wearing his or her Assameseness / ethnicity on his/her sleeve. Intellectuals and cultural personalities, inaugurating Bihu-related events, would be proudly – and rightly – be proclaiming how colourful and diverse our culture is. And, of course, everyone would be posting Bihu-related photos on their Facebook page. But no one would remember that less than three weeks before the Assamese New Year celebrations, a shameful chapter was written in Assam’s cultural history – and more shamefully, the state government played a co-conspirator’s role in it.

Yes, I am referring to the forced cancellation of the staging of the comedy play “Mahabharator Bhool” (The Mahabharat’s Mistake), written by Tarun Saikia, in what is probably the first-ever example of moral policing in the cultural arena of the state by a bunch of self-styled protectors of religion and culture who are unlikely to have any idea about the content of the play. Of course, the issue is not about the content of the play, but about freedom of artistic expression and also of the administration’s duty to safeguard that right. Unfortunately, the administration itself played a partner in this crime by promptly withdrawing permission to stage the play by the Rongmahal theatre group from Nagaon.

The sequence of events went like this roughly – Rongmahal was scheduled to stage the play at Guwahati’s Rabindra Bhavan, the state cultural affairs department-owned auditorium, on March 31. But the ‘guardian’ of Hinduism, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) whose only calling card in last so many years has been moral policing, objected to the name of the play, saying it was against the dignity of the great epic. The department, according to news reports, facilitated a meeting between the playwright/director of the play and VHP representatives, following which the name of the play was changed to “Bholanathar Sapon” (Bholanath’s Dream). This too was objected by another group of VHP activists and the Sattra Mahasabha. And the department withdrew the permission to stage the play, citing possible law and order problems.

Now, organisations like VHP exist across religions and they, in the name of protecting their respective religions, indulge in such cheap publicity-seeking activities. Such groups, claiming to represent the respective religions whose values they claim to protect from any dilution or pollution, playact the role of moral guardians of the society mostly to get publicity in media that are over-eager to give space to them for the sensationalistic value that coverage of such events have. I am sure those who raised the protests are not even aware of the content of the play and decided to criticise it simply because the title of play implied that there was a ‘mistake’ in Mahabharat. These are the organisations that would force an artist like M F Hussain to leave the country or an author like Salman Rushdie to call off his participation in a literary festival or a filmmaker to delete scenes that, according to them, might offend sensibilities. It is their way of existing in public consciousness. Therefore, the issue is not about VHP or any other group indulging in activities like the one related to “Mahabharatar Bhool”. Incidentally, it is also curious that the objections came only when the play was to be staged in Guwahati, while it has been staged earlier in places like Tezpur and Nagaon. Perhaps, the fact that various TV channels and newspapers of the state are headquartered in Guwahati was a factor here.

The issue is more about the state government’s complicity in this assault of freedom of cultural expression. Just at the whiff of a threat, that too from an organisation that has mostly noise value, the cultural affairs department became so worried about the possibility of law and order situations that it cancelled the permission for the staging of the play. And it is the same state government that would bring out all security paraphernalia if an organisation like the ULFA calls for a ‘bandh’ against say the Prime Minister’s visit to the state but would still go ahead with the official programmes scheduled for him. Now, of course, it would be too much to expect any government to give the same level of importance to the Prime Minister’s visit and the mere staging of a play by an amateur theatre group. But the fact of the matter is that it is the government’s duty to protect the right to freedom of expression of every individual, big or small. Cultural affairs director Madhurima Barua has been quoted saying that the permission to stage the play had been cancelled because of the possibility of potential law and order situation.

“We received complaints regarding the play that it might hurt sentiments of Hindu religion. We work for healthy culture and the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium is for meaningful theatre. We cannot allow staging of something that might lead to controversy at the venue,” she said. Now the question is, was there any input from security agencies if there could actually be a law and order situation, beyond maybe a few slogan-shouting gatecrashers who could easily have been kept at bay keeping in view the cultural centre’s secured entry-exit points? Or, was it that the department chose to just take the easy way out, thus giving legitimacy to a fringe group’s demands? Was there any independent assessment that the play “might” hurt Hindu sentiments? If Hindu sentiments had been hurt, there would have been definite objections raised during or after the earlier stagings of the play, common sense says. The director also very interestingly has been quoted as saying that Rabindra Bhavan is meant for “meaningful theatre”. Did the department find out that the said play was not meaningful only after VHP and the Satra Mahasabha raised objections? If it was not meaningful theatre, why the department had given the permission in the first place? The play’s director Pabitra Pran Sarma has been quoted saying that the name of the play had been changed “acting upon VHP’s complaint and cultural affairs’ insistence”, following which “we had in fact changed the name of the play to Bholanathor Hapon under protest”.

Going by it, it seems the department was more eager to please VHP than protect the rights of a theatre group of the state. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered. Come to think of it, we have a government of the Congress party that is ideologically opposed to the philosophy propagated by organisations like VHP. But then, the Congress, while parroting the cause of secularity ad nauseum at every possible platform, is also known for not taking any strong measures against such religious rabble-rouser lest it upsets what it perceives as its vote banks. As a reporter covering the All India Congress Committee (AICC) for several years spanning the NDA and UPA governments, this writer was witness to Congress spokespersons during the NDA regime demanding a ban on VHP for exactly this kind of activities. I particularly remember how once the then AICC spokesman, and now union commerce minister, Anand Sharma had displayed at the regular media briefing what he claimed were sharp weapons being distributed by VHP to its workers in some parts of the country, and demanded an immediate ban on the Sangh Parivar organisation. Like any other such demands that parties raise for the sake of attacking those with differing political views, that demand was promptly forgotten once the NDA paved the way for the UPA at the Centre in 2004.

The point actually is also not about the Congress being in power – for any political party, protecting cultural freedom comes as a last priority unless they see some political mileage about it (note the absolute silence from all political parties in Assam about this case of moral policing). But strangely, apart from individual cultural personalities and amateur theatre groups, there has not been a murmur of protest against this first-time extra-constitutional censorship in Assam even by organisations like the Assam Sahitya Sabha or popular, mass-based Bhramyoman theatre groups, or by the ‘Jatiya Sangathans’ like the All Assam Students’ Union or the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, even though this is a clear attack on Assamese culture. By not taking a stand against this incident and thus failing to create an effective mass movement against such intolerance, all of them have lost an opportunity to once again highlight the spirit of tolerance that Srimanta Sankardev had so thoughtfully propagated while culturally uniting all the ethnic communities of the state. Probably, we are better off being only ‘Bihu Boliyas’ – people who go crazy, even if metaphorically, during the spring festival – without actually respecting our own culture. And don’t be surprised if this is taken as an example by other such fringe groups to become selfstyled moral police of the society, every time in indirect connivance of a pliable government.

(Published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 18-04-2012)



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