“Their threats chill free speech”

Salil Tripathi on the Shiv Sena’s book-banning campaign-

Mistry’s is not the only novel to show Mumbai’s parochial patriarchs. Earlier this year, Murzban Shroff, coincidentally another Parsi author, faced a lawsuit from an activist called Vijay Mudras, who was upset that a character in one of his stories referred to Marathi-speaking people as ghaatis. Shroff’s collection of stories has been widely acclaimed—it was called Breathless in Bombay, but it was disliked by the mindless and mirthless in Mumbai.

Shroff didn’t think poorly of Marathi-speakers—a character in his story did. If all characters in every work of fiction are to behave impeccably, what will become of our epics? Will the Mahabharata be withdrawn because Duryodhana asks Dushasana to drag Draupadi by her hair? Doesn’t that scene humiliate women and glorify violence against women?

The views of a character are not the same as those of the author. This was the point deliberately misrepresented during The Satanic Verses saga, where the Ayatollah declared a fatwa on Salman Rushdie who had written about the hallucinations of a character losing his mind, imagining that he was founding a great religion.

Hindu nationalists get riled when they are compared with Muslim leaders declaring fatwas. But the difference between those who want Such A Long Journey or Breathless in Bombay banned and the clerics who hate Rushdie—and the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten—is marginal. Their threats chill free speech.

What if the views of a character were those of the author? Even that doesn’t give philistines the right to ban what they don’t like, or to attack the author.

The problem is, even if India fixed article 19(2) of the constitution and scrapped the laws related to libel, the chilling effect will not disappear. The mere threat of physical violence, time and place unspecified, is enough to silence a vast majority of people who would rather stop speaking than stop living. It takes just one “example,” like Theo van Gogh. To paraphrase a line from Body Snatchers that expresses the sentiment quite well, “Where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere….”

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