My column in today‘s DNA
(outragistan, is a somewhat popular word on social networks – the author did not coin it, but thanks whoever did).
In the last month, the nation, propelled by the ever increasing shrillness of 24 hour news channels, aided by the ever more intransigent nature of protestors, lurched from outrage to outrage. It began with outrage on Yoyo Honey Singh’s concert –making him a household name. The protests had an effect of getting his New Year concert cancelled, but as compensation he became so known, that he was on national television as a featured performer in the finals of a music talent show. Then this was followed by outrage on misogynist statements by relatively obscure political personalities, giving them the kind of publicity that money cannot buy. But the price of this was public haranguing on TV till they apologised. Then there were protests on Ashish Nandy’s statements, followed up by a FIR under the SC/ST Act; outrage on Shah Rukh Khan’s article followed by a lengthy explanation; right wing protests on Pakistani authors visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), that led some to cancel; potential rage on Salman Rushdie visiting Kolkata that led the Mamata Banerjee Government to prevent him. And finally protests by some Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu against Kamal Hassan’s new Tamil Film Vishwaroopam – which has taken a life of its own.
Just as a cycle of protest and outrage dies out, a new cycle of protest and outrage began, the previous outrage forgotten. It is almost as though this has become the Republic of Outragistan. Ask those protesting about what they are protesting about – and they will tell you in all earnestness – against an insult to xyz (where xyz could be religion, language, culture, nation, hero, sentiments, feelings). Most have not even interacted with the objects of their outrage.
Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”. In India, Evil of this nature is triumphant time and again. Opinion is getting stifled, creativity is being suffocated and intellectual and personal liberty are on the line. Organisations with political backing stop couples from cuddling, women from smoking and drinking, films from being released, books from being sold, essays from being taught, paintings from being viewed with rich political dividends. Instead of being arrested for breaching the peace, cultural vigilantes call the shots.
As author Salman Rushdie, no stranger to censorship and an attempt to muzzle his right to express, points out – there is a “cultural emergency” in India , that allows mobs to disrupt the work of artists, writers and film makers. Censorship is being applied in the name of maintaining law and order. And, herein lies the crux of the matter. Law and order cannot be maintained by kowtowing to outrage. Nor is it by giving into the threat of violence. Law and Order is maintained by protecting the rights of the individual against the ire and rage of a group. The more various governments give in, the more they encourage the politics of competitive disruption of society and the attempt to stifle voices. John Stuart Mills puts in words that resonate even today – If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (On Liberty, 1859). In India, the concept of freedom has to move away from placating groups that claim to be offended, to protecting individuals who have the right to offend. That will be the test of Democracy.