The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

by    /  February 15, 2013  / No comments

Recently, the Indian government’s treatment of free speech has resembled Alice’s paradoxical trip down the rabbit hole.

Mad Hatter tea party

In Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland,' everything is topsy turvy. India's relationship with free speech is just as puzzling. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The events affecting the film industry and the press that have been unfolding in India since the end of January closely resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—paradox and illogic are the specials du jour.

For starters, on January 23 the Tamil Nadu state government banned a mediocre film, Vishwaroopam, which was directed by the Tamil superstar Kamal Hassan and may have otherwise gone down in the nation’s cinematic annals as an also-ran, were it not for the scandal surrounding it. Indeed, the critics universally panned the film after the Indian censor board certified its release. In short, Vishwaroopam has all the ingredients of a regular potboiler with thrills and songs, as well as Hassan donning the role of an Indian Muslim intelligence agent who takes on a bunch of Islamic terrorists in New York.

As fantasies go, nothing can beat this particular American dream: Imagine an agent from another country defeating terrorists on American soil while his local counterparts support him from the sidelines. Though, it should be said that this not the first time escapist fare from Indian cinema has taken this route.


'Vishwaroopam' has been banned in certain Indian states due to its depiction of Muslims. Photo: Prachatai.

But apparently some fringe Islamic groups in the state objected to the film’s depiction of Muslims, in particular its portrayal of the terrorists as religious fanatics performing the Namaz. The Tamil Nadu government, headed by the imperial Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, was only too happy to oblige the objecting Islamic groups and ban the film’s release in the state, citing law and order issues. The state courts ratified her decision. A few neighboring states promptly followed suit. Predictably, the whole affair led to an outcry in the media and on social networking sites.

At this point the story might not seem so strange. Of course, usually once the Indian censor board clears a film, filmmakers can breathe a sigh of relief; though this is not the first time the authorities have prevented a film’s release after the censors have given it a green light. What’s puzzling about the whole affair is that Chief Minister Jayalalitha has never been shy of displaying her leanings toward the right-wing saffron Hindu brigade.

She and the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, are a part of a mutual admiration society and make a point to attend each other’s swearing-in ceremony every time they win an election. For the uninitiated to Indian politics, the country saw the worst carnage against Muslims after partition in the 2002 riots of Gujarat when Modi was serving as the state’s chief minister.

That’s why caving to the demands of fringe Muslim fundamentalist groups and banning the film makes no sense. It’s not like Vishwaroopam had anything novel to offer. This isn’t the first time an Indian film has focused on Islamic terrorists nor, for that matter, shown them to be religious.

Earlier films with similar visuals have been met with different kinds of audience reactions, depending on how sleekly they have been made. Some of them, like Mani Ratnam’s Roja, have been national blockbusters while others have been unmitigated disasters.

Still, this rabbit hole goes deeper…

After a week, just as the dust from this entire fiasco was settling down—with the chief minister agreeing to release the film if Hassan and the protesting groups came to a mutual resolution—Salman Rushdie, who was in India to promote the film based on Midnight’s Children, was prevented from entering Calcutta.

Another imperial chief minister, this time from West Bengal, was responsible for the high-handed act. Like Vishwaroopam, Rushdie’s film had been cleared by the Indian censor board and released across the country and there is no lawful reason why the writer would not be able to visit any Indian cities to promote the film. The state of West Bengal has a long liberal and intellectual tradition of supporting freedom of expression. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore hailed from this state and most Indian school kids grow up reading his poem “Where the Mind is Without Fear” as a part of their curriculum.

Nevertheless, the recent incumbent to the chief minister’s chair, Mamta Banerjee, seems oblivious to the West Bengal’s glorious tradition of supporting the arts, literature, and free speech. After coming to power, she famously put a professor behind bars for posting cartoons about her on his Facebook page. She also stormed out of a talk show after accusing a young student of being a “Maoist Rebel” because the student posed a question Banerjee did not like.

Last year, when controversy erupted over Rushdie attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, Banerjee imperiously declared that she would not allow the writer to visit her state. As political analysts noted, this was a weird statement since the city wasn’t on his itinerary at all. This year, however, it was for the promotion of his film, and the autocratic chief minister got an opportunity to keep the author out of her fiefdom, no doubt winning some support from Rushdie haters.

“Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? ‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?’ Alice said aloud.”

Sandwiched between these two events—which have all the requisite elements of a riveting black comedy—the Jaipur Literary festival lived up to its reputation of creating a new controversy every year. Sociologist and psychologist, Ashis Nandy, perhaps the best-known professional from his field in the country, remarked (a tad tactlessly) in a panel discussion that the backward castes in India are the most corrupt in present times. His comment provoked hysterical outrage.

Surprisingly, the first to react was Mayawati—a member of the Dalit community—who was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, until she was voted out because of rampant corruption. In much the same manner as the Queen of Hearts screaming, “Off with your head,” she asked for Nandy’s arrest.

The paradox here is that Nandy has long championed the rights of the lower classes and castes, and his comment was trying to discuss a social construct in India: Corruption seems to be the only leveling factor among different castes and classes. Nandy now has to deal with the collective anger of the lower classes in India and has gone blue in the face trying to show critics all his work in the area of caste and class equality.

Unfortunately these high-profile events managed to overshadow a much more serious aberration. Recently, the state cabinet of Karnataka was finally forced to revoke all of the false criminal cases against the young television journalist Naveen Soorinje, after protests erupted over his arbitrary arrest. Soorinje’s case is representative of all that is wrong in the Indian polity and needs to be shared here.

Last July, a bunch of young men and women were partying in a home-stay resort near Mangalore in Karnataka, when a group of over forty miscreants, owing allegiance to an orthodox Hindu revivalist group, brutally attacked them.

None of the partying youngsters, including the women, were spared from the unprovoked attack. Soorinje, who had prior knowledge of the nefarious plans through of his journalistic sources, was able to capture the incident with his camera. The channel he worked for telecasted the pictures later. But before he did what his journalistic ethics demanded of him, Soorinje tried to get in touch with the police, who ignored his calls.

Karnataka’s ruling party happens to be the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which draws a sizeable chunk of its electorate from orthodox and traditional Hindus. Because the incident had been aired on television (thanks to the intrepid Soorinje), the state’s government was left with no option but to charge the miscreants.

But, in a shocking move, the government found that Soorinje was also culpable in the crime; he was arrested last November and sent to the same jail as the criminals he had exposed until protests compelled the authorities to move him to another facility after three months.

Other journalists from the state went on a hunger strike and demanded the revocation of the charges against him. Activists posted petitions on his behalf on the internet. At the end of January the state cabinet finally dropped all criminal charges against him, paving the way for his release from unjust confinement.

Despite the charges being dropped, Soorinje remains in prison because the Karnataka Chief Minister hasn’t signed the order for his release. Additionally, other lawyers are challenging the court’s decision to drop the charges.

Alice, in her Wonderland, famously expresses her dilemma: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is, wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

This phrase perfectly sums up the Indian political establishment’s uneasy relationship with freedom of expression.

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