23.1.13

A cop, a poem and redefining freedom

Why do we protect the freedom of literature and the arts and deny the same to others, even if they might use a similar creative medium or idiom?

Salman Rushdie said in an interview:

“I really worry about how it’s become so easy to attack books, movies, paintings, works of scholarship there have been so many attacks in recent years. That trend worries me a lot. It’s partly driven by expediency. It’s easier to stop something than defend its right to happen. The police tend to blame the writer, painter, filmmaker for being a trouble-maker, rather than defend them against the actual trouble-makers creating threats, sometimes violence. I worry we’re getting things upside down – were not defending what we need to defend.”

Is there some sort of hierarchy where only a bound work of writing or a framed painting on canvas can claim legitimate freedom? There is a rich oral tradition where stories could well have undergone much change along the way, with different versions depending on who was relating them. These formulated new myths. Then, there is a thriving culture of graffiti art, slam sessions, stand-up comedy.

They are live and not likely meant to become history, although given the short attention spans today this is probably how history will be recollected – a sum of jokes, scrawls on walls and the sound of a verse slammed into our consciousness.


Azad Maidan rally

Where does a cop’s poem figure in this narrative? Her target was Muslims who held a rally in August last year against minority killings in Myanmar. It had turned violent. Her poem got into trouble; she has now apologised. The report in TOI states:

Traffic police inspector Sujata Patil has apologized for writing a hate poem that was published in the Mumbai Polices bulletin, Sanwwad. The poem, which had left the city police red-faced, had termed the Azad Maidan protesters as traitors and snakes and suggested that the rioters should have been gunned down.

In her apology she writes, “My poem was about crimes against women. I have written my feelings about atrocities against women. My intention was not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments.”

No liberal would sympathise with her. The reason would be that it is hate speech directed against one community, a group. Here is one bit: “Had we cut off their hands nobody would have complained. We feed milk to the snakes and then talk of harmony.” Should we treat her words in literary or political terms, when politicians resort to such language often? This is a rhetorical query, for the expression of freedom can never be absolute. It is relative to a situation and relies on a mindset. In that sense, it is reactionary.

However, if we apply a certain standard for this cop, then we need to introspect about other forms of expression too. The argument proffered by writers and artists is that there cannot be such shackles on creativity. A work of writing or painting is not geared to incite hate. But, does it not?

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticised for its ‘tolerance of torture’. Its director Katherine Bigelow giving her version said:

"But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen."

Unfortunately, the reaction goes beyond the torture as expressed by some viewers:

Snapshots of responses

These are reflexive responses and might not have a long-lasting impact.

The cop’s poem would have reached all the police stations and a force of 44,000, which is often a lot more than the number of copies most books sell. However, due to the media attention it got for its ‘hate-filled’ message, it reached many more people. So, who should be censored and censured here – the poet-cop or the newspapers and television channels?

A pertinent point here is that, like political hate speech, this poem could influence the police. It is a known fact that there are a number of cops who are biased, to begin with.  The poem is not merely a creative work; it is an expression of just such a preconception. Let us begin with the premise that we are all prejudiced in some way. How do we judge the impact of what we express? Does self-censorship not contradict artistic license? Is there a simple yardstick for all of us to follow across cultures?

And, on a larger scale, the question is: should individual expression not be used as a standard collective opinion? Undoubtedly, it ought not to. Individual creativity may be influenced by the environment, but it gets filtered through an intricate process between subject and response. Yet, fairytales too can be analysed for political meanings. It is a minefield and reality is perception here.

Therefore, much of the symbolism may not register as creatively as it was meant to be expressed. It will be read in a soap-box scenario. What does one do, then?

The Jaipur Literary Festival is once again in the news, and not for books. The rightwing RSS does not want Pakistani writers to be allowed to participate. Just the other day, the country’s hockey players were sent off home. The reason this time is that earlier in the month there was a firing incident across the ceasefire line at the border in which two Indian soldiers were killed, their bodies mutilated. Much has been written about it, including an Indian armyman’s denial. While this sparked off varied emotions, from anger to remorse to schizophrenic talk of war and peace among political parties and civilians with social network accounts, it did not stop diplomatic ties.

The Hindutva groups are using nationalism as their calling card. It really is an assertion of their political credo. Is it any different from last year when some Muslim organisations protested against Salman Rushdie’s participation? There was devious literary politics at the time. He was to read from Midnight’s Children and not The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Who started the fire? Why did four authors read excerpts from the banned book when it was not on the agenda? Was it an act of rebellion or a marketing strategy that got the festival a whole lot of additional publicity?


The caption on NYT: Crowds at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.

I say this because the New York Times piece on this year’s festival shows a photograph from last year. In the foreground is the back of the head of a skull-capped man, an unmistakable reminiscence. A ghost that will transmogrify into another demon, with another set of strictures.

Despite my love for words and art and all things creative, I do believe that the artiste cannot and does not live on an island. If we wish to show the mirror to society, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that it also holds our own reflection.

I do not like what the cop wrote. I do not like what some authors write. I understand symbolism. There is a difference between the two. In intent and expression. But the cop, crossing all boundaries, is the pariah here in the elite and rarefied world of arts. A litterateur who might milk tragedy, and agitate about being beaten by the system, by fundamentalists, by riots, and probably write such angry, hateful words would continue to be the pampered poodle. This I do not understand.

Those who claim to fathom nuances seem to selectively miss out on these layers.

© Farzana Versey

13 comments:

  1. " A work of writing or painting is not geared to incite hate. But, does it not?"

    FV,

    Just because religious conservatives have a thin skin does not mean the writing was geared to inspire hate. Anyone who pretends that it is the writers fault when violent people go on a rampage, is also pretending that they know where the line can be drawn between "being offended by hate speech" and "just being offended because of a thin skin", while ignoring that the real problem here is not the speech but the ensuing violence by persons claiming to be "offended".

    The odious first amendment to the Indian constitution (put in there by the $%^$%#^er Nehru) will be the death of us all...from the competitive intolerance that is now on the rise.

    This rise is ably supported by people who pretend to be liberal while supporting religious fundamentalists and their bigotry/intolerance in the name of secularism, and the action then mirrored by their political adversaries. Republic day, my foot.

    -Al

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  2. FV,

    Underneath all the verbal posturing, you seem to be saying, "Limits of freedom of expression should be decided by the largest and most violence-prone mob".

    Would certain freelance journalists like to be at the receiving end of their hurt feelings? Even without the courtesy of being offered an explanation as to what was hurtful and how?

    Would freelance journalists like to go to jail for their own safety?

    If not, we (all!) should avoid qualifying or undermining such examples.

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  3. I may not agree with a word you say but I shall to the very end defend your right to say so....the right to say....not to force it on me....or ask me to like it....or accept it....I wont and I cant but yes you have the right to say whatever you want and I have equal right to reply to u....equal rights to all

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  4. Al:

    Just because religious conservatives have a thin skin does not mean the writing was geared to inspire hate.


    Agree with the basic premise. But anyone can have a thin skin. Religious conservatives have different issues and they are easier to fight. What about those not objecting due to faith? Why, writers and artists too have a thin skin and have in the past objected to works by their contemporaries based on 'aesthetics' and vulgarity.

    Then, there are protests based on political ideology, in which activists actively participate.

    We had the case of the cartoonist a while ago. Many from the fraternity too objected.

    These acts may not lead to violence, but I see violence in the larger context of how it affects the mind too.

    The "liberal pretence" is not always bad, unless it is opportunistic.

    PS: Am glad you did not spell it as 'sikular' or some such :)

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  5. F&F:

    What the heck are you talking about? If you have problems reading long pieces and seeing them in perspective, then don't.

    Would some commenters like yadda-yadda...? I mean, give it a break. I am comparing two standards for two different kinds of people and am in fact asking whether the cop should be judged in literary or political terms. If you have something to add to this, go ahead. Mere drum-beating is pretty useless.

    - - -

    Anon:

    So, you are now writing as Anon? Good.

    Yes, this I have a right thing has been quoted often enough...but when you say:

    I have equal right to reply to u....equal rights to all

    Rights cannot be measured on a scale in one space. If we take this space, then it is first to express my opinion. Then, you come in to express yours - it may be additional input or a reply. I have the right not to publish your reply if it crosses my standards. You may have problems with my standards, but then that's your problem.

    However, you do have access to your own space to express your opinions, which may be contrary to mine. In that sense it becomes an 'equal' right.

    Hope I have made myself very clear.

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  6. FV: "What about those not objecting due to faith? Why, writers and artists too have a thin skin and have in the past objected to works by their contemporaries based on 'aesthetics' and vulgarity. "

    If their imaginary pretend friends are being insulted, then they can write against it -- there cannot be a law that makes insulting faiths a crime, like it exists in this worthlessly decrepit Republic. The ersatz liberal crowd thinks insulting some faiths are verboten but not others, never mind all faiths are just psychotic delusions where stories are given life by the imagination and a cult of people with the same delusions start to believe that they are special because their imaginary friend is the best in the universe.

    The worst affected by "faith" think that a group of people having the same pretend friends must be defended to the death, and as we are seeing, murder and violence comes easy to such psychotic people, no matter who their imaginary friend is.

    I never use the moronic word "sickular" as I believe in the concept of secularism. Secularism has nothing to do with any of this moronic nonsense arising from Faith and Religion -- secularism is just religion-agnostic governance. It has just been redefined by the ersatz liberals in India for political reasons to mean "respect for all religions" (as spelt out in the worthless constitution).

    -Al

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  7. Hi Farzana,

    In response to one of the anons (uncanny how you can tell the newer anons apart from the more . . . well, "seasoned" anons, lol), you wrote:

    >>Hope I have made myself very clear.<<

    I think you have -- and I think Al touched on it in a previous post. The practice you've outlined with respect to your site is not any different than what comedians do when confronted by someone rude in the audience (a.k.a., a heckler): 1) ignore them, 2) put them in their place with a witty repartee, and/or 3) if continuing to be obnoxious, have them ejected by the club's management. An occasional outburst from audience members is tolerated -- indeed, may contribute to the experience -- however its generally understood folks are there to see and hear the entertainer's performance, and not the performance of a "boor" in the audience. In a more pedestrian setting (albeit no less specialized in terms of content sought for), folk may simply be out for a walk, to enjoy the scenery, the birds, the flowers, a barge floating down a watercourse without undue molestation by mime, organ-grinder, snake-charmer or any other sort of street entertainer/performance artist as might be an unwelcome distraction. In many venues, such entertainments are licensed, with certain restrictions as to hours, location and behaviours regulated. Back in the day, travelling entertainers performed *first* before the local authority before they were given leave to ply their craft among the community. Of course, it goes without saying not all citizens were as charmed by what may well have met with the authority's standards (thus, certain entertainments were more exclusively engaged).

    "Free speech" or "expression" as you suggest, Farzana, has never well and truly been free, save that -- even in democracy (or Republic), so called -- we are "free" to reap the consequences (applause *or* censure; reward *or* penalty) of our words -- of our performances -- however ill-intended *or* well-meant. Socrates is reported to have been made to drink poison for his impiety (literally or figuratively, the act one way or another underscored the fact that his means for a living had been cut-off by the principals at Athens -- and at the behest, perhaps, of his competition in the philosophy biz). Jezebel arranged for Naboth (who had refused to sell his patrimony) to be accused of blasphemy so that she might seize his vinyard on her husband, the king's, behalf.

    >>If we take this space, then it is first to express my opinion . . .<<

    Your standards have been amply demonstrated to include publishing such inputs or replies as may be seen critical -- even in the pejorative sense -- of your own viewpoint. Thus, for what it's worth, you have acquired a certain credibility of confidence (indeed "faith") in my book -- even though it may seem at times that Shri Modi and his boosters get on your nerves.  :)

    Mark

    Ps. Do you suppose Al has noticed the largely secular expressions erupting in the world of sport -- lately in Port Said? Doubtless these sort of competitive tamashas and their "heros" -- their special, "imaginary friends" -- (also in Europe and elsewhere) don't really compare to . . . ah, "religious" ones?

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  8. mstaab:"Ps. Do you suppose Al has noticed the largely secular expressions erupting in the world of sport -- lately in Port Said?"

    FV, mstaab, having paid close attention -- the so-called "spring" started as a progressive movement with the aid of feminists and progressive, and was quietly hijacked by the religious bigots in the Janus-faced Muslim Brotherhood, and once Mubarak was out of the way, they just overrode the women with violence and abuse with the backing of the army, and we have the islamic bigots in charge now. So other than the initial uprising that was genuine, it was religious bigots in the MB and the Egypt army all the way.


    " Doubtless these sort of competitive tamashas and their "heros" -- their special, "imaginary friends" -- (also in Europe and elsewhere) don't really compare to . . . ah, "religious" ones?"

    Nothing fun about these "tamashas", when they get people incarcerated or killed for speaking their mind -- despicable acts of regressive bigotry is what they are, make no mistake.

    Well, sometimes imaginary friends like Karl Marx or Stalin can cause just as much damage as imaginary friends that do not exist....when the theology is in place and easily available/accessible, it is a lot easier to understand how "nice, loving, and kind" said imaginary friends can be :-) .....except when said believers in imaginary friends feel the need to defend their tribe with violence and mayhem, as it happens often in India, and other places with weak governments.

    -Al

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  9. mstaab:"Free speech" or "expression" as you suggest, Farzana, has never well and truly been free, save that -- even in democracy (or Republic), so called -- we are "free" to reap the consequences (applause *or* censure; reward *or* penalty) of our words "

    FV, mstaab, I agree with the above sentiment that free speech, when intended to cause harm to specific persons, is illegal in most republics. People can and do sue in civil courts for slander and misrepresentation of views -- so in that sense, there is a consequence for abusing this right provided in (some) constitutions. However, when an individual speaks against the crowd, it is the individual that needs protection, not the crowd, as is the case with the Indian constitution's first amendment.

    Of course, in India's case, the court system is so dysfunctional that suing in court is pointless, unless the plan is to have one's grandchildren show up in the court when (and if) the court ever addresses the complaint -- I am sure it is an open secret that the backlog in the courts are somewhere on the order of a few million cases pending to be heard.

    Instead of changing the rules of appointment etc. to fix this broken court system, the constitution is amended to criminalize speech -- the easy way out....but it brings India closer to "Chinese democracy" than the ideal of existing free republics that enforce both free speech and prosecution of abuse of free speech in specific contexts in a timely manner to keep such abuse in check.

    -Al

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  10. Hi Al,

    >>. . . having paid close attention -- the so-called "spring" started as a progressive movement with the aid of feminists and progressive . . .<<

    Eh? And here I was under the impression the so-called "spring" started with a fruit vendor setting himself on fire after a policewoman confiscated his prospects for a meagre living, and then added insult to injury with a slap. The fruit vendor's act seemed to resonate with a whole host of others throughout Tunisia (and Egypt) similarly frustrated by their government.

    If there was any hijacking, Al . . .

    As to my comment on Port Said, the riots there last year *started*, as I understand it, as a tamasha between boosters of opposing sports clubs (a none-too-unusual occurance in sport, to include in Europe and elsewhere, as you well know, AI). Certainly, when word got out, others -- government *or* multi-faceted opposition -- may have sought to opportunistically co-opt the fracas unto their own ends vis-a-vis the "spring" . . .

    Farzana wrote:

    >>I do not like what the cop wrote. I do not like what some authors write. I understand symbolism. There is a difference between the two. In intent and expression. But the cop, crossing all boundaries, is the pariah here in the elite and rarefied world of arts. A litterateur who might milk tragedy, and agitate about being beaten by the system, by fundamentalists, by riots, and probably write such angry, hateful words would continue to be the pampered poodle. This I do not understand.<<

    And concludes with, "Those who claim to fathom nuances seem to selectively miss out on these layers." I was merely including sport as one of those layers, with sports heros -- secular "role models" and/or "gods" -- "invisible friends," by any other name -- alternately loved or hated depending on whatever side the supporter comes down on. "Pampered poodle" works just as well, particularly when there are so many "authoritative" voices, so called ("friends" and lovers), speaking for the pooch.

    I am gratified, Al, that you agree with my above "sentiment" on free speech. Perhaps you will also agree that part of the consequence we reap from our words, from our performances, whether ill-intended or well-meant, is how another may choose to mis-characterize them? Wittingly or no? And, given a platform for those mis-characterizations, prompt the need for government "protection" and or intervention?

    Where do these "platforms" come from? Who or what privileges and/or amplifies these "sentiments"? Who or what privileges and/or amplifies these "performances" -- to include certain more secular -- temporal -- worldly -- sports performances in addition to art, so called? Take, for example, the London Olympics . . .  : )

    Mark

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  11. mstaab:"As to my comment on Port Said, the riots there last year *started*, as I understand it, as a tamasha between boosters of opposing sports clubs"

    Ah, thanks, I was not aware. I was not paying attention to sports in Egypt (or anywhere, as a matter of fact)..so misunderstood you remark on Port Said to be related to the "spring". Mea Culpa, etc. Well, Soccer is a religion to some people, no? ;-)

    -Al

    PS: Did not mean to distract from your point....indeed it started with the fruit seller setting himself on fire and ably hijacked/crushed by regional powers (and their international friends).

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  12. mstaab: "Perhaps you will also agree that part of the consequence we reap from our words, from our performances, whether ill-intended or well-meant, is how another may choose to mis-characterize them?"

    mstaab, my point is that any alleged mischaracterization can be challenged in court by the individual or group claiming to be mischaracterized. It is not acceptable that such mischaracterization result in a official response from the organs of the state...that is what the Chinese communist party does when it gets insulted. One would think free republics have higher standards of "freedom" in such things.


    "And, given a platform for those mis-characterizations, prompt the need for government "protection" and or intervention?"

    That is quite alright if the government in question is run by a despot or a dictatorship -- that is not acceptable in an alleged free republic, especially when said "mis-characterized" group/individual has the choice to officially involve the state in a civil lawsuit to defend itself against any such mis-characterzation. Not much of a difference between supporting the above view and cheering on regressive authoritarian governments that clamp down on "bad speech that causes social disharmony" -- a regular occurrence in communist dictatorships and theocratic states from what I can tell.

    -Al

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  13. Al,

    Whatever the form of government, the law must at least provide for the appearance of *some* recourse to justice for the individual. What that *some* is depends on what the citizenry will countenance before revolting (revolt and its concomitant anarchy a form of collective suicide not unlike -- in spirit if not in letter -- to farmer suicides). Perhaps their grandchildren will have a better system (briefly) before the cycle begins again. With a current backlog of some million-plus cases, as you suggest (and with the lakhs upon lakhs of rupees additional judges, their staff, investigators, facilities, etc. would require hardly forthcoming -- and the alternative "streamlining" of cases calling into question the thoroughness of jurisprudential deliberation), it may well be that present day litigants ought be content with what future satisfaction as *may* be forthcoming to their grandchildren . . .

    Point being, rhetoric aside, there are no guarantees -- so called "rights" are abridged and/or dispensed with as expedience dictates. It is expedient, is it not, for the state to maintain order (a.k.a "stability")? It is expedient, is it not, for the state to calculate the relative consequence to order/stability as may arise in finding for one at the cost of another? It is expedient, is it not, for the state to travel the path most accommodating of order? This would seem to describe what you suggest as "the Indian constitution's first amendment."

    I would suggest the Indian constitution merely codifies what other governments obscure with rhetoric and legalese. :)

    Thus, according to one pithy parable drawn of religious tradition:

    . . . There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. (Luk 18:2-5)

    One might consider, Al, that the "widow" in this instance represents a type of litigant, not necessarily a gender.

    M.

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