Mitali Saran: Tough job, but somebody's got to do it

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 15, 2013 20:20 hrs

Two weeks ago I wrote that anyone wanting to survive what Salman Rushdie calls India’s “cultural emergency” will have to adopt the brace position — that is, agree to resist what has come to be seen as inevitable and not worth the trouble.

Last week, the Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas did just that. Displaying an exhibition called “The Naked and the Nude — The body in Indian modern art”, when faced with a protest by members of the Durga Vahini – foot soldiers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – they called for police protection, and for regular art viewers to show up.

The protesters turned out to be about 30 very poorly informed people. Some, on the periphery, were under the impression that the exhibition displayed photographs of the Delhi gang-rape victim. These women became very rattled when informed otherwise, and directed questioners to the loudest people closest to the police barricades. Those women said that it was shameful the way women’s bodies were being shown. When asked if they were ashamed of their own bodies they said no, but they weren’t walking down the street naked. When reminded that the paintings weren’t walking down the street naked either, they said it isn’t in our tradition to display naked bodies. When prompted with the place name “Khajuraho”, they hadn’t heard of it. When asked why they just didn’t stay home and tell their families not to see the exhibition, they said that sort of thing was not going to fly. They retreated, in other words, across the belief gap across which dialogue ceases to be useful.

But that’s really all they did. When they got bored of yelling, and felt they’d gotten enough airtime from the media, they left, and the rest of the world got on with viewing the exhibition.

It’s possible that the protest dissipated rapidly because it was, after all, only a bunch of angry women, which never attracts as many eyeballs as a bunch of angry men (which would be, as Nilanjana Roy put it, an interesting case of sexism coming to the rescue of freedom of expression). But it went as protests are meant to go: both sides had their say, and then it ended. You talked as much as seemed to help to understand each point of view, and then you agreed to disagree. Nobody violated the law by getting violent.

Have you noticed how news reports increasingly use the word “protest” along with the phrase “the threat of”? Threat is an odd way for a democracy to view protest. Having the right to be heard is the lifeblood of a democracy. The art gallery has every right to display an exhibition of nudes, and the Durga Vahini has every right to protest that exhibition. The only constraint on doing either is that it must be non-violent. That’s what police presence is supposed to contribute — a neutral party, making sure everyone sticks to the law. In this case the police did their job, unlike the widely reported incidents during protests against Narendra Modi’s address at a Delhi college, in which police personnel taunted and even groped women protesters.

There’s something bizarre going on in a country where threat perception is so high. So high that Facebook “likes” are a threat to security; so high that students protesting misogyny and sexism are water-cannoned; so high that Afzal Guru’s family could not be informed and allowed to see him before his execution; so high that governments regularly shut down the exchange of ideas. The something bizarre is this: our governments act as if they’re actively afraid of their constituencies. As if the greatest threat to India is free Indians.

If we’re looking to be a society in which ideas – old ideas, new ideas, popular ideas, unpopular ideas, iconoclastic ideas, ideas of morality – are given the space to live and breathe, we have to increase our tolerance for difference, partly by pushing back, like the Delhi Art Gallery, against those who insist on homogeneity. We cannot simply throw our hands up and say “it’s too hard”, as we increasingly do. To do that, we would have to renegotiate our idea of India and junk the project of an open society based on freedom twinned with responsibility.

To be the society we claim we want to be, we need not just individual pushback, but government pushback. We need power to be aligned with the idea of India, to believe in that idea. Currently, the situation is even worse than that. It is that every time the government abdicates responsibility for security pre-emptively, it is telegraphing its inability to guarantee the Constitution — in other words, the inability to do its job. That isn’t merely frustrating; it’s simply not an option. If that doesn’t change, the greatest threat to the idea of India will be India’s government.

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