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Think piece from India on artistic freedom of expression

6 March 2012


Incidents in Jaipur and in Kolkata, where Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were prevented from participating in a book festival, suggest that Indian publishing will have to adapt its practices to those of the film industry – where Bollywood movies are routinely re-edited to accommodate protests of various kinds – if it is to pitch its tent beside the three-ring circus of the tamasha culture, writes Amitav Ghosh ironically in a blog post about book festivals and artistic freedom of expression. An excerpt:

“Another issue that was brought to the fore in Jaipur and Kolkata is that of the relationship between festivals, writers and the government. Much criticism has been directed at the national and state governments in this regard and much of it is certainly well-directed and well-deserved.
Criticism is vitally necessary if the government is to be prodded into discharging its duties. But it is also important to recognize, I think, that the situation in relation to the freedom of expression today is vastly different from that which prevailed through much of the 20th century when governments were the chief, often the sole, agents in the repression of writers and artists. But states where that is still the case – for example, China, North Korean and Syria – are now the exception rather than the rule.

Elsewhere threats to free speech today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on. These may be ‘non-state actors’ but they can be very effective in limiting the freedom of speech. It might even be said that in India they have succeeded in shrinking the space for free expression to a point where it is not much broader than in China.

The institutions and organizations that represent writers and artists have yet to adapt to this change: the reflexive responses of the 20th century still prompt us to point our fingers first in the direction of the state. But today the role of government is often limited to an insidious collusion with various constituencies. Public pressure and criticism can, and must, be exercised to prevent, or at least impede, this collusion. But beyond that the question will inevitably arise, as it did in Jaipur and Kolkata, of whether the governments of today are even capable of providing the security they once did.

This is a matter of doubt not just in India but also in many wealthy countries. Despite the deployment of enormous resources neither Denmark nor Holland were able to prevent attacks upon artists under threat; in the US a woman who put up a website that was offensive to a religious group was quickly forced to go underground. These countries are heavily and efficiently policed: what are the chances that a country like India would be able to provide effective protection?

(…) As I noted earlier the institutions that are active on freedom of speech issues – PEN for instance – have, for historical reasons, attuned their methods to combating governments. There is certainly a place for this, even now, but today’s battle is not the same as yesterday’s. Unfortunately nobody, so far as I know, has yet found an effective means of countering ‘non-state actors’ – certainly I can’t think of one. The problem is difficult enough to make the business of dealing with governments appear relatively easy. But this is exactly why we need to pay proper attention to it. It is futile to proceed on the assumption that governments alone can provide a solution.



Read more:

Amitav Ghosh’s blog – 6 February 2012:
Festivals and Freedom

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