Intolerance leads to novelist's arrest

BY MELWYN PINTO| IN Media Practice | 08/09/2013
The media's silence in the case against Yogesh Master and the ban on his book 'Dhundhi' is an ominous sign against freedom of expression,

Karnataka probably has the dubious distinction of displaying one of the highest rates of intolerance amongst Indian states, in regards of freedom of speech and expression in literature. As many as five literary works have either been banned or have received flak in the last decade or so from right wing religious fanatics. 

Some of the books that were ordered by the government or courts to be withdrawn from university syllabi or from the market, owing to outcry by such fanatics, include Mahachaitra (a play on the life of Basavanna, a 12th century reformer in North Karnataka) by H S Shivaprakash; Dharmakarana by P V Narayana; Anu Deva Horaginavanu by Banjagere Jayaprakash; Gandhi Bandaby H. Nagaveni.

The latest literary work to meet a similar fate is the 'controversial' novel Dhundhi by Yogesh Master. Master was arrested on August 29 and the sale and distribution of the book has been stayed by an order of the 37th Civil and Sessions judge Mallikarjuna Gowda, following a complaint by Pranavananda Swamy of Hindu Jagaran Vedike and Pramod Mutalik of Ram Sene. 

Yogesh Master was booked under IPC 295 A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 298 IPC (Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feeling). He was granted bail the next day. The case will be heard on September 12 and the injunction directs the plaintiff (OS no 6325/2013) "not to sell, distribute, print and circulate the novel Dhundhi till the disposal of the case pending before CCH 38."

The novel
The mythological novel Dhundhi is about Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. According to right-wing activists, apparently, the novel depicts Ganesh as 'rowdy' and with certain 'objectionable expressions'. The author claims to have done thorough research before writing the book. In fact, several critics have already written about this book, appreciating its literary value. None of them found anything objectionable to slap a ban on it. But, not the right-wing fanatics! They had to find a reason to make sure they made their presence felt even during the Congress rule in the state.

As it happens in most such cases, those who are making a noise about the book have not read it. Some may have read it only in parts and seen a cartoon in the book that seems provocative. The said cartoon has the picture of Lord Ganesh holding several weapons. Apparently, the fanatics found even this very offensive. (That Lord Ganesh himself may not have a problem with this is amply suggested by the varied 'forms' he takes during the annual Ganesh Chaturthi inside innumerable pandals!) 

They also say that the book questions about the birth of Ganesh to Parvathi. Well-known critic and writer Banjagere Jayaprakash, who had himself faced the wrath of such factions for his book, and who spoke about Dhundhi during its release on August 21, says there is nothing to suggest such an idea in the book.

Media's response
What is sad about the entire development is that a section of media, which otherwise goes hammer and tongs to 'uphold' freedom of speech and expression of media, had either no mercy for the novelist or chose to be silent. 

In the eyes of a couple of vernacular news channels and one newspaper at least, he was an offender par excellence. They projected him as a villain out to 'destroy Indian culture'. For the news channels, it was quite a sensational story to be feasted upon for several days and they did not so much worry about issues related to free speech. 

But, sadly, it was obvious from the discussions conducted by anchors that they had not done a fair assessment of the novel. Ironically, it was quite a scene during a panel discussion on TV9 when a scholar on Lord Ganesh, Somayaji, tore the novel Dhundhi as a mark of protest and condemnation. Quite fittingly, activist C S Dhwaraknath who was also present on the panel gathered the torn pages and said he would stick them together. He said books were considered to be goddess Saraswathi in India, and those who tear them with contempt are the same people who had the guts to tear down Babri Masjid.

Kannada Prabha, a Kannada daily, had quite a lot to say about the novel and the novelist. In its report on the arrest of the novelist, the paper already made the judgment that the author had 'hurt the sentiments of Hindus' by writing such a novel. 

On September 1, it carried an interview with Kannada scholar M Chidanadamurthy who does not shy away from his right-wing leanings. As expected, the scholar was at his superlative best in condemning the author and his book. Among other things, he said that in the name of free speech 'prostituting' (vyabhichara) with literature was not warranted. 

But, one expected the interviewer at least to be fair in putting forth literary neutral questions. No, he didn't. Take a look at just a couple of loaded questions: "In the name of freedom of speech and expression, what is the reason behind insulting gods of majority community?" "Isn't there a limit to research and literature? Has the literary field been bankrupt to such an extent as to seek publicity through such controversies and beliefs?" The intention appears to have been only to evoke desired answers.

The paper also published an article by Santhosh Kumar Mehendale on September 2, who argued that authors get away with writing books against Hindu gods. 'Why don't they do research on Allah, Jesus and such other religions?' he asks. Without realising it, he was contradicting himself. For one, the author in the present case, and others in each case in the past did not really 'get away' with anything. They were arrested as a 'reward' for a 'crime' which Mr Mehendale and his ilk thought the author deserved. 

Secondly, the issue is about fairness. The Court will decide if indeed the author has hurt the sentiments of the Hindus. But, media must not condemn the author and his right to express his freedom, without eliciting a debate on the merit of the book.

Sadly, some of the prominent Kannada dailies as well as the local English ones have not been forthcoming in discussing the issue. Except for reporting the arrest of the author, their palpable silence is not very encouraging. Perhaps they haven't read the book either! 

But the arrest of the author without a fair assessment of his literary work should have been taken cognizance of by the media. The media has the moral responsibility to uphold freedom of speech and expression. The arrest of the author sets a bad precedence for the future of creative literature, held to ransom by an intolerant fringe group.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More