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Sunil Sethi: Republic of bad ideas

Change no longer creeps up slowly, it comes on fast in the digital age, when film-goers in Tamil Nadu can log on to see Vishwaroopam

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If you asked many of the thousands thronging the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) last weekend what exactly the row over Professor Ashis Nandy’s comments on was, chances are you would draw a blank. Most people were much too busy plugging into the talk shows, meeting writers, buying books, and enjoying the music and sunshine to bother about which class or caste group was more corrupt than the other. At events as large as JLF, host to a vast number of ideas and issues being vigorously debated, intolerance generally has low street cred. If grievances arising from discussions were to end up in filing of police cases and issuing of arrest warrants, then many of the 300 invited speakers from around the country and the world would as likely have to shut up and go home.

The trouble at JLF really broke out when some journalists tipped off Kirori Lal Meena, the maverick MP from Dausa, over Professor Nandy’s remarks during a discussion titled – ironically, it turned out – “of Ideas”. Mr Meena’s capacity to stir up mischief is legendary; the Rajasthan police and the state’s media are well acquainted with his shenanigans. In 2011 he caused a major ruckus in Udaipur claiming that the city SP had slapped him, when all the police were trying to do was to restrain a protest march that could have turned ugly. He was taken into custody then – not for the first time – but materialised on cue at JLF to lead the aggrieved brigade.

The FIRs against Professor Nandy and the festival producers were filed by another small-time leader, Rajpal Meena, so eager for his own five minutes of fame that he also wanted police action against the popular writer Shobhaa De, who rose to support Professor Nandy. Professor Nandy’s remarks were possibly ill-advised and certainly not supported by facts — but are they so flagrant as to provoke a reprimand by the Supreme Court?

It is not only the good professor who’s up for burning, but the talented filmmaker Kamal Haasan too. The lawful adjudicating body for a film’s release is the Censor Board. If it has cleared Vishwaroopam for public screening, with the board’s chairperson Leela Samson (a person steeped in Tamil culture with many years of service in the state) stoutly defending the decision, why are the government and courts of interfering? There can only be two short answers to the question.

One is the politics of appeasement, pandering to the perceived grievance of a few. The other, amply on display in Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s televised presser, is the endless yearning of political leaders for five more minutes in TV’s hall of fame. Despite their protestations to the contrary, a wag was acidly heard remarking, was the contest between Kamal Haasan and J Jayalalithaa actually about who is the better actor or Bharatanatyam dancer?

Salman Rushdie, of course, has spent so many years bound to the stake that there is something invincibly Phoenix-like about his reappearances, even when he is denied an opportunity to visit Kolkata. It is a measure that will leave an indelible black mark against Mamata Banerjee in a city that prides itself on its intellectual vitality and argumentative addas.

Every five years or so, when elections decide the fate of leaders (or judges face the oblivion of retirement) they may wonder if they lost track of the public pulse. Change no longer creeps up slowly; it comes on fast in the digital age, when film-goers in Tamil Nadu can log on to see Vishwaroopam, when crowds at JLF couldn’t care less about a minor spat over caste and corruption against the larger engagement with the lit fest, or the denizens of Kolkata are denied the chance of a spirited debate with Salman Rushdie.

The problem with legislative and judicial lawmakers in such instances is that they are too thin-skinned, and therefore out of touch with the mood at large. They are representative of the Republic of Bad Ideas.

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