In the meantime Salman Rushdie, who has had to stay away from the Kolkata Book Fair, has declared a cultural Emergency on Twitter. And since he no longer faces financial ruin, or the prospect of losing his home to the all-powerful film financiers of Chennai, Kamal Haasan told Rajdeep Sardesai: “I am a sane man now.” And then he added, significantly: “I was not insane yesterday.”
Yet another crazy big-issue week, in which the media had little appetite for anything but the main course — censorship, well drizzled with hurt sentiments and topped by state complicity. And since TV went hunting for all the usual suspects and thrust a battery of mikes in their face, you had to look for the logo to figure out which channel you were watching.
The TMC MP Sultan Ahmed looked badgered but unbowed as he shouted into many mikes, “Nothing shame, nothing shame, I don’t know, they have taken right decision … In our society, where Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam were born, we don’t believe in this dirty free thinking.” But an unseen reporter wanted him to admit that he was communal. And he was disarmingly honest: “You have come to me as a Muslim MP. Go and ask the state cabinet and the chief minister f you want to hear something different.”
Indeed, that is where the big story lies. As Amit Choudhuri pointed out on Times Now (they spelled his name Amit Chaudhary, north Indian style), “It is disturbing that intolerance is being created where none exists.” An unpredictable general election is in the offing, in which identity politics, both communal and casteist, will be a decisive force. Parties in power are taking out insurance by promoting a culture of complaint, in the hope that vote banks will coalesce.
The politicians aren’t the only people playing safe. The Jaipur police waited patiently to seize the footage in which Ashis Nandy had cracked a black joke which did not go down very well with the dalit political leadership. The timbre of the blackness was much deepened in the echo chamber of TV news, with the same footage ricocheting from channel to channel. The same footage that the police waited eternally to seize was always out there in the ether and on the Internet. You could not possibly switch on the telly without encountering it. You could not elude it by switching channels, unless you fled to Pogo or Disney. It had the viewer well seized.
The Indian police never ask for, request, demand or take. They always ‘seize’. The archaism, suggesting peremptory, imperious force, is a reminder that historically, security was a service provided by thugs and robber barons sanctified by crowns and sceptres. Despite a history of having their way, the police waited for the festival organisers to give them the authorised version of the Nandy tape, suggesting that they wanted to go slow until they knew which way to jump.
Until the election, through the length and breadth of the country, controversies will be industriously manufactured for television out of hurt sentiments. Time to switch off.