Why CBFC has an issue with Amartya Sen saying 'Gujarat' or 'cow'

Beeping out phrases from documentary on the Nobel laureate betrays Hindutva’s inferiority complex.

 |  Angiography  |  8-minute read |   12-07-2017
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The book The Argumentative Indian is a 2005 compilation of essays by the Nobel laureate and welfare economist Amartya Sen. Times were different then, and a new optimism had spread through India, in which nationalism was a word less maligned and less tethered to the stick of Hindutva as it is now.

The nationalists then were busy talking of “crossover culture”, India’s “soft power”, “secular democracy” and the Global South, even as Sen was gently pointing them to the history of argumentativeness within India, the longstanding culture of dialogue, the “many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints”.

But that was 2005, still scarred by the memory of 2002, but healed somewhat by 2004, in a rejection of a blatantly sectarian worldview and the attempted imposition of Hindutva homogeneity on our collective imagination.

Sen’s idea was about mainstreaming nuance and dialogue in such a way that no one felt left out of the “mainstream”, which should be a multi-stream ideally, taking along everyone.

This is what is the bedrock of Sen’s welfare economics as well, as he looked at “capability building” linked not just to spending power or higher wages, but to social circumstances, health, education and an all-round socio-economic helping hand from the state.

However, The Argumentative Indian that is the headline-hogging subject of the day isn’t the book itself, but a documentary on Sen, directed by filmmaker and academic Suman Ghosh.

Ghosh has been asked by the censor board in Kolkata to remove certain words uttered by Sen during his interviews, lectures and talks which have been filmed for a period of time by Ghosh. Those words include “cow”, “Hindutva view of India”, “Hindu India”, “Gujarat”.

As reported by The Telegraph first and followed up by other news outlets, Ghosh remains steadfastly committed to creative self-expression, refusing to beep out the words which the CBFC wants muted, while braving the fact that the documentary would not see a release in Kolkata this weekend.

Ghosh intends to fight the good fight and not take it lying down, while Sen, reminding us once again of the good old tradition of dialogic freedom, has, in fact, asked for conversation on the issue.

Ghosh said that the members of the CBFC scrutinised “every single shot”, and he was “verbally told” to mute the words. He’s waiting for a written communication, but has already refused to do the bidding and taken the help of the still sympathetic sections of media to spread the word. 

That said, and the ensuing storm over the censorship notwithstanding, what is the larger lesson from the now routine attack on freedom of speech, not just in the present, but also speeches that were uttered in the past?

Why is the censor board, which acts like a handmaiden of the BJP/RSS regime, so ashamed of the very foundations of its twisted worldview that the mere mention of words, which should ideally fill them with pride, fill them with dread, as they rush to mute every utterance that uses those words but in a manner that tears apart their flowery fraudulence of Hindutva glory, which they want enshrined?

sencow_071217052537.jpgAmartya Sen cannot say 'cow.' (Image: DailyO)

It is interesting that the reason why the CBFC wants those words removed is given as the “present political climate in the country”.

While the words to be muted occur in an interview of Sen by fellow economist Kaushik Basu, the conversation on the Hindutva politics cannot be expected to not have references to the cow, Gujarat, Hindutva view of India, etc because that’s exactly the premise on which the BJP/RSS are building their empire of communalism and hatred.

This is why they are afraid of being exposed to a global audience, when Sen says the following:

“Now a lot of people would disagree with my view of India.... Whenever I try to take this rather grand view of India, which is not the banal Hindutva view of India, whenever I make a statement, I know the next morning I will get 800 attacks on social media of four different kinds.... I can see there is an organised attack (by a particular political group).... Now the main thing is not to be deterred by it.”

Sen undercuts the BJP/RSS version of India as “banal”, which is to say it’s inadequate, perfunctory and downright fraudulent.

It’s absolutely antithetical to the empire of fear to be given the sobriquet “banal”, because the last thing the Hindutva camp led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the minions in the Sangh Parivar would want to be associated with is the banal, the ludicrous, the laughable.

The banality of Hindutva, despite its martial aspirations and its proclivity towards stirring the communal pot, causing bloodshed, instilling religious paranoia among the ordinary Indians, is nevertheless such a drag on its ideological flight of fancy that a word or two from a world renowned economist and public intellectual like Amartya Sen get the Hindutvawadis’ goat. Or, shall we say cow?

Moreover, the steadfast non-violence and pacifism of Sen’s ruminations, his Gandhian commitment to peace and conversation, his Tagorean scepticism of nation and nationalism when upending all other frameworks of understanding a country, his tireless efforts at rescuing economics from the toxic evangelism of neoclassical theory at the expense of the terrible reality and resilience of poverty, despite the promises of globalisation and late capitalism – all these things take Sen above and beyond any narrow political agenda of parties, and what not.

They make Sen an uneasy target of BJP/RSS’ rebuke, because that can only come from a deep-seated anti-intellectualism which the BJP/RSS display all the time.

When Ramachandra Guha asks “where is the intellectual in the Indian Right”, he makes an important observation about the acutely derivative and fascist origin of the RSS ideology. MS Golwalkar, Veer Savarkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjea clung to the idea of a “Hindu India” from the start, the seeds of which were sown by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay through his Anandamath.

The “1200 years of slavery” template, used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his victory speech post May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is therefore part of that longstanding inferiority complex that the Sangh had carefully nurtured and which raises its head every now and then in one thoughtless and unkind comment or action or another.

The documentary, The Argumentative Indian, is as much as Sen saying what he is saying as it is about memory of an alternate time, a better past when inclusivity was the norm, not the aberration.

The aberration comes to fore when the Union home minister is praised profusely for a tweet that uses the word “Kashmiriyat”, without maligning Kashmiris. 

Is decency and dialogue such a rarity in India now that mere civility and responsibility from a cabinet minister becomes an exemplary instance of public office-bearing?

Sen has been as critical of the Congress-era policy inadequacies as one can be.

In An Uncertain Glory, Sen, along with Jean Dreze, warned of not being swayed by GDP numbers alone, because “the history of world development offers few other examples, if any, of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of reducing human deprivations”.

This is why his phrase, that parts of India look like “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” made such sense. This is why it isn’t easy to pin Sen to any political camp and say that he’s doing their bidding, while ignoring his valid criticisms of the way the ruling government is doing its job.

The noxious combination of cow vigilantism, communal climate of paranoia and the Hindutva inferiority complex has now fused with technology of instant communication, and is beamed live for instant consumption. High on this diet, Sen’s gentle chiding does sound like a bitter pill, but it’s a pill we must swallow.

If Sen isn’t allowed to speak his mind freely, and even mention the cow (politics), or Gujarat (model), or Hindutva, as much as it would be an unpardonable assault on his freedom of expression, it would equally be a disservice to Indian democracy because the latter would be robbed of an invaluable input from one of the most credible economists and public intellectuals around.

Since it isn’t only about a film showing Sen that is getting censored, it’s about the creeping wall of obfuscation around each and every misdeed of the Sangh regime, that is insulating itself from criticism and commentary by the sheer dint of its officiousness and ability to impose artificial silence, instill the fear of being harmed, threatened by the army of paid trolls, or actually assaulted in real life.

The censor board, particularly under Pahlaj Nihalani, has reduced itself to a laughing stock. However, behind this ludicrous exterior is the strong and powerful kernel of the Sangh machinery at its dubious best, erasing and saffron-washing India’s past, present and future to recreate the country, its people and its very memory in its own hideous image.

Let’s not forget that Amartya Sen is one of the veteran guardians of that precious cultural memory that remembers and cherishes multitudes, divergence, plurality. We must stand together to help those helping him share it.

Also read: Why India, Pakistan treat their Nobel laureates shamefully


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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