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Flashreads for Free Speech: Readings for 14 February

February 13, 2012

Let this 14 February be Free Speech Day – the text below comes to us via NILANJANA S. ROY; for more, see Akhond of Swat or follow #flashreads on Twitter. Flashreads are being organised across India – see Facebook event page.

Poster by Sanjay Sipahimalani


THE IDEA: To celebrate free speech and to protest book bans, censorship in the arts and curbs on free expression

WHY FEBRUARY 14? For two reasons. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. In GB Shaw’’s words: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”

February 14 or Valentine’s Day has also become a flashpoint in India, a day when protests against “Western culture” by the Shiv Sena have become an annual feature. In Chandigarh, 51 Sena activists were arrested by the police after V-day protests turned violent in 2011. Our hope is to take back the day, and observe it as a day dedicated to the free flow of ideas, speech and expression.

#flashreads is a simple way of registering your protest against the rising intolerance that has spread across India in the last few decades. At any time on February 14th—we suggest 3 pm, but pick a time of your convenience—go out with a friend or a group of friends and do a quick reading. We’ve made some suggestions (below) but feel free to pick your favourite passage on free speech, or passages from a challenged book or the works of any writer who has faced sedition charges, a book ban or other forms of censorship.

Feel free to create your own protest.

Places where you might do public readings: subway and Metro stations, public parks, coffee shops, open areas in malls. If you’re talking about Flashreads on Twitter, please use the #flashreads hashtag.

If you have a blog, a tumblr or a website, an easy way to join in is to post Tagore’s poem, “Where the mind is without fear” (see below) on your site for a day, or choose any of the excerpts below. Or post anything you’ve read and loved in defence of free expression—a poem, a letter, an article.

(If you choose to read from books that are currently banned, be aware of the possible legal risks. Readings from the Satanic Verses were conducted by Rajeev Dhawan, Swami Agnivesh and others in 1988-1989 when the book was banned in India and attracted no legal penalty at the time since the novel was banned under a Customs rule that prevents importation of the book, but not readings from excerpts.  However, the four authors—Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil who read from the book at the Jaipur Literature Festival may face legal action—please feel free to read from any of their works on February 14th as well.)

1) SHORT READINGS—SUGGESTED PASSAGES:

“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.”  ~ Salman Rushdie

How many Ramayanas ? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? ~ AK Ramanujan

He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever. ~ Rohinton Mistry

“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. ” ~ Mahatma Gandhi, on the sedition laws

We cannot let our republic, our beloved republic, our constitutional republic, our free and free-speaking republic, be hijacked by fear. It happened once in the Emergency. It must never happen again.
We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears.
We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink.  ~ Vikram Seth, speech at the Kolkata Book Fair.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth…
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. ~
Rabindranath Tagore

2) IF YOU WANT TO DO LONGER READINGS:

PASSAGES FROM CHALLENGED AND CENSORED BOOKS

Text of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14:

“We are from God and to God we shall return.” (Quranic verse). I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Koran, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, God Willing. Meanwhile if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that [Rushdie] is punished for his actions…. Rouhollah al-Mousavi al-Khomeini.”

From Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses:
“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accomodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.”


From AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, withdrawn from Delhi University’s syllabus after protests from Hindu rightwing groups:

How many Ramayanas ? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”

Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.

He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali ). The King of Spirits (bhut ), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”

“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”

Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”

“It will be done,” said Rama.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”

Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”

“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”

Laksmana said, “I’11 have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”

“Go in and ask then.”

“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”

“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”

So he went right in.

Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“Visvamitra is here.”

“Send him in.”

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”

Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”

Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”

Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”

Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”

“Hanuman.”

“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”

“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”

The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”

They were all exactly the same. “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go.”

So Hanuman left.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana .[1] (end of excerpt)

From Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, removed from the Mumbai University syllabus after Shiv Sena members protested against and burned copies of the book:

Dinshawji: “What to do with such low-class people? No manners, no sense, no nothing. And you know who is responsible for this attitude—that bastard Shiv Sena leader who worships Hitler and Mussolini. He and his ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ nonsense. They won’t stop till they have complete Maratha Raj.”

Dinshawji’s narration had brought them to the main intersection of Flora Fountain, where the great traffic circle radiated five roads like pulsating giant tentacles. Cars were pulling out from inside the traffic island and recklessly leaping into the flow. … With the dead fountain at its still centre, the traffic circle lay like a great motionless wheel, while around it whirled the business of the city on its buzzing, humming, honking, complaining, screeching, rattling, banging, screaming, throbbing, rumbling, grumbling, sighing, never-ending journey through the metropolis.”

From Rohinton Mistry’s open letter about the targeting of Such A Long Journey:

In this sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning, the Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar, tediously predictable scripts of threat and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organization’s founding in 1966. … A political party demanded an immediate change in the syllabus, and Mumbai University provided deluxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day.

As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader,  the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.”

What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena’s well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.

Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.

He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make a choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. And I would like to urge particular to attention to this verse:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
 

PASSAGES ON FREEDOM AND FREE SPEECH

Mahatma Gandhi on the sedition laws:

“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr.Banker [a colleague in non-violence] and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under it, and I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it.”

Sedition, by Prasun Mukhopadhyay

“To serve the Muse is sedition

Sedition is assemblage

To think about the country is sedition

Sedition is to speak about hunger

To continue living in this country is sedition’.

From Luka and The Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie:

“The nerve!” squeaked the Border Rat. “That you say you are offended, insults me mortally. And if you offend one rat mortally, you offend all Rats gravely. And a grave offence to all Rats is a funeral crime, a crime punishable by–.”

RULES FOR CITIZENS

A poem by Jeet Thayil

Let us govern those who undertake the telling of stories.

Censorship is good governance. Self-censorship is an attribute of the highest civilization.

If an actor speaks of God, he will be chastised. He will be refused an encore. If he repeats the speech, he will have his license revoked.

Let us govern those who undertake praise of the next world, since what they say is neither true nor useful to us.

Our best recourse is to be warlike.

We do not deny that storytellers are good at their job and give people what they like to hear. But the better they are, the less we wish our children and men to hear them.

We shall refute their attempts to be wise. We shall scoff when they repeat their vile allegation, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.

We will do away with the dirges of famous men and leave them for women, and not the best among women either.

Let us abolish those fearful and terrific names, Cocytos, the River of Lamentations, Styx, the River of Fear, Ganga, the River of Death in Life, Lethe, the River of Bliss, Tigris, the River of Affliction.

We shall disallow travel and the mingling of songs.

From Ismat Chughtai’s account of the obscenity trial for Lihaf:

We now waited impatiently for our second appearance in court. We no longer cared if we were to be hanged. If we were hanged in Lahore we would attain the status of martyrs and the Lahorewallahs would take out our funeral processions with great pomp and show.

The second appearance was scheduled for the pleasant month of November, in 1946, that is. Shahid was busy with his film. Seema’s ayah had become very efficient and Seema was now very healthy and robust, so I left her in Bombay and flew by plane to Delhi, continuing on to Lahore by train, accompanied by Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi and his calligrapher. I felt very embarrassed before the calligrapher. The poor man had been dragged into all this for no reason at all. He was always very quiet, sat with his eyes lowered, a weary expression on his face. Every time I looked at him I’d be overwhelmed afresh by a feeling of guilt.

“What do you think?”

I asked him, “Will we lose the case?

I can’t say, I haven’t read the story.”

“But Katib Sahib, you calligraphed it.”

“I see the words separately and write them, I don’t pay attention to the meanings.”

Amazing! And you don’t even read it after it has been printed?”

“I do. But only to catch printing errors.”

“Each word separately?”

“Yes.” He lowered his head in contrition. After a short pause he said,

“You won’t mind if I say something?”

“No.”

“You make a lot of spelling mistakes

May God bless calligraphers, they will keep my honor intact, I thought.”

***

There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ‘ashiqs ’ (lovers) is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or

‘‘ashiqs’?”

“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.

“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”

“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.

“Why?”

“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”

“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”

“Uh … uh … no.”

“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs.”

“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!”

The witness thundered.

“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.”

Khattam-Shud, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories:

“What brought you up here, eh?” he asked in his dull, dull voice. “Stories, I suppose.” He said the word ‘stories’ as if it were the rudest, most contemptible word in the language. “Well, look where stories have landed you now. You follow me? What starts with stories ends with spying, and that’s a serious charge, boy, no charge more serious. You’d have done better to keep your feet on the ground but you had your head in the air. You’d have done better to stick to Facts, but you were stuffed with stories. You’d have done better to stay home, but up you came. Stories make trouble. An Ocean of Stories is an Ocean of Trouble. Answer me this: what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

 

Haroun, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories:

“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and to become yet other stories, so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”

Vikram Seth, speech at the Kolkata Book Fair on Kolkata, Kobi, Constitution and Kolom:

I will now go to the fourth ‘ko’ or Kolom. I have touched upon the word in law and literature. But especially when one thinks of Tagore, one also thinks of the word as a graphic form, a form of art. I am very happy that Sunil Gangopadhyay and I—as part of this inauguration—were asked to write the word ‘kolom’ in black paint on those white boards there. As you can see, Sunil Da has written it in Bengali and I have written it in English and Urdu. It is interesting that three of the world’s great civilisations, the Hindu, the Islamic and the Judaeo-Christian, are thus incorporated on those boards, just as they are part of our common discourse. This is the richness of our country; we cannot allow it to be filtered and thinned. This is the strength of our country; we cannot allow it to be contorted or distorted.

Let me end with the two opening lines of a poem by Tagore that I have known—in his own English translation—since I was eleven years old. It was one of our school prayers and it expresses his aspirations for India.

‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free.’

Let me repeat that: ‘Where knowledge is free.’

Those who try to cloud our minds with fear are the enemies of both knowledge and freedom.

We cannot let our republic, our beloved republic, our constitutional republic, our free and free-speaking republic, be hijacked by fear. It happened once in the Emergency. It must never happen again.

We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears.

We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink.

Kolome kali jeno na shokaye.

May the kolom flourish.

POEM, RABINDRANATH TAGORE:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

~ Rabindranath Tagore

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 2:19 PM

    If there is one thing free of censorship, its my thoughts. But if you try to observe them silently and quietly, even the thots quarrel :DD

  2. Ram Sharma permalink
    February 14, 2012 10:15 PM

    Why we leftists are so bent upon teaching a non-history to history students? And if we really want to do that, why not Ramayana of Valmiki, an Indian Sage of Dalit parentage than that of a modern day Iyengar Brahmin enjoying the life and citizenship of the most capitalist country? Valmiki is believed have written Yoga Vashista also in which Ram is depicted very differently than his Ramayana. That is an Indian tradition. The Ganges of Bengal is as much Ganga as that of Rishikesh and of numerous villages and towns in between. But Rishikesh comes first in its path, as does Valmiki in the case of Ramayana. Censorship of Ramanujan’s article in any form must be opposed, but its imposed readership on history students should also be opposed. The Freedom of Speech must not be accorded to some, but not the others. To give too much importance to the US based Iyengar Ramanujan and ignore the Indian Dalit Sage Valmiki would be a wrong and self-defeatist approach for a leftist intellectual.

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  1. Freedom: Where The Mind Is Without Fear… | Mirth and Motivation

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