The Land of The Ban—India becomes the Outrage-Industrial Complex

Avinash Gavai

The Land of The Ban—India becomes the Outrage-Industrial Complex

America’s greatest statesman Abraham Lincoln once sagely noted: “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”

Well, Abe, India sure isn’t listening.

There are some countries that have developed a titanium strength architecture of offense and umbrage, and just being constantly pissed-off in their national DNA—you can actually refer to it the ‘Outrage-Industrial Complex’, because it’s so hideous, and large and all-encompassing like its ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ counterpart in the United States.

And a rising champion in this regard is India, where the Outrage Industrial Complex has given birth to the most formidable and visible weapon in its arsenal: The Ban.  But “what about addressing India’s disgraceful gender equality problem, abysmal infrastructure, widespread poverty, poor sanitation and widespread corruption”, you incredulously ask? Ah screw it, the powers-that-be have far more pressing issues.

Like banning a new BBC documentary on an internationally reported gang rape in India, banning a comedy roast, banning 50 Shades of Grey, banning the consumption of beef… Each one of these somehow managed to throw the equivalent of 10 buckets of curry powder into the pious eyes of some holier-than-thou types in Indian society, thus ensuring they were all given The Ban.

So what’s the, err…beef these folks have with like juicy delicious steaks, and dry boring movies on bondage and like, freedom of expression and stuff?

To its credit, India remains the world’s largest democracy and has made huge strides since 1991 to become a key global economic and military power.  And it’s certainly nowhere close to the level of Saudi Arabia and China in terms of censorship and general awful Big Brotherness. But yet, this increasingly emboldened culture of suppression reveals that the 1.2 billion strong behemoth continues to navigate through a deep and highly convoluted rabbit hole. It is one that contains a bewildering number of highly sensitive, interconnected religious and social layers that are then filtered and processed through an equally confusing political process.

And the result is often an inedible curry of political correctness that will give the shits to those in favor of free expression and open debate.

“Religious communities, ethnic groups, historical figures are all off-limits,” said Shiv Vishvanathan, a social scientist at O.P. Jindal Global University in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “The state is electorally subservient to any ethnic or religious group that throws a tantrum.”

Many other prominent sociologists and analysts have observed correctly that said that instead of meeting head-on priority challenges such as rape, India’s government as per usual buries its head in the sand, restricting attempts at exposing the rot in the system.

The most egregious example of The Ban took place two weeks ago when the federal government  blocked the broadcast of India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary on a 2012 gang rape that unleashed a global tsunami of shock and horror for its sheer brutality and viciousness. Interestingly enough, the rationale for the ban was never defined precisely. But senior members of government suggested that giving a platform to one of the convicted rapists (he was interviewed at length in the piece) along with the widespread embarrassment this would bring on the country, were the prime factors.

During a debate on the issue in the Indian Parliament, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said, “Our government…will not allow any attempt by any individual, group or organisation to leverage such unfortunate incidents for commercial benefit. The respect and dignity of women, constitutes a core value of our culture and tradition.” His colleague, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs M. Venkaiah Naidu added during the same debate, “We can ban the documentary in India but there is a conspiracy to defame India and the documentary can be telecast outside.”

And so the apparatchiks of the establishment  choose to project and insinuate instead; everything from the disintegration of tradition, native values, illegal immigrants, corrupt Western influences — and, yes, even Chinese food — are blamed for sexual violence. Except, that is, for one thing — the rapists. So instead of tackling the socio-economic paradigm that breeds such vermin, we attempt to suppress reportage and analysis of the subject–especially when done by those shady, white imperialist foreigners. This makes total sense, naturally.

Identity politics resting on a delicate fulcrum of religious and ethnic concerns are crucial to understanding the widespread proliferation of The Ban. In an incredibly diverse country like India, the sensitive nature of identity politics is often brought to boiling point by religious loons that have taken it upon themselves to protect the honour of their respective tribes.  And they make full use of the legal weapons at their disposal. Freedom of expression is protected by the country’s constitution, but powerful legislation here allows for a three year prison sentence against those who appear to act “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings”.

Indian liberal/lefty intellectuals reacted with understandable shock and righteous anger in the aftermath of the jihadi attacks on the Charlie Hebdo employees in Paris. But these same guys generally turn into milquetoast wimps when art is banned in India, primarily because they know “victory belongs to the most persevering”, to quote Napoleon. In India’s case, outraged religious characters persevere and indeed, win most of the time.

Because of Muslim outrage, Salman Rushdie’s infamous book The Satanic Verses was prohibited here in 1988, giving India the ‘honor’ of being the first country to ban it. 24 years later, Mr. Rushdie was forced to cancel a headlining appearance at a prominent literary festival because of threats by prominent Islamic clerics.

In 2014, publishers Penguin India, anticipating a ban withdrew and pulped to death all copies of American historian Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book The Hindus: An Alternative History, after violent protests and a lawsuit from Hindu right-wing group.

The primary bone of contention was that The Hindus described mythological texts as works of fiction. Heaven forbid!

Earlier this year, Perumal Murugan, a prominent author was chased out of his house after militant Hindu orcs screamed for his hasty demise and burned copies of his book One Part Woman, justifying their hideous actions on the grounds that it offended a particular caste.

Mr. Murugan then proceeded to post one of the saddest things that has ever been posted on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.” He also asked his publishers to halt the printing and selling of his books, and urged his loyal readers to burn any works they possessed by him.

Mr. Vishvanathan, in his interview with AP, expressed shame and anger that no one had the gumption to defend Mr. Murugan: “Our institutions don’t have any teeth and our intellectuals don’t stick to their guns.

Speaking of institutions, take India’s new antediluvian film censor board—which one could conceivably believe includes members of Saudi Arabia’s Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice religious goon squad— rejected the screening of the supposedly erotic drama Fifty Shades of Grey (though it’s the exact opposite; sexless and flatter than a steamrollered pancake) and bleeped out the word ‘lesbian’ in other movie.

Frustrated Hollywood movie-goers in India will often witness  the surreal sight of an onscreen couple about to engage in some bedroom acrobatics, only to find that’s it been snipped and scrubbed so vigorously of any action that the segue to the next family-friendly scene lasts all of three seconds. Which understandably strikes many as supremely hypocritical and comical, considering that many ancient Indian temples have carvings  that would make most Western pornstars blush. And it’s not just restricted to sex. Religious content also can draw censorship: The Da Vinci Code got The Ban in primarily Christian Goa, because Church groups there are evidently not fans of overwrought pulp fiction.

The board recently issued a hilarious internal memo on the words it considers too risqué- mostly the full range of cuss words that any average 12 year old employs gleefully, but also “masturbation” and any “double-meaning words” regardless of  language. The list is currently on ice, but those who enjoy a good dose of ‘wink-wink’ double-entendre in their movies should prepare themselves for ignominy of straight talk.

And if you thought the internet was a government no-go zone, fugghetaboutit. The flag of The Ban has been planted in cyberspace too. As increasingly popular comedy group known as All-India Bakchod (AIB) employed the take-no-prisoners roast comedy approach to lampoon some Bollywood actors and a top director back in January. The roast was—as one expects from roasts—vulgar, full of profanity, and actually quite funny in bits, a welcome break from the rather hideous and childish slapstick comedy that dominates the airwaves in the country. The actors were good sports about it, but the swearing and crass jokes inevitably pissed off the religious and political groups.

Cue a full-blown Outrage Industrial Complex meltdown.

Everyone involved in the roast, included the Bollywood stars, were served legal notices for offences ranging from vulgarity towards women to the circulation of obscene content on the Web, and AIB in a major act of self-censorship, decided to pull their video from YouTube to prevent further legal action.

And let’s not forget the beef. A newly-elected Hindu right-wing government in state of Maharashtra (which Mumbai, India’s commercial capital is a part of) recently made all cow slaughter, sale and consumption of beef a criminal offence punishable with five-year term in prison. Wishing to ahem…milk the outrage, another state, Haryana, intends to slap punishment under a bill called section 302, which amounts to murder, for those who caught slaughtering cows or even simply possessing beef! What a load of bull.

And it turns out that India’s government is actually now running out of things to ban. It now wants The Ban on discussions about the beef ban. Which takes the ban fetish to new, meta-magical heights.

Earlier this month, it told parliament that it was against any discussion on the “beef ban” imposed by the Maharasthra government as it was a “sensitive” and “emotional” issue.

So what’s next for the rapidly growing Outrage-Industrial Complex here? Well, The Ban on insanity in the country would be nice change of pace.

I wouldn’t hold my breath though…