A renowned play has fallen victim to India’s desire to prevent disparate groups from offending each other, writes Salil Tripathi
Once again, an Indian state government has succumbed to an unreasonable demand by a specific interest group, and banned a work of art. This time, it is the acclaimed play, Charandas Chor (Charandas, the Thief), by the late Habib Tanvir. The play is in Chhattisgarhi, the language of one of India’s newest states, Chhattisgarh, which was carved out of Madhya Pradesh (then the country’s largest by land area) recognising long-standing demands of Chhattisgarhis for greater cultural autonomy. Some 20 million people live there, and many consider Chhattisgarhi to be their main language.
The state government banned the play because a sect called the Satnam Panth, or the followers of the “true name”, protested against the play, saying it showed their beliefs in a bad light. Satnami Panth emerged in the 19th century, comprising about a sixth of Chhattisgarh’s population. They reject Hindu “idolatry”, placing faith in a guru (a hereditary title), and are made up of socially-disadvantaged groups from the state.
The plot of Charandas Chor revolves around the twists and turns in the life of a petty thief, Charandas, who makes four vows to his guru; that he won’t eat from a gold plate, that he would never lead a procession in his honour, that he would never become a king, and nor would he marry a princess. He thinks nothing of making those promises, because he doesn’t expect any of that to happen. The guru adds a fifth vow — to never tell a lie.
And yet, the thief ends up becoming famous, and is offered political power, which he has to refuse. A pretty princess, smitten by him, wants to marry him, but he must refuse that, too. He then faces death, revealing the irony of life, where pursuing a truthful path becomes difficult, placing one’s survival at stake. It may seem like an unremarkable parable, but it angered the Satnamis, who asked for a ban, because a character says something that offends their beliefs.
If there’s one national artist who made Chhattisgarhi known beyond its borders it was Tanvir, through plays like Charandas Chor, which used the folk idiom and traditions to express our narratives. Tanvir was one of India’s finest theatre practitioners; through his notion of “naya theatre” (new theatre), he bridged the gap between the urbane and the rustic, the outwardly-sophisticated, and outwardly-rural, using the texts and folk tales of tribal India to make points that resonated across modern India.
This ban is strange on many levels. Firstly, Charandas Chor has been around since 1974, and it has already been made into a critically-praised film by Shyam Benegal, one of the leading directors of the Indian “new wave” of the 1970s. Secondly, the cast of the play in various productions over the year has been made up of local actors, several of whom have been Satnamis. Over the years no one has objected to this play. Another point is that a character in the play speaks the offending lines, but that does not make those opinions “facts”, nor do they reflect Tanvir’s view; even if they did, this should not matter. Finally, it once again demonstrates the state’s acquiescence to any group of aggrieved individuals, by banning a controversial work, thus narrowing the space of public conversation in India.
This goes beyond party politics, although it is tempting to cast the controversy along religious lines. Chhatisgarh is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Tanvir was born into a Muslim family. It is also true that the BJP — in Chhatisgarh at least — is no respector of civil liberties. It detained, without trial, Binayak Sen, a physician and human rights activist for being linked with Maoists. Sen was released conditionally recently after court intervention. The state also looks the other way, and by many accounts, actively aids a vigilante movement called Salwa Judum, which has emerged in response to the left-leaning Maoists.
Other non-BJP states, have also intervened to prevent films from being shown and plays from being staged.Indian governments follow the equal opportunity principle, and ban anyone who offends anyone, not singling out artists only from a specific faith.
Just last week Jaswant Singh, the BJP’s finance minister, was expelled from the party, and his book on Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah banned in the state of Gujarat. Singh is a Hindu. The week before, Goan artist Subodh Kerkar was targeted by Hindu nationalist groups for painting Ganesha, the elephant-headed God. Kerkar is not only a Hindu, but also a devotee of Ganesha.
At stake are India’s dwindling freedoms. Indian governments routinely comply when interest groups claim offence. They do so because India’s constitution pays only lip service to free speech. While democratic, the constitution does not offer a US-style first-amendment type guarantee for freedom of expression. Under Article 19 of the constitution of India all citizens have the right to “freedom of speech and expression” — but there are “reasonable restrictions” on the right, which permit the state to restrict it “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Then there is Section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, which makes it a criminal act to “outrage religious feelings” with malicious intent. 153(A) outlaws “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc. and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” These clauses provide the basis for busybodies to protest, seeking bans on works which offend them.
It is easy to see why such laws came to be in place. The Indian Penal Code goes back to 1860, that is, within years of the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 (which Indians refer to as the first war of independence), and which led the East India Company surrendering its sovereignty to Queen Victoria. The British Government of that time wanted laws that could help its administrators and judges to manage the outwardly chaotic nature of the Indian society. They had experienced the conflict; they wanted no room for potential trouble ahead.
A revisionist view among some Indians is how British judges were scrupulously fair in judging disputes between Indian communities. They were able to act in that way because they were distanced from the disputes, and they had laws which helped them calm controversies, by preventing anyone from offending anyone else. Since outraged religious feelings could lead to problems, there was now a law to ban that; since the government would not easily know when an outrage was committed, a community could now claim offense, making it easier for the unelected district collectors to ban particular performances. It is such laws that are being used today by groups and communities in India, to stifle curiosity, debate, and art. And elected Indian governments succumb.
Charandas Chor is the latest victim and it will not be the last.