If the free exchange of ideas is the oxygen of democracy, India’s vaunted open society is in grave danger of asphyxiation. On the morning of August 30, 2015, renowned Kannada rationalist scholar M. M. Kalburgi was shot dead, allegedly by right-wing assailants on a motorcycle. This brazen act, just the latest in a series that includes the murders of writers and activists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, has led literary figures of the stature of novelist Sashi Deshpande and poet K. Satchidanandan to resign from posts in the Sahitya Akademi, India’s preeminent national literary institution, in protest of its lack of support for writers and scholars in the face of ever-increasing attacks. To put the matter bluntly—the situation in India with regard to freedom of expression is dire.
The Modern Language Association, the largest professional organization in the world representing scholars of languages and literature, too has weighed in on the worsening situation in India, albeit obliquely. At the urging of me and other members, earlier this year the association released a statement, available on its website. The statement notes: “The Modern Language Association condemns both the censorship of work treating controversial religious subjects and physical threats directed at the authors of such work. Recent instances include the harassment of the University of Chicago Indologist Wendy Doniger and the Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan.” The proximate reason for the letter exhorting a public stance I sent to the Executive Council on behalf of several signatories was indeed the recent attack within India on Perumal Murugan, mentioned in the statement. Murugan has been forced to flee his hometown and even renounce writing because of the perceived offense caused by his novel Mathorubagan. Of course, the larger censorship story of which the Murugan episode is a part was also very much in my mind. It is gratifying that the MLA has spoken out at its members’ urging, but frankly, given the gravity of the situation, it is hard to deny that the statement, which mentions incidents pertaining to India but does not name the country, is unnecessarily timid.
Given these recent events of unbridled violence and even murder, should we conclude that those with power in India—politicians, state officials, influential non-state actors—are growing increasingly intolerant? No one can be blamed for answering “Yes, of course.” Evidence of intolerance grows month by month. On the occasion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, for example, I signed an open letter expressing grave misgivings regarding the Indian government’s safeguarding of privacy, academic freedom, and freedom of expression. Soon, hate mail began arriving in my inbox (and in the inboxes of other signatories), some of it containing thinly veiled threats of physical violence.
Censorship has ebbed and flowed in India since independence in 1947. But by any measure, the current situation would have to be considered desperate. There is blame enough to go around for this state of affairs, though evidence suggests that the lion’s share belongs to the Hindu right, which has its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, now in power in New Delhi.
I can only surmise that things have come to this sorry pass because those currently in power in India have not really understood one of their own treasured narratives—which is at the same time, I want to insist, “mine” as much as “theirs.” The story of the origin of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana is admittedly ambiguous but still instructive regarding the social role of discourse and imagination. In the story, two birds on a tree are engaging in amorous play watched by the sage Valmiki when one is shot dead by a hunter with an arrow. Witnessing the inconsolable grieving of the remaining bird, words expressing sorrow (soka) burst from Valmiki’s lips in the form of a metrical poetic unit (sloka). In that sloka of soka, Valmiki curses the hunter to suffer forever for his cruelty to an unsuspecting bird. Simultaneously Valmiki, now provided with the literary form he needs, is converted into the author of what is arguably one of the greatest tales ever told. Cursing sage becomes inspired poet.
It is easy to read this story as only positing implacable opposition between Valmiki, who represents poets, and the hunter, who represents heartless violence. In the world of the Ramayana, the sage is powerful in social status as well as in his personal ability to impose a curse through his words; and through this dual power, he confronts and condemns the alternative power of physical violence represented by the socially inferior hunter. The partial parallel with current events in India—the social inferiority of the hunter in the epic does not map easily on to the contemporary scene—is illuminating. Isn’t it fear of condemnation—dread, that is, of the power of the word to speak truth and to render justice—that led to the attacks on Perumal Murugan and the brutal murder of M. M. Kalburgi? On the other hand, the powerful in India are not like the hunter—indeed they have little respect for the “tribal” forms of life represented by the hunter. Unlike the hunter, who does not attack the sage despite being condemned, the powerful in India have trained their arrows on the poets of our times with deadly force.
There is a second, perhaps more subtle, way in which the story of the Ramayana’s origin can be understood as commenting on the place of the word in the world. Looked at from another angle, sloka is poetry rather than curse—that is, it is a grief-stricken but also redemptive art rather than a discourse of potent vengeance. In this alternative reading, the story teaches us that the addition of one small sound—soka becoming sloka—turns the sorrow of life into the compensation of literature. It instructs us that literature is close to life but not the same as life. Literature engages life, without completely disappearing into it. There remains always a distinction between soka and sloka; sloka is almost soka but not quite.
The Hindu fundamentalists of today claim to love the Ramayana but secretly fear the power of imagination that gave it life. Refusing to read well, they treat the discourse of literature—indeed, discourse in general—as if it were the same as the experience of life. They forget that the statement of an opinion or the writing of a literary work is not the same as the shooting of an arrow or the firing of a gun, and that if the hunter in the story had turned on Valmiki before a curse could escape the sage’s venerable lips there might very well have been no Ramayana—no timeless narrative of the god Rama, his love for his wife Sita, and the sorrows of separation.
The survival of a free society depends on a general understanding that discourse is indeed powerful but is not the same as life. This distinction is necessary because it grants a vital freedom to the exercise of the imagination. If not in ideas and stories, how else is a thriving society to explore, to test its own limits, and thus grow? India is routinely heralded as a great experiment in democracy; but that experiment will surely be choked out and die if the powerful insist on cutting off the oxygen on which it survives.