• Friday, 22 March 2019

When books acted as voice of dissent in 'Illiberal India' (2018 in Retrospect)

New Delhi, Dec 23 : In a year of unabated vitriol against liberal writers, historians and public intellectuals, books emerged as the avenue of expressing dissent and chronicling the trials and tribulations of the time -- threats to free speech, religious polarisation and rewriting of history.

As subjugation of fundamental rights became increasingly evident, key personalities and intellectuals debunked the failure of the ruling regime's much-touted agendas in several "book bombshells" that were released during the year.

The attacks on the creative community amidst a climate of intolerance, that had led to the "awardwapsi" campaign in 2015, continued this year even as those behind the gruesome murder of firebrand journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in September 2017 were yet to be brought to justice.

Her former husband Chidanand Rajghatta penned a book in her memory: "Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason", highlighting the life of the veteran journalist. The running theme throughout its pages, however, remained about the void that had been created since she was slain.

Malayalam novelist S. Hareesh and Goa's award-winning writer, Damodar Mauzo were among those who faced the brunt of hindutva elements. Both of them were hounded and received multiple death threats in August, leading to a massive hue and cry by the writing fraternity.

Such threats were coupled with social media trolling, and discrediting of noted writers such as Romila Thapar, Keki Daruwalla, Ramachandra Guha, and Arundhati Roy, among several others. Criticising the ruling dispensation came with a cost -- branding of career writers and historians as anti-nationals and urban Naxals.

However, even in the face of severe vitriol that came their way, leading writers lived up to their ideals and practised what they preached by penning down valuable books that will be recorded in the pages of history as the chronicles of these times. They talked about the shrinking space for public debate, the undermining of vital institutions, the fall of moderates and the rise of radicals.

Also came books on socio-political scenario in contemporary India and the agrarian crisis that grips the hinterlands.

Young Gurmehar Kaur made a stunning debut with the appropriately titled "Small Acts of Freedom" in January. The 20-year-old daughter of a Kargil war martyr was never brought up to be silenced and her courageous, yet subtle, book marked the onset of a literary movement to speak out in the face of coercion.

At a time when demonisation of Mughal emperors has become fashionable with the renaming of roads, cities and railway stations, came several books that showed how much of the venom being spewed today relied on little historical evidence. Similarly, while the ruling dispensation relishes in criticising Jawaharlal Nehru, the writing community presented evidence and historical records to suggest otherwise.

While these soft titles aimed at enlightening readers, there was equal music from books that targeted the ruling dispensation, and in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose silence on rampant attacks on the creative community has irked its practitioners.

"Devil's Advocate" by veteran journalist Karan Thapar, "The Sarkari Mussalman" by Lt. Gen Zameeruddin Shah (retd) and "Memory in the age of Amnesia" by filmmaker Saeed Mirza travelled down memory lane to underline episodes that tarnish Modi's reputation. Some other such books reflected on his psyche, his functioning and authoritative nature.

Gyan Prakash's "Emergency Chronicles" highlighted that in Modi's India, citizens were witness to an unprecedented combination of state power and populist mobilisation in the name of development and the nation.

At the same time, the Opposition too built up a literary edifice of sorts as several of its prominent leaders such as Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor and Salman Khurshid penned books highly critical of the Modi government, while former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was criticised for his silence during his two tenures, attended a record number of book launches, attacking Modi -- saying he may have been accused of keeping quiet, but he never shied away from talking to reporters, as Modi did since coming to power in 2014.

The Opposition leaders scrutinised Modi's actions and governance during the past four-and-a-half years, pointing out that the "Paradoxical Prime Minister" says something and but acts contrary to it. Numerous references were drawn from Modi's speeches to contend that there was a huge gap between the promise and the performance as well as the rhetoric and the reality.

And then came "Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy" in which former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian called the demonetisation a "massive draconian, monetary shock", removing all doubts of the failure on the much touted decision that had brought the nation to its knees two years ago.

Former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha's soon-to-be-released "India Unmade: How Modi Government Broke The Economy", is a devastating essay on Modi and his government and is dedicated to "all those who are not afraid to pursue the truth".

Apart from political coercion by the regime, a new, insidious method of legal recourse was found, to go against authors and publishers. A slew of books were taken to courts this year for the silliest of reasons but the Supreme Court sent a ray of hope to the writing fraternity in August.

While hearing a plea seeking to omit certain parts of Malayalam novel "Meesha" by S. Hareesh, the top-court said that the culture of banning books impacts the free flow of ideas and should not be taken recourse to unless they are hit by Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits obscenity.

In another positive sign, the Sahitya Akademi seemed on the cusp of revival under the able leadership of its President Chandrashekhar Kambar, who, unlike his predecessor, was not only forthcoming in his support to writers but was also vociferous in his condemnation of coercion.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)


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When books acted as voice of dissent in 'Illiberal India' (2018 in Retrospect)

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