The Daily Fix

The Daily Fix: Banishment of Hyderabad critic for Ramayana comments undermines free speech yet again

Everything you need to know for the day (and a little more).

The Big Story: Externment orders

One man with no criminal background made comments about the Ramayana that fall squarely into the long tradition of offering critical views about the epics that has been practised by thinkers and politicians, particularly in South India. Another man, a Hindu priest who has made controversial statements in the past, said he would hold a rally against the other man, even though it seemed likely the police would not give permission to do so. What did the Telangana Police choose to do? It externed Mahesh Kathi, the film critic and writer who had made the comments about the Ramayana, prohibiting him from entering his hometown of Hyderabad for six months. It also put Paripoornanda, known to his followers as Swami, under house arrest.

The difference in responses immediately raised questions about double standards, not least because Kathi is a Dalit. On the debate show on TV, he had said “For me, Ramayana is just another story… I believe Rama is as much a cheater [dagulbhaji] as he is ideal in that story. And I think perhaps Sita would have been better, might have gotten justice if she had stayed with Ravana...” As many have pointed out, Telugu writers, politicians and intellectuals from across the south have made comments that are much sharper than this without being banished from their home cities.

Moreover, in Kathi’s case, the law used against him was the first time that someone with no criminal history was being externed from the city for six months. The provision is usually invoked against criminals with extensive records. Following the outrage, the Telangana Police looked into Paripoornanda’s past, found some controversial statements and served notice to him asking why he too should not be externed. When he refused to reply to it, the police passed an externment order against the priest too. Kathi was summarily dismissed without being served notice, Paripoornanda was given a chance to respond. The difference in treatment has raised questions about laws like these being used to suppress free speech.

As one might expect, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in Opposition in the state, only spoke up when the law was used against Paripoornanda, saying the decision was trampling on the rights of Hindus. Meanwhile, its national rivals in the Congress were attempting to stifle apparent criticism of their own deities: the Nehru-Gandhi family. A Congress party member lodged a police complaint against Sacred Games, a new show from Netflix, for allegedly insulting former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Another advocate has also filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi High Court claiming there are scenes derogatory to the former prime minister.

The situations may not be directly comparable – in one case it is the action of the Telangana Police that is deeply questionable, in the other it is the reaction of the Congress party. Yet it is one of those constant reminders that free speech is not a principle that any party holds dear, leaving it to civil society to question police actions or speak up for art that is under fire.

The Big Scroll:

Punditry

  1. “For far too long, on the issue of drugs, the compulsions of electoral politics and sheer demagoguery have trumped common sense, decency and the overwhelming evidence about what clearly doesn’t work,” writes Abhinav Kumar in the Indian Express. “The government and people of Punjab must engage in serious reflection and debate based on accurate data about the scale and nature of the drug menace on this vital issue, before adopting a cure that may turn out to be much worse than the disease.”
  2. The decision to embrace the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its behaviour subsequent to this, has left Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar between a rock and a hard place, writes Vidya Subhramaniam in the Hindu.
  3. Cities are not only engines of economic growth but also offer an escape from social oppression. The future of India is profoundly linked to the future of its cities,” says a leader in Mint. “That future will continue to be compromised as long as cities have neither the financial nor political ability to chart their own course. Municipal bonds are just one part of the broader task.”

Giggle

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Abhishek Dey explains what is driving India’s mass hysteria over suspicions of child lifting.

“The concept of the child lifter has existed in many Indian communities for a long time, primarily as a tool for parents to control the behaviour of their children, said Kishore Bhattacharjee, a professor who researches folklore at Gauhati University. Over time, it has mutated into belief, spread through word of mouth. But how and where the belief actually originated has barely been researched.

Some have called child lifting an urban legend, but Shibani Sarmah, who researches urban legends at Gauhati University, said it is not considered one so far. Urban legends, she explained, contain a message that people tend to preserve for some reason, they have a kernel drawn from myth or a real story, and their settings are, well, urban.

The serial killer murdering the homeless on city pavements, for example, is an urban legend which originated from real instances in India and abroad. ‘The nucleus of the child lifter belief, however, remains unexposed so far,’ Sarmah said. ‘And the incidents have been reported from rural areas as well, without any urban essence.’”

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