What does one write today?

It’s the kind of moment that makes you reach for poetry, for words that convey what can scarcely be written. It’s the kind of moment where you must write for it is writing that is itself at stake.

The debates on Charlie Hebdo are wide and varied. There is, as Joe Sacco so beautifully drew, before anything else, a deep yet horrifically dull sadness. Few and fewer in the world have the privilege to still be “shocked” by violence, to not have its banality be its true horror. There is solidarity, some of the most meaningful of which comes from cartoonists in the Arab world.  There is a wide agreement that no justification is possible for returning any measure of offence with death yet there is an insistence on the ability to critique even that which one defends. As Teju Cole eloquently argues: “moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.” There are important, vital debates about what it means to “insult everyone equally” when everyone is not equal, reminding us that we must begin and ask our questions in place, in history; that we must remember that the power to criticise is a freedom but also a privilege. There are the universal debates on the limits to absolute speech, pointed to by Sandip Roy who reminds us that the French Government itself banned the earlier incarnation of Charlie Hebdo for printing a mock death notice of the then French PM De Gaulle. There are fears of the Islamophobia this violence will re-incarnate as, that Hari Kunzru argues is one intent of the attackers.

I write with a different intent today. I write not to enter these debates about Charlie Hebdo but to insist on what these deaths must provoke us to do: to translate our solidarity, our empathy, our fear, and our resolve into the real work of protecting the freedoms of speech, satire, offence, and expression in India. That is the tribute to Charlie Hebdo that matters, that transcends all our debates.

We have been in difficulty for some time now. Our laws are weak. Freedom of speech is not legally absolute anywhere in the world but our laws seem to give up before even beginning to debate what “reasonable restrictions” should look like. The Constitution bows before “public order and morality,” and Section 66A of the IT Act — passed in enlightened, global India — brings the bar as low as “annoyance,” ensuring that we stop far before even getting to the grand battles of morality, religion, ideology, and incitement to violence. These laws are not on paper – their everyday life is the simple matter of a google search, a rumour, a cautionary tale or ten.

Our norms are worse. Censorship is widely practiced and endorsed by the state and our fellow citizens, often by each in the name of protecting and safeguarding the other. Threats of inter-personal, communal, or state violence stand alongside defamation suits and gag orders. Criticism is dangerous, let alone offence. The list of sacred cows is long: the nation, religion, family, people, politicians, histories, prophets, business barons, pulpits, and, of course, cows themselves. It gets longer everyday.

Our institutions are struggling. For every good court decision that upholds a film, a book, a manuscript, a painting, a cartoon, there are more that don’t. We go to our courts hopeful, never confident; we plead, not demand. Our publishers have weakened, bowing routinely to threats real and imagined, made or even just promised. Our televisions have embraced efficiency  and chosen to bleep, edit, and cut even before being asked to. Our news media… well, our news media.

But more than anything, more than any of this, is that we have begun to learn how to censor ourselves. In our everyday lives just as much as in our writing. Our pens, our keyboards, our drawing pencils, our mouths, our minds are becoming fearful. We are becoming a people afraid to talk back, to stand our ground. For those that continue to speak, act, shout and draw against ever increasing odds, we lack real and effective ways to safeguard them and each other from harm, threat, and insult. The consequences on so many of them should be unacceptable, yet are so real. We no longer know how to effectively counter the many winding paths of censorship and control that dress up in the court and dress down in the street; that say traitor and not just blasphemer; that sue but also punch; threaten but also bankrupt; control but also co-opt; let free but also surveil.

I know this fear. I have felt it often. On good days, it’s just hesitation. On bad, its paralysing. It is only human to feel it and I do not, in any way, mean to judge it or suggest that we must be above it. Precisely the opposite. This fear is what drives us in equal measures as it scares us. What we must think about is what we do in the instant after. Not just the first time, but every time, because the fear never recedes fully.

And herein lies the rub: what we do the moment after is not about any one of us alone. It is not about character or courage. It is not about heroes. Heroism is wonderful but it is the anti-thesis of solidarity, of structures and communities of protection that we need to give us courage; to make heroism ordinary, possible and expected. If we each need to be heroes to stand our ground, it means that we are still each acting alone, fighting but fighting poorly. Instead, we need movements. We need strategy. We need ways to protect ourselves and each other, to be safe. We need real solidarities that have to be built across very real differences without trying to resolve them. Charlie Hebdo and this moment can inspire us, but we have to do the slow, grinding work of building a space for our resolve to meaningfully see tomorrow’s sunrise. There are laws to the challenged, bans to be defied, censors to be rejected, words to be written, jokes to be cracked. That is the real tribute to this moment — a promise to every writer, publisher, poet, filmmaker, politician and cartoonist that says: if you stand your ground, if you speak our mind, you will not do so alone.

3 thoughts on “What does one write today?”

  1. A very eloquent and poignant message from Gautam Bahn, signifying the Charlie Hebdo moment.
    Sitting in Tamilnadu, it also brings to my mind that the current moment is also the Perumal Murugan-Madorubagan moment. Here also, as Bahn writes, “Our pens, our keyboards, our drawing pencils, our mouths, our minds are becoming fearful. We are becoming a people afraid to talk back, to stand our ground. For those that continue to speak, act, shout and draw against ever increasing odds, we lack real and effective ways to safeguard them and each other from harm, threat, and insult.”
    Just a couple of hours ago, I read an article in Guardian on the Paris moment, saying,”We have a blasphemy law. No electorate has approved it. No parliament has passed it. No judge supervises its application and no jury determines guilt beyond reasonable doubt. There’s no right of appeal. And the penalty is death. It is enforced not by a police bound by codes of conduct, but by a fear that dare not speak its name; …” How true!
    In our situation, no machine guns are involved, but the weapons used here are much more deep and insidious, dangerously provocative and politically potent. A feeling of incapacity and fear of failure grips some of us.


    1. I think the issue with self censorship is more to do with deference and patronage networks. Although I am not totally opposed to deference, it follows that some topics are totally out of bounds of critical attention. This is inimical to the democratic process.
      As for patronage networks, in a country like India where you depend on patriarchal and hierarchical structures for a wide range of privileges (from welfare, jobs to wives and school admissions) annoying people is hardly helpful. A small example : a doctor who criticises the medical profession risks losing his friends, without whom private practice is impossible.
      As for tolerance, certain myths-helpful or unhelpful -are required to sustain any society. We secularists may tolerate the myth busting of Shivaji. But will or rather should we tolerate the attacks on the welfare states and labour regulations? That these things can be shown to be necessary empirically is not sufficient. We have to and we do take a ‘moral’ and emotional stand.

      As for the violence that sometimes results from this intolerance, that is a matter for law enforcement. We have to remember that the number of people involved in such acts is always small. They mostly inflamed by political groups for their own cynical reasons. This can be easily prevented and discouraged by an impartial law enforcement and judicial system.
      If only we had those!


  2. Who was the target for the cartoonist? The Prophet and Islam or Muslims. Let us not blame Islam for the sins of Muslims.


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