[Reader-list] The Attack on Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad II

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Sun Aug 19 16:10:10 IST 2007

Dear Arnab (and all on the list)

Apologies, first for the delay in writing this reply to Arnab's
questions. I had promised in my last posting on this matter that I would
respond to the points raised by Arnab, after I had responded to the
other issues that have marked this correspondence.

I would like to thank Arnab for the very substantive question he has
raised about the relationship between what occurs in the process of
editing, and censorship.

Do good ideas, provocative but necessary thoughts, concepts, testimonies
and stories get left out, or tamed, or distorted beyond recognition in
the ordinary process of editing, especially as it occurs in the media
(print and electronic)? Of course it does.

Ask any journalist in any mainstream publication who covers sensitive
issues and you will know how stories get mangled before they get to
print. Watch a story unfold as it moves from its first 'live' report to
how it gets spun in the prime time news show on television and you will
also see how things change as the editorial desk begins to breathe heavy
on a story.

And as for literary content, of course, editors pre select and weed out
content that they consider unsuitable under pressure from propreitors or
other powerful interests. The converse also happens, some people are
given more than ample publishing space - the making of literary and
jouranalistic celebrity is sometimes a carefully choreographed affair,
and we have to begin to ask why some writers (and stories, or topics or
themes or styles) get a lot of space just as much as we have to ask why
some get so little or none at all.

Finally, there is a kind of informal pre-censorship, along with
information managemnt, that operates discreetly within the media. It is
well known that some people in the senior echelons of the media
profession are informal members of what euphmestically gets called the
'intelligence community'. Some others, lower down the ladder, are the
footsoldiers of the intelligence community. These gentlemen (and ladies)
perform essential functions, planting stories, circulating fabrications,
  and occasioanally, influencing editorial decisions and policy. A phone
call from certain unlisted numbers in New Delhi will often do the job of
removing a story that may be considered too discomfiting.

All of this occurs, and personally, I do not think we have an adequate
handle on how this can be addressed. The most important thing that needs
to be done right now, I think is a kind of everyday but rigorous
critical reading of media and cultural material - looking for patterns
and consistencies of content and form - such that instances of
manipulation can be sought and speculated upon.

We probably also need 'whistleblowers' from within the ranks of media
professionals, but the current insecurity of work conditions within the
journalistic profession may make this expectation unrealistic. For media
to be free, media practitioners have to work in an environment that
sustains a high ethical standard, and also protects the security of
employment. None of these conditions obtain at present. The patterns of
ownership of media also lead to unhealthy consolidations, which render
the whole profession vulnerable. Many young and not so young journalists
and writers are professionals who would like to work according to far
more exacting ethical and formal standards than their employers and
publishers would allow for.

But does this amount to censorship? I don't think so. We have to be
careful in distinguishing between a repressive culture (which actively
discourages certain things from being said, or certains styles of
expression from being used) from instances of actual censorship. Actual
censorship, in my view, occurs when a text, image, idea, concept, sound,
recording, film or any other artefact is prevented from reaching its
intended audience in the way that its author saw fit, without the
consent of the author. So, a film that is played with scenes cut out of
it is a censored film. A film that is banned is a censored film. A film
that disappears and does not reach its audience becasue some powerful
people made sure that this would happen is a censored film. But if for
instance, a filmmaker made some changes in his film at the suggestion of
his producers or funders, and then went on to show his film, that would
not, to my mind, be a censored film. No matter how much the filmmaker
complained about the 'control' exercised on him in private, if, he or
she has agreed to make changes (often as per conditions laid down in the
contract) then his/her film is not a censored film. Every artist has the
choice not to make or finish a work of art. If the conditions are
unfavourable to the realization of his/her vision, an artist can always
cease his/her labour. His/her silence, can at times be more eloquent
than compromised speech.

The kind of control that we see most of all in our cultural sphere and
in our media milieu is not actually censorial. It works with, rather
than against the author. It doesn't act on finished work, rather, it
shapes and co authors work as it progresses. It is repressive, (and I
think there could be more precise words than 'repression' for what I am
attempting to describe, but since I dont have one at the moment,
repression is what I will continue to use, perhaps someone else can
suggest a better and less 'heavy' word). But it is the kind of
repression that cannot work and be functional without the active
cooperation of those it seeks to control most of all - the producers of
literary, artistic and media content.

More important than all of this is the control mechanism that sits
inside peoples heads, something we could call 'self-censorship' - and
self-censorship, motivated by nationalism, or concerns for national
security, or an over zealous attitude to 'moral' questions, or plain and
simple prejudice, or calculations about the advancement of ones'
professional career has as much a role to play than anything else. In
fact, I think that this kind of auto-censorship is far more active
inhibitior in our milieu than any overt external censorship. It makes
the task of the censors much easier. We are all our own little censors.

The only way out of this situation is for the decentering of culture.
For the production and proliferation of as many channels of meaning
making and information as are possible. For people to express themselves
in more than one way, in more than one medium, in more than one
language, in more than one form. This way, you might escape the
repression you face in one area in the work that you do in another. The
repressed journalist might become the emancipated writer of literary non
fiction. The repressed poet might become the free thinking philosopher,
and the repressed philosopher might become the liberated poet, and so
on. It might also need new forms of anonymous and collaborative
authorship, which allow people to write and create in ways that they may
feel inhibited by under their own names and identities.

It also probably needs many platforms of publication, on the web, but
also in print. The rise of desktop, do-it-yourself and samizdat
publishing forms, and cheaper forms of recording and disseminating
digital video and sound through cds, dvds and on the web means that
things can loosen up a lot more. If someone faces a persistent problem
of not having their work published or kept away from an intended public,
then they can also undertake initiatives to self-publish their
work,(including blogs and zines) and release their work under a commons
system so that it can be reproduced and disseminated by others to even
wider audiences and readerships.

I totally understand your sympathy for the marginal poet and the writer
who shuns and is shunned by the mainstream - but that writer can also
help create the conditions that lead to the formation of an alternative
public that effectively reduces the mainstream to a dull and pedantic
space where nothing really interesting happens. Artistic innovation does
not consist solely in the experimentation with new forms, it consists
equally in new forms of publicness.

It is my belief that a general increase and diversity in forms of public
rendition of literary, journalistic and artistic work can lead to an
atmosphere that eventually makes even the mainstream sit up and take
notice, so that what might be called the 'commanding heights' of the
media too have to buckle and become less repressive. But all of this
requires a lot of work.

Now let me come to an even more substantive question. Is editing itself

Let me spell out the reasons why I dont think it has to be.

An edited book, or magazine, or publication, or programme, or a curated
exhibition, is also a work - just as each essay, story, poem, film, art
work that contributes to an edited or curated entity is also a work.

As in any work, different kinds of authorial entities entail different
degrees of control. An open ended and participatory work or process,
(such as this list) can be open to any contributors by those who are
either invited to participate or by those who self-select themselves for
participation. An unmoderated list is a continuing work of which we are
all authors. The only condition of authorship here is subscription.

However, nothing prevents a list or a blog from declaring itself to be
moderated. And I see nothing wrong (or censorious) in that. Often, the
authorial intention is not to invite and be hospitable to any
contribution, but to focus on, or emphasize some kinds of content. This
is perfectly understandable, if the authors feel that this is the best,
or only way for them to communicate. It does not prevent others from
communication, it just creates an exclusive zone for certain kinds of
communication. After all, every moderated blog, presumes the existence
of other moderated blogs - which can even link to it, in criticism,
antagonism and opposition. This is why, it is false and erroneous to say
that if someone moderates or culls messages from a moderated blog, one
is being censorious. One is preserving the integrity of one's intended
practice of communication, nothing that the moderator of a moderated
blog does can prevent someone (say someone who is moderated away) from
starting their own blog. Work, begets work, even in criticism.

I see no contradiction at all in writing in an unmoderated mailing list,
participating in a moderated blog or e-forum, and writing for several
rigorously edited journals, and being part of the editorial collective
of a rigourously edited publications. Each of these different modes of
making things public has their own norms, protocols and ettiquette which
stem from the different purposes that they seek to address.

As someone who works in an editorial capacity (as part of the editorial
collective of the Sarai Readers) I am well aware of the fact that we
have to intervene quite heavily on certain occasions, working closely
with writers, suggesting changes in language and the order of
information, and of course, making decisions about what to keep and what
to drop in terms of what makes it finally to print. In fact selections
of contributions to the reader happen at two stages, first when we
receive abstracts in response to the general call for the Reader, and
secondly, when we are receive final articles. If the author of a
promising abstract delivers a less than promising article, sometimes,
with a heavy heart, we have to let the article go. A book is a finite
thing, it cannot have an endless number of pages, and so, for reasons of
editorial consistency, brevity, taste and our own ideological
predelictions, we cull, and on occasion, we cull with severity. But we
do not hide the fact that we cull. The call for contributions says quite
categorically that the decision as to what to include rests with the
editors. If the editors did not cut something out, they would not be
editors, but would be say, additive compilers. Anyone who sends in
contributions to such a publication does so with the full understanding
that their contribution stands to be rejected just as much as it stands
to be accepted.

It is possible, that someone whose writing we may have rejected, will be
motivated enough to start a journal or a book series of their own, with
the express purpose of including and publishing the kind of material
that would have been excluded from the Sarai Reader Series, and maybe
even of rejecting the kind of stuff that we publish. If that were to be
the case, it would be wonderful.

After all, the only way that culture can be vigorous is if there is
enough criticism of everything. Including everything that each one of us
is fond of and stands for.

Thank you for your patience, and Arnab, I hope you now have a fair idea
of where I stand on these matters. And sometimes, we may feel compelled
to take a stand about someone who is being persecuted, a book that is
being banned, or a film that is prevented from being screened,
regardless of personal taste, or ideological convictions. I am not a fan
of M.F.Husain's work as an artist, but I do feel that it is tragic that
there are threats to his work. I have amivalent feelings about Taslima
Nasrin's work, but I would stand by it's right to be published, and for
her to be heard, even if I found it personally distasteful, and her a
difficult person to deal with. I stand by Sanjak Kak and his film, not
because he is a friend and a comrade, or because I agree with much of
what is said in his film (all of which are true), but because I believe
that every film has a right to its public, and that every public has a
right to every film.

with warm regards


> Dear Shuddhabrata,
> I’m not ashamed to say that  I am an avid reader of 
> your- i.e., Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s writings as the
> works of Jeebesh Bagchi ( recently in the Journal of
> the Moving Image) or that of Lawrence Liang ( the
> little that I’ve read )and some works and words of
> Inder Salim and Vedabati Jogi simply fascinate me. And
> love at times compells to engage--more and more-- like
> this one.
>                   I have a public question for
> you--Shuddha. The remarkably clear instances of
> persecution or censorship  no doubt merit discussion
> and an activist anthropology of sorts may be strongly
> required to comment on them but consider for instance
> the paradigm called ‘editing’ compulsory in newspaper
> circles and other  institutionalised  relatas. Besides
> correcting linguistic and open stylistic errors (
> which perhaps everybody will accept) there is first
> the step of choosing articles and secondly if chosen
> –the editing of content. Both events make edifying and
> horrifying stories—but they are rarely available.
> Could you comment on this archival- lack ? And its
> logistics? Remember Taslima was twice awarded the
> Ananda puraskar; does it signify anything? People
> don’t discuss Malay Roy choudhury. And even Malay is a
> bad example; Allen Gisnberg at a function celebrating
> 25 years of Howl was asked his favourite author: he
> named a punk novelist and said, “ but he doesn’t get
> published.” 
>                I don’t want to elaborate on this here
> but cryptically summarise by asking that could editing
> be seen as  also a technology of censorship and
> persecution passed under the table? Isn’t tabloid
> criticism based on the sacrifice of the best
> arguments? How could it be made accountable? Or take
> the ready example  and answer why SARAI needs to be an
> open public forum rather than a closed one. Here is a
> hint: if others are  closed ones, then what kind of
> freedom do they express? (Let the readers not  mistake
> this fact and reiterate the catechism that it is
> technically not possible to accommodate all and
> everything etc.)   --Because, then the agency where
> the ‘Freedom of expression’ is articulated, would
> itself be in doubt. That mediation itself is mediated
> is poisonous knowledge.
>            Now this apparently is a simple, known
> statement, but –I’ll tell you after a while—how it is
> not.
>     Simply put, I want Shuddha and all to comment,
> discuss and open the old force field of persecution
> and the art of writing again to  debate it,- but with
> a difference: we move away from visible forms of
> coercion and explore apparently non-coercive,
> non-violent ( nearly necessary) forms of mediation and
> translation. (are they just impossible to handle?).
>    A caution here:  In this I don’t want to down play
> the Taslima event and Shuddha’s comments on it but  I
> find myself attracted to Malay Roy Choudhury or
> Subimal Mishra rather than Taslima. The latter pass
> away as not being persecuted at all; why? how?
>     This last example is a bit gross and bypasses the
> finer arguments I was hinting at but nevertheless it
> puts things in a straight light and offers a
> beginner’s example. But no cause for remorse : there
> are hundred narratives –some of them awesome—to be
> recounted here. But at first I expect Shuddha to clear
> the cloud here.
> Thanks
> Yrs in discourse and defeat
> arnab
> --- Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha at sarai.net> wrote:
>>Dear All (apologies for cross posting on Kafila.org
>>and the Sarai Reader 
>>The recent attack on Taslima Nasreen has again shown
>>how fragile the 
>>freedom of expression is in India today. It breaks
>>whenever a 
>>sentimental reader or viewer has their 'sentiments
>>challenged'. Are all 
>>these worthy gentlemen who go about obstructing
>>screenings and readings 
>>suffering from some early childhood trauma that
>>makes it difficult for 
>>them to countenance growing up and acquiring the
>>ability to listen to 
>>contrary point of view? How long are we to be held
>>hostage to their 
>>infantile suffering?
>>What is worse is the fact that the people who
>>attacked her, and have 
>>made public threats to kill her - activists and
>>elected representatives 
>>belonging to MIM, a leftover of the Nizam's hated
>>Razakars, were 
>>arrested and then let off on bail. So, the message
>>that the state sends 
>>out to these goons is - "threaten to kill, be taken
>>to a police station 
>>to have a cup of tea, have your picture taken, be
>>splashed in the media, 
>>go home and make some more threats"
>>see -
> http://www.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=90746
>>In fact, according to a report in the Indian Express
>>today, it is Ms. 
>>Nasreen who is now being booked under section 153 -
>>the same section of 
>>the penal code that was earlier used to detain the
>>unfortunate art 
>>student in Baroda who had offended 'Hindu and
>>Christian sentiments'. So 
>>as far as the Police in the state of Andhra Pradesh
>>is concerned, person 
>>who makes a public threat to kill a writer - a
>>prominent politician is 
>>innocent, and the writer herself, who has never
>>threatened to kill 
>>anyone, nor has asked others to kill people is
>>guilty of inciting 
>>hatred. Both are to be treated equally. There can be
>>no greater travesty 
>>of justice than this incident, and it once again
>>demonstrates how 
>>willing state power in India is to dance in tandem
>>with bigots. It 
>>happens in BJP ruled Gujarat, it happens in Congress
>>ruled Andhra 
>>Pradesh. It happens (see below)in Left Front ruled
>>West Bengal.
>>Once again this demonstrates that bigotry and
>>cussedness is not the 
>>monopoly of the self appointed representatives of
>>any one community or 
>>political tendency. If the self appointed
>>representatives of the 
>>Kashmiri Pandit community and their allies pour
>>venom on Sanjay Kak on 
>>this list and elsewhere, they are matched in their
>>ardour by the 
>>viciousness of those who have appointed themselves
>>the guardians of 
>>Islam in Hyderabad, and the protectors of Hindu and
>>Christian dignity in 
>>Baroda. And lest we forget, (we do have short
>>memories) let us remember 
>>that the last time Tasleema Nasrin was vilified and
>>hounded and her 
>>publication banned in an Indian state, it just
>>happenned to be in West 
>>Bengal, where she has her largest readership, and
>>this happenned because 
>>the secular progressive left front regime, led by
>>the Contractors Party 
>>of India (Monopolist) deemed her a threat to the
>>sanitized cultural 
>>landscape that they so vigorously uphold and
>>maintain in that state.
>>The CPI(M)'s party organ 'People's Democracy' found
>>it necessary to 
>>publish the official 'party line' on the ban in its
>>issue dated November 
>>7, 2003 (Vol XXVII, No 49). It said (apologies for
>>this lengthy quotation)
>>"THE Bengal Left Front government has decided to ban
>>Bangladeshi author 
>>Taslima Nasreen’s latest book, Dwikhandita
>>(‘Split in Two’) because it 
>>was feared that the book would incite communal
>>violence.  At no point of 
>>time has the book been proscribed on political or
>>literary grounds.
>>In a government notification issued on November 28,
>>the state LF 
>>government has formally invoked the ban under
>>section 95 of the code of 
>>Criminal Procedure, read with Act 153 of the Indian
>>Penal Code (where it 
>>is considered a criminal and punishable act to
>>create enmity, rivalry, 
>>and hatred amongst religious communities.
>>State secretary of the CPI (M), Anil Biswas said
>>that there was 
>>apprehension expressed widely that the book would
>>spark off communal 
>>tension, and that very many experts in the field
>>supported this view. 
>>The LF government has banned the book for the sake
>>of the upkeep of 
>>democracy in Bengal. Several newspapers, too, have
>>expressed similar 
>>feelings. Biswas pointed out that “from the time
>>the Left Front has been 
>>office in Bengal not a single book or publication
>>has been proscribed on 
>>political grounds.” However, said Biswas, it was a
>>different matter 
>>altogether if a publication or a book incited
>>terrorism and communalism.
>>Chief minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
>>whose department 
>>issued the notification banning the book, said that
>>he had himself read 
>>the book “several times over.” that he has
>>“persuaded at least 25 noted 
>>specialists to go through the book critically” and
>>that they have 
>>recommended the book to be not fit for circulation
>>among the reading 
>>public.  In particular, the pages 49-50 of the book
>>contain very 
>>derogatory and provocative references that go
>>against the grain of the 
>>tenets of Islam and of Islamic beliefs.
>>  Several noted authors including the poet Sunil
>>Gangopadhyay, the 
>>novelists, Dibyendu Palit, Nabanita Deb Sen, and
>>Syed Mustafa Siraj, the 
>>Bangladeshi novelist, Sams-ul Huq, the singer Suman
>>Chatterjee, as well 
>>as the Trinamul Congress leader and Kolkata mayor,
>>Subrata Mukherjee, 
>>among others, have come openly out against the book
>>and have supported 
>>the decision by the state LF government to get the
>>book banned.
>>Pradesh Congress leader Somen Mitra who has called
>>Taslima Nasreen a 
>>blot on the world of women, has described the book
>>as having no 
>>difference with a piece of pornography and has said
>>that nobody ought to 
>>assume rights to hurt the sentiments of a religious
>>The book which forms a part of Nasreen’s
>>multi-volume autobiography has 
>>been charged by the reading public of Kolkata and
>>Bengal with obscenity 
>>and has come under fire for its maligning and
>>falsified personal 
>>references to the lives of several noted scholars of
>>Bengal and 
>>Bangladesh as well.
>>However, the book, as Anil Biswas made clear while
>>speaking to the media 
>>in Kolkata recently, was banned because of the fact
>>that portions of the 
>>book would cause religious disharmony to break out,
>>with the religious 
>>fundamentalists utilising the book to fan the flame
>>of communal fire.
>>True to form, the BJP chief Tathagata Roy has
>>supported Taslima 
>>Nasreen’s derogatory references to Islam and has
>>opposed the 
>>proscription of the book.  Mamata Banerjee has
>>chosen to hold her 
>>silence, as she is wont to do of late on very many
>>other matters as well."
>>It appears that if there is one thing that religious
>>communal, nationalist, secular and leftist
>>politicians agree on is the 
>>necessity to curb the freedom of expression in Inda.
>>There is only one possible ethical response to this
>>pathetic display of 
>>arrogance by the self appointed representatives of
>>Hindu, Muslim, 
>>Christian and Communist sentiment, and that is to
>>ensure the widest 
>>possible circulation of these materials in the
>>public domain. It is to 
>>organize as many screenings as possible of a film
>>like 'Jashn-e-Azaadi' 
>>(or any other film that is attacked in a similar
>>fashion) and to hold 
>>public readings and distributions of the books of
>>someone like Taslima 
>>In 'Homeless Everywhere:Writing in Exile' an essay
>>by Taslima Nasreen 
>>that had been first published in English in Sarai
>>Reader 04: Turbuluence
> http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/04-crisis-media
>>She wrote -
>>"Just like in West Bengal today, my books have been
>>banned earlier in 
>>Bangladesh on the excuse that they may incite riots.
>>The communal 
>>tension raging through South Asia is not caused by
>>my books but by other 
>>reasons. The torture of Bangladesh’s minorities,
>>the killing of Muslims 
>>in Gujarat, the oppression of Biharis in Assam, the
>>attacks against
>>Christians, and the Shia-Sunni conflicts in Pakistan
>>have all occurred 
>>without any contribution from me. Even if I am an
>>insignificant writer, 
>>I write for humanity, I write with all my heart that
>>every human being 
>>is equal, and there must be no discrimination on the
>>basis of gender, 
>>colour, or religion. Everyone has the right to live.
>>Riots don’t break 
>>out because of what I write. But I am the one who is
>>punished for what I 
>>write. Fires rage in my home. I am the one who has
>>to suffer exile. I am 
>>the one who is homeless everywhere."
>>If we want to ensure that writers, filmmakers and
>>artists are not 
>>'homeless everywhere' then we have to ensure that
>>they receive the 
>>hospitality that enables the conditions that allow
>>their work, thought 
>>and expression to continue to have a public life.
>>This means making sure 
>>that their work lives and continues to breathe in
>>society, by any means 
>>For those who are interested, and can read Bangla,
>>some of Taslima 
>>Nasrin's work is available in the form of
>>downloadable pdfs from 
>>www.talimanasrin.com. When the venerable Buddhadev
>>Bhattacharya decided, 
>>after consulting twenty five eminent intellectuals
>>to ban her book, I 
>>decided to download the said book, make twenty six
>>photocopies of the 
>>entire book bind them and distribute them free.
>>That is one method to deal with censorship (formal
>>or informal) I am 
>>sure that there are other, more creative methods out
>>there as well. I 
>>would welcome practical suggestions from those in
>>the community of the 
>>people who are reading this post
>>about how these attacks on the freedom of expression
>>may be confronted 
>>and made irrelevant. Let us try and make some time
>>for peaceful film 
>>watching and reading.
>>reader-list: an open discussion list on media and
>>the city.
>>Critiques & Collaborations
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