I avoid meme's but had to rethink my stance after the Information Technology Rules, 2011, (aka the Electronic Service Delivery) Act was quietly implemented last month. This Act states that any content that is "threatening to the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, including any content on the web that is blasphemous, scandalous, defames, or can be considered obscene", eligible for immediate removal by the hosting provider upon order from the Department of Information and Technology. Now, that was the long-winded legalese which is so darn vague but here is the short version: "you cannot criticize politicians publicly, ever."
Such draconian censorship rules have no place in a democracy that values free-speech and this calls for a free speech meme -- I'm reproducing content (with author credits) from other websites which criticizes politicians on my blog, making it harder for DIT/gov.in to implement censorship successfully. For starters, Antara Sen criticizing the Communists for encouraging Sexism and Ageism in Indian politics.
By Antara Dev Sen , Created 30 Apr 2011 - 00:00
Which is worse — calling one of our finest politicians and a respected elder statesman a mummified corpse, a dead man who has no business opening his mouth? Or saying that the spirited woman leader and challenger to the Communist throne of Bengal ignores funds from Bengaluru to get money from the United States, much like bazaar women forget smaller clients when they get bigger patrons? Going by the collective shock and horror, the latter comment wins hands down.
What? He called her a prostitute? Do they stop at nothing? Veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader and member of Parliament Anil Basu was promptly pilloried by all concerned, including his own party members. West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee apologised publicly, censured Mr Basu and pulled him out of campaigning. What he had said was uncivilised and unbecoming of a Communist, lamented the mortified chief minister. It was unpardonable.
True. Mr Basu had used shocking language and imagery, suggesting (thanks to the blinding hatred for the US that Communists have) that the US was Mamata Banerjee’s “bhaataar” (slang for a woman’s keeper) now, so she didn’t have to look at smaller homegrown patrons in Bengaluru, Chennai or Andhra Pradesh. Like the women of Sonagachhi (Kolkata’s red light district), she had dumped smaller babus for bigger ones.
Now, I hate to break this to our slanderous comrade and gentlefolk horrified by the insult, but moving from smaller to bigger clients is not the business strategy of prostitutes alone. It’s common sense. It happens in all professional and business dealings, in all societies and in all times. So Mr Basu’s sex-worker imagery was not about the logic of fund-raising — it was about using degrading stereotypes to insult a woman.
This jibe shows how regressively patriarchal even our Communist bastion is. Sex workers can be invoked as an insult in a state that came to power professing to fight for workers’ rights and dignity of labour and clung to power for more than three decades with the muscle provided by lowly workers of all kinds. Could the comrade have made similar derogatory allusions to low-caste tanners or to Doms who burn corpses? Perhaps not. But chastity is such a deep need of Indian patriarchy that even a seasoned Communist can snigger at sex workers. They aren’t really workers, just fallen women. More than Ms Banerjee, it is prostitutes who have been insulted here.
But the intent was to hit out at the deviant woman who dared to challenge the status quo. And this is not the first time that Ms Banerjee — herself adept at insult — has been attacked with sexist tools. During the Singur agitation, when she was busy taking our breath away with her astounding dramatics, this same Mr Basu had declared that if he had his way he would have dragged her by her hair and plonked her back home instead of allowing her to sit in dharnas. Clearly, for this little caveman in a dhoti, home is where the woman belongs. Not on the streets or in sit-ins. Not in politics.
In fact, the cunning Trinamul Congress chief has been called “brain dead” by the Communists — an accusation so far from the truth that it makes you wonder whether the Communists have completely lost their minds. And when Ms Banerjee first came up with her slogan “Ma, maati, maanush!” (mother, earth, people) some Left leaders had sniggered, “But she isn’t a mother — what does she know of motherhood?” In a patriarchal society, the good woman is domesticated and acceptable as a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law. But if you are an unmarried politician woman — gosh, you have a problem, sister! You don’t fit in, you are hugely inadequate.
And it is not always men who point out this inadequacy. Some time ago, the feisty Renuka Chowdhury, then minister for women and child development, had hit out at Mayawati on the Aarushi Talwar murder case. She herself was thinking as a mother, she announced righteously, but Ms Mayawati was not a mother, she could only think as a chief minister. And was therefore wrong, of course. Shortly thereafter, Maneka Gandhi was not allowed to flout rules to meet her son Varun in a Uttar Pradesh jail. Ms Mayawati is not a mother, Ms Gandhi hit back, how could she understand a mother’s concerns?
Ages ago, a young Indira Gandhi was called a “goongi gudiya” (a dumb doll) by her respectable opponents. When she grew to become the most powerful Prime Minister India ever had, she was lauded as “the only man in her Cabinet”. Patriarchal symbolism plays a vital role in our perception of political leaders.
The wife, widow or daughter-in-law is very readily acceptable, and most of our women leaders play that role beautifully. And those who don’t — like the unmarried Ms Mayawati or Ms Banerjee — have many extra battles to fight. One way of sidestepping this is to become the universal mother, like “Amma” Jayalalithaa. But the “Behenji” or the “Didi” can only be stereotyped as a dry, heartless, careerist old maid.
But plugging into derogatory stereotypes has been part of the game of politics. What I find alarming is our refusal to see such insults when they are not included in the high-profile, politicised identity groups. Casteism in poll campaigns can get you jailed. Sexism is appalling and can get you in trouble. But ageism, however mean and hurtful, is acceptable.
Which is why I am shocked at the jibe of Bratya Basu, theatreperson and Trinamul Congress candidate in West Bengal, at Somnath Chatterjee. The former Lok Sabha Speaker, though expelled from the CPI(M) for putting the Indian Constitution before the party during the confidence vote, had generously agreed to canvass for CPI(M) minister Gautam Deb. Quick as a flash, Mr Bratya Basu — the challenger in the minister’s constituency, the “intellectual” and first-time politician — attacked the elder statesman, calling him a mummified corpse out of a coffin. Why should anyone listen to him?
An Egyptian mummy, he grimaced for effect, why is he talking in Bengali? He should talk in hieroglyphics!
Maybe civil campaigning is indeed the language of the dead. Maybe lumpenised politics does not need informed debate — either on the campaign trail or in Parliament, the highest seat of rowdy ruckus. Our democracy can just ride on vulgar name-calling and derogatory stereotypes. The vulgarisation of politics has bred a new language for a new age of ungracious, uncivil, illiberal politicians. And unless they are checked, this crude lot will breathe their own mean spirit into our wounded democracy.
Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org