SUCH A LONG DOUBLE-SPEAK

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Talking about the wrong turn on Rohinton Mistry’s book this week, India’s most irreverent sociologist had this gem to offer: “The quality of Vice-Chancellors in this country can be written on the back of a postage stamp, with space to spare,” snorts Ashis Nandy. This paper has spearheaded the pushback against the Mumbai Vice Chancellor’s decision to remove Such a Long Journey from the syllabus and enough has already been written about the fight for intellectual freedom in what was once India’s most cosmopolitan city but what is particularly disappointing is the response of the Congress this week, in Delhi and in Mumbai.

We expect the usual arguments from the Sena but the hypocrisy on display by the Congress, as a party that purports to stand for liberal India, is particularly disappointing. On the one hand, the Congress in Delhi insists that it can never be on the same side as the Sena and party spokesperson Manish Tewari has waxed eloquent on Article 19’s guarantees for the freedom of expression.

In the same breath, Mr Tiwari has fallen between two stools in justifying what he calls Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s “personal objections to the language used in the book” and the need to keep public order.

The party has been virtually defending the indefensible, while trying very hard not to sound like it is. It has insisted at various times that the education portfolio in the state is with the NCP, that the University is an autonomous institution and that if anyone has a problem they can take it up through the University’s usual channels. This is a bureaucrat’s legal response, designed to have your cake and eat it too, not one of principle.

When central command should have been admonishing Ashok Chavan, it has chosen to sit by the sidelines, dismissing the controversy as a “local” issue. This inexplicable double-speak completely misses the point. The local is the national and by not defending a basic ideal, the Congress has willy-nilly justified the Sena’s bullying tactics.

It is a cynically political calculation. Ashok Chavan’s “personal objections” were not off-the cuff. When first confronted with the issue, he took time-out to look into it further but indicated that “if any writing is based on fact, we cannot change it.” His personal objections only came later after considered deliberation.

We can only speculate here but the line of thinking might have gone something like this: We won’t gain too many votes on the Mistry issue (the people who shout about this sort of thing don’t vote anyway) but we may lose a few. So, why take on the Sena?. Let’s sit this one out.

The political wisdom of such a strategy is, of course, questionable. But even if we give the Chief Minister the benefit of the doubt and accept that his personal objections are indeed heart-felt, then what of Congress HQ in Delhi? Political leaders are entitled to have their personal opinions but political parties and governments must act on principles.

Nehru provided an example in the 1950s when his cabinet minister KM Munshi led the drive to rebuild the Somnath temple. Nehru insisted that the government could not be involved in a religious initiative and that this must remain a personal endeavour.

When Rajendra Prasad as President insisted on going for the temple’s inauguration in his personal capacity, the Prime Minister made it clear that he was unhappy, that the visit must remain personal and that this was not an institutional position of the government he headed.

Could the Congress in Delhi not have taken a leaf out of that book and sent out a strong and unmistakable signal? Instead, it has chosen to be pusillanimous, forgetting that it never pays to be the B-team in a race to the bottom.

All the finer ideas about literature and its crucial role in offering a mirror to society seem lost in the political discourse as it is unfolding but someone should have at least reminded the Chief Minister that even legally, in the matter of books, they should be read as a whole.

This is exactly what the Supreme Court ruled in the James Laine case, arguing that “one cannot rely on strongly worded and isolated passages for proving the charge.”

The Congress had an opportunity here to portray itself as the party that wants to rejuvenate Mumbai’s traditional cultures of tolerance and cosmopolitanism. Instead, by buckling under at the slightest hint of a meow from the Sena, it has only ended up adding to its stripes.