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Hidden Gags


new internationalist
issue 249 - November 1993

Hidden gags
It’s easy to talk about ‘free speech’ – if you have it.
Urvashi Butalia explains how cultural imperialism
silences most of India’s people.

Manjula Padmanabhan is one of India’s few women cartoonists. She usually has trouble placing her work. This is partly because she is a woman and her work is about women, not about ‘hard’ political stories which are the stuff of most cartoons. But it is also because most newspapers prefer to buy syndicated Beetle Bailey, Peanuts or Garfield comic strips which are available at half the price they would have to pay a local cartoonist.

Recently Manjula came up against another problem. At an international cartoon exhibition on ‘herstory’ she found that almost every cartoonist had chosen to interpret the theme in terms of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, using its creation myths. It was as if no other history, mythology or religion existed. Had Manjula tried to locate her work in Hindu religion, her work would probably have been incomprehensible to many.

If, however, she had gone ahead and used Hindu religion she would have fallen into yet another trap. In the political climate of India today, Hindu fundamentalists have more or less appropriated the Hindu religion, and she would probably have been identified as one of them. Where, she asked, was her freedom to speak as she wished?

And yet Manjula is a woman of considerable privilege: middle class, educated, articulate, well-off. What this incident brought home to her – that freedom of speech is never absolute and that it cannot exist outside a given political context – is something that has long been common knowledge among the poor and the powerless. They know that it is only those who have the power who can afford to speak.

Some years ago a group of tribal women in Bihar, eastern India spoke to an activist and researcher about their struggle for land. They said: ‘We had tongues but could not speak. We had feet but could not walk.’ Until, that is, a political group came along, helped them to learn about their legal rights and created the conditions for them to fight – successfully – for their right to land. ‘Now,’ they said, ‘we have land and can speak and walk.’

As civil rights activist Swami Agnivesh recently pointed out: the necessary corollary of freedom of speech is the right to information. Only when people are armed with information can they criticize existing systems, struggle, demand and work for change. The example Swami Agnivesh gave was a simple one: why did the Indian Government not simply publicize the minimum wage on television every now and again? If workers knew what wage they had a right to at least they could fight for that. Armed with this knowledge they would be very powerful indeed.

The question then is one of power – and with it the control of knowledge, of how it is produced and how it is disseminated. This power is held internationally by the rich and powerful nations who dictate what people can know or not know. Today’s technology has provided astonishing speed and spread to the dissemination of such knowledge. Nationally it is held by upper classes and castes, and within communities and families such power is held by ‘elders’ and men.

The history of any country provides innumerable examples of this. India is no exception. It was the Christian missionaries who, by bringing printing into India and associating it with the ‘word of God’, successfully marginalized the rich oral cultures of this country. And then a century and a half ago, the British began the process of Europeanization; they called it ‘enriching’ the minds of Indians. William Bentinck, who in 1835 ruled ‘in favour of the promotion of European literature and science’ was advised by his Director of Public Instruction, Macaulay, that the ‘dialects spoken among the natives in this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some richer quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them’.

The empire needed an Indian élite educated in English to help rule. For Indians, once the British left, English remained the language of power and access. English is spoken and read by only two or three per cent of the population. However, it is today the English-educated urban middle class that controls the state apparatus and the media, and it is this class in whose interests it is to elevate the language to a higher status. Thus the process of marginalizing Indian languages and literatures, begun by the British, has been kept alive by a class of Indians. It is precisely these people who can afford to speak about freedom of speech, for it is they who have it. For those who don’t, things are not that easy.

Who, then, gets left out of the equation? The poor, the illiterate, the powerless, the marginalized. Each society produces its own marginals, different people in different contexts: blacks, homosexuals, tribals, indigenous peoples, women, minorities. For another corollary of freedom of speech is that there must also exist the ability to listen, the openness to hear, the need and ability to allow for dissent and criticism. And at this level all societies fail somewhere, whether it is a white society denying a voice to the blacks, male society denying a voice to women, or colonial rulers denying a voice to their subjects. This problem, however, is easily circumvented by the powerful – point your finger at the powerless, assign blame there and take attention away from yourself. It is much easier to talk about the unfairness of banning Salman Rushdie than to look at the censorship about the Malvinas/Falklands War or to look at the manipulation of information about the Gulf War.

Nor must freedom of speech be a one-way affair. People may be able to speak all they want, but there must exist an atmosphere in which such free speech is possible. Bal Thackeray, a Hindu fundamentalist leader in Western India, complained vociferously that Indian films were being discriminatory towards the majority Hindu community by showing Muslims in a good light. As things go, Thackeray has the right to say what he feels – and no one needs to agree with it. But when his hired criminals began to attack film personalities and film theatres and force them to withdraw films which do not show Hindus in a good light, they are creating conditions that make it impossible for those involved to speak up. They create fear.

‘From our knowledge of the history
of man [sic], from our knowledge of the colonial
liberation movements, freedom or self-government
has never been handed over to any colonial
country on a silver platter.’
Kwame Nkrumah

These are not the only ways freedom is denied – there are gentler ways. Nine years ago, when we decided to start publishing books about women our plan to do so was greeted with a great deal of scepticism. ‘But do women have that much to say?’ we were asked. This was in India. We had a different reaction outside, particularly in the West. We were told how terribly important it was to have something like this in India; after all, Indian women were so oppressed.

Either way you lose out: if we don’t have much of importance to say, no-one will bother to listen to us. Or, if we can only talk about our oppression, as if that is our only important reality, then who will listen to us if we talk about anything else, or indeed if we talk only about that?

Implicit also in the rhetoric about freedom of speech is the assumption that it is fine to speak as long as you are speaking of ‘good’ things or ‘sanctioned’ things. Those of us who think the right things and say the right things are quick to deny freedom of speech to those who transgress the invisible moral boundaries that we have set for ourselves.

Why do we continue to speak about the freedom of speech or insist on seeing the idea as separate from hard economic, political, historical realities on the ground? Why cannot we think of a more egalitarian speech, a concept that provides the space for different voices, different peoples, different ways of listening and hearing, what one might call plurality and multiplicity of speeches. And it is important to recognize that there can be many different kinds of speech: within feminism, for example, we have begun to recognize and accept this. While we may all broadly believe in the same things, the lives and conditions of white feminists and black feminists, of First world women and Third World women are different. We must address different issues, speak about different things and will have unequal access in being heard.

It is only if we recognize this as a reality, if we accept that we need to have a dialogue, clashes of opinion, and many different voices, that we can really talk about speech being free, egalitarian, open, enriching and therefore transformative.

Urvashi Butalia is a founder-editor of the Delhi-based Indian women’s publishing house, Kali for Women, which has printed Indian women’s writing in their own languages. Some of their titles are also available in translation in conjunction with foreign publishers (see Worth Reading)


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New Internationalist issue 249 magazine cover This article is from the November 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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