There has always been a certain political volatility in India, and literary sources often test the robustness of claims to diversity. The cultural framework of Western Democracies has learned much from the arguments for free speech centred on literary texts. This has been the case throughout the twentieth century, and will continue to play a larger role—one recalls the cases of James Joyce’s Ulysses, D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Nabokov’s Lolita, and so on. Likewise, India has had its own history of difficulties with banning books, plays, and other such literary works that may offend certain sections of society or religious and caste communities.
It is in this context that Universities can play a role as safety-valve, and allow the more patient discussions that test the claims of free speech versus community feeling. The T M A Pai Chair in Indian Literature at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, as part of its outreach initiatives, had invited two of the most prominent writers who have had to engage judicially with groups claiming to be offended by their works. One was the senior, seventy-five-year-old bilingual author Kiran Nagarkar, whose inventive re-telling of the ancient epic the Mahabharat, got into trouble with varied parties. His play, Bedtime Stories, was never officially banned, but one of the difficulties with the societal architecture in India is the power of entrenched groups to unofficially/extra-judicially ‘ban’ the play, by simply threatening disruption or even violence if it was ever staged. Though the play was written in the nineteen seventies, it has hardly been performed, or only performed surreptitiously. In this context, there was a public reading in Manipal, and it was lauded by many litterateurs as being a work that truly tried to engage with the most ideal and socially just aspirations of the epic, rather than in any way denigrating that epic. Everyone realized how unfortunate it was that there had been this unofficial ban without most of its perpetrators ever reading or watching the play.
Likewise, the most famous example of contemporary restrictions on speech was the work of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Murugan had– in response to numerous anonymous threats on WhatsApp, some directed to his family—announced on Facebook that he would never write again. This suicide on Facebook was a momentous event in modern Indian literary culture. However, over time, this unfortunate event had happier consequences—a path-breaking High Court Judgment, defining a far more expansive free-speech jurisprudence, ruled in Murugan’s favour. Indeed, the judges personally exhorted Murugan to write, and Murugan returned to work. Like Nagarkar, Murugan was a Writer-in-Residence at Manipal. The space of higher education was a balm to him also, as his works were discussed with much more calm and literary feeling. He was happy to discuss, for once, questions of craft, and not let the political and legal perspectives entirely overtake the readings of his oeuvre. Even the public discussion that followed allowed him to speak with more introspection and frankness of the pain he had felt in the weeks after the first threats.
Universities must retain this fundamental dimension of freedom and creativity, even the scope for error and free thought. It is unfortunate that India has so very few such Chairs in Literature—Chairs whose mandate is essentially to bridge the gap between high cultural production, and the larger confusions and hostilities of societal space. Funding for such Chairs also provide writers the time to grow new aspects to their work, as they get to meet younger and fresher minds, and mould these minds toward the more idealistic aspects of social and political citizenship.