The Freedom to Read

We, as people who like to read, are beleaguered. We have been forced to accept political conformity of school and college text books, but when the government believes that even beyond that, people are not to be allowed choice in their reading matter, we are in dangerous territory. Personally, we are the sort of people who read a variety of books and for it to be implied by people in power that reading something is the equivalent of agreeing with it, is offensive. While we do not agree with everything we read, we find it interesting regardless. To us it is not only fascinating to see how other people think but also how well and with what clarity they express their thoughts. Awareness of different viewpoints is not only necessary but helps to widen our approach to differences. After all, a dialogue on any issue is more stimulating than a simple narration.

How we feel of course is nothing in comparison to the feeling of being besieged that writers in India are experiencing The news these days is full of writers protesting the constraints on their freedom of expression. Authors and academics in India have gotten used to being threatened, having their books burnt publicly and banned by successive weak governments which give in to the demands of the militant few. Having a book burnt was in fact desirable by writers because it garnered much more publicity and higher sales than the occasional review and display in a bookshop ever could. Even banning could lead to hot sales in the black market and a huge advance for the next book once notoriety was attached to the author’s name. But now, when the writers are paying for their opinions with their lives and our Government considers such killings as just another crime and not an attack on the freedom of expression, the whole scenario takes on a much more sinister hue.

How does one express a theory, an opinion or even an academic idea without wondering ten times about the reaction from those who do not agree? Time was that differing viewpoints would be expressed in the form of well written articles or equally well researched papers or books. In today’s world when everything is expected to be instant, no one has the inclination to go through such a lengthy and laborious process of disagreement. Easier to just lynch the writer or publisher, throw black paint on them or even to just kill them.

When the only reaction our Cultural Minister has to the writers complaining about their feeling of being threatened is “If they (writers) are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see” it is obvious that the said “Cultural Minister” has never heard of Article 19 of the Constitution of India. What use is a government which does not feel it has a duty to ensure Constitutional freedoms?

Strangely enough, the loony fringe which so easily takes offence at the slightest, most innocuous of things, is allowed to protest using any means they choose, even illegal methods, and is lauded for it. But the writers in turn are not allowed to feel offended by the harsh words used against them or even the murder of their colleagues. Their peaceful means of protest (like returning of awards etc.) are considered to have been politically motivated. It is also very telling that it is only the individual writers, academics and rational thinkers who are attacked. The crazies leave the big media houses and newspapers well enough alone.

So where does this stifling of creativity and independent thought leave the poor readers? Will we, in the future, have to be satisfied with reading books and articles which conform? True readers always look for variety and new ways to look at the world around them. We enjoy technicolour and are easily bored by monotones. Most of all, we do not want the availability of reading material dictated by those who are either limited as readers or those who do not read at all.

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