Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Case of The Red Sari


Javier Moro’s El Toro (The Red Sari) has already entered a life of anticipatory censorship and free publicity even though it has not been published. It is a factualized fiction about our contemporary leader, Sonia Gandhi, who obviously does not want it published. Were this not the case, her lawyer Abhishek Singhvi would not be shooting his legal mouth in what appears to be partisan Congress aggression. The idea is to pressurize Moro with the threat of a civil suit or criminal defamation case or both. Ever since two professors in Denver coined the word ‘slapp suit’, such threats have been portrayed as forms of legal terrorism. On 6 June 2010, an undeterred, and unimpressed, Moro accused Singhvi of terrorism and threatened to sue him. This is one of these cases where few have read the book, but have no hesitation in joining the crusade against Moro to save the leader. I guess they will have to invoke Shahabuddin’s defence to his attack on Rushdie’s Satanic verses: “You don’t have to read it to know it is filth”. If this is the way we want to run the country, we need to introspect.

When Sonia Gandhi entered the public domain, she placed herself in a position of being cartooned, lampooned, written about, caricatured, criticized and portrayed as good and evil. Was it not Soniaji who awakened the slumbering Vajpayee in the with the stinging suggestion that people of his persuasion on certain mateters were traitors or desh drohis. The more public a person you are, greater the possibility of jibes, sleazy portrayals even in fiction and untruth. Morarji Desai lost his case in America on the basis that even if what Seymour Hersh had said was not true, anything said in good faith and promoting public discourse of a public person was not actionable. We have not fully accepted this approach.

Suggestive innuendoes make–believes, fact and fiction parade our imagination. Let not even the wise Yudhishtra cast the first stone. If Moro tries and wants to get into the mind of Sonia Gandhi, especially when she was the bahu of the reigning Queen Empress, Indiraji and consort to her successor. Is nothing sacred? It is precisely because it is sacral that it needs to be explored.

The book has not even been published in Indian territory. The battle for pre-censorship has begun – presumably at Sonia Gandhi’s bidding. So far she is quiet. Her actions in authorizing legal notices talk. Let her speak or forever hold her peace. If she is silent, she must meet the moral and social charge of censorship.

At present she speaks through the legal mambo-jambo of her lawyers. As de facto ruler of a de jure coalition, she has three legal and one illegal option. Legally, she can persuade (command?) her government to impose a customs ban – invoked from time to time from Katherine Mayo’s Mother India to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses. The film Nine Hours to Rama was similarly censored by anti-import laws. Examples from the Nehru, Indira and Rajiv eras display such a misuse of laws. Perilously posed in coalition circumstances, Soniaji would hopefully forbear. The second legal option would be to ban and forfeit the book on the basis that it is seditious, divisive, communal obscene or a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India. Indira claimed she was India. Soniaji would not be that audacious. In any event, the book has not been published; and there is nothing to forfeit. The third legal strategy is to wait for the book to enter India or show that it is about to enter India, file a case for injunction or stay order (as it is popularly called) to stop entry into and publication and distribution in, India. This is called the slapp suit, which defenders of free speech find reprehensible. And, yet, courts willing grant this as Justice M.K. sharma did in the case of a book on Sikkimese Buddhism only to be reversed by Justice Mudgal’s bench in appeal. But such tactics are a show-stopper. The Supreme Court Bar Association (through lawyer K.K. Venugopal) injuncted Kuldip Nayar’s India House through the Delhi High Court. Likewise the publication Khushwant Singh’s memoirs were stayed at the instance of Menaka Gandhi. The story is as endless as it is shameful in the eyes of a free speech activists. Moro has faced such censorship when the Jabalpur High Court stopped publication Lapierre, Shekhar Malhotra and Moro’s It was five past midnight.

Now, we come to the illegal option which is even more omnipresent in India, and contrary to what Arun Jaitley thinks, runs across the political spectrum. This option would invite the Congress lumpen to intimidate everyone. The Sangh Parivar smashed up the Bhandarkar Institute where James Laine worked and destroyed galleries with Hussain’s, and other, paintings. We now know that the Parivar can rent thugs to terrify beer drinking girls in Mangalore. All too painfully, we also know that Bal Thackeray has set up his own brand of censorship in Bombay, now Mumbai. I would sincerely hope that Soniaji would not pursue the illegal option.

The controversy had proved to be a bonanza for Moro and his publisher. Thousands of publicity pamphlets and tons of advertising could not have given the book the publicity and notoriety that it has achieved. This is crores of rupees of free publicity. The book is already in the public domain. It has been translated into Italian, French and Dutch. The English edition is ready. When Spycatcher was injuncted by English judges, since its contents were already in the global domain, the Daily Mirror did a banner headline calling the judges “You Fools!” This is not necessarily what Indian papers should attempt but expresses a sentiment that where the cat is already out the book, (or the egg has already been scrambled – whatever the choice of metaphor), it is futile to injunct its publication which dates back to 2008. Indian judges will not be as tolerant to such a media denigration Clearly, intimidatory tactics were reserved for India. The unshakeable, Abhishek Singhvi, is relentless. He claims there are more than 20 examples which or not substantiated and are in inverted commas – conversations (some in the head) which Moro could not be privy to. But the biography is a fictionalized account reconstructed by Moro’s mind. Moro agreed that the book contain a disclaimer that this biography is not authorized. Like images in Plato’s cave, it is Moro’s glimpse of fictionalized reality, not Soniaji’s experiments with truth. Since the book is already in the public domain (and more so because of Singhvi’s legal strategy) injunctive relief should be refused. So, the issue will be quantifying damages. Foreign publishers in India tend to back down when faced with legal threats. Moro and Roli Books may not. But they may agree to more disclaimers, deletions and the like.

Soniaji claims to be, and should act as, a statesman. She should ignore the book in one of those flashes of wisdom that should guide the best in the best of us. An Arab proverb reminds us of that wisdom: “Dogs may bark, but the caravan passes by.” Moro is not canine, but he has barked. Let Soniaji’s caravan pass by.

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