The Pornography of Morality

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Look who's undermining Modi's modernity agenda
You have sinned. You have crossed the limits of choices set for you by the state. In the legion of the depraved and the deviant, you may be beyond redemption, but the state, all knowing and wiser, is duty bound to subject you to a moral cleansing, for the simple reason that the Citizen Purified is a prerequisite for the cultural well being of the nation. The temptations of technology, the blasphemies of imagination, the profanities of images, the lies of history—there is no end to the forbidden that lure the vulnerable. These forays of perversion shatter the civilisational idyll; they corrupt the soul. So beware what you are watching, reading, listening, for your individual choices are subordinate to the moral health of the motherland. So behave.

These commandments keep coming from the guardians of a morally endangered India. The original ban on internet pornography, which was later diluted by adding a ‘child’ clause to it, is just another instance of the virtuous state setting the limits of individual choices, a form of mind control. It is not that online pornography needs to be defended; it is also true that children have to be protected from the vulgarities of the web. Still, do we want moral policing by the state? The thing about technology is that even as its possibilities blur the distinction between good and evil, it allows you self-censorship as well.

The problem begins when the state seeks to control the mind. This happens mostly, though, in totalitarian or other gagged societies, where the waywardness of the mind is a threat to the state, and where, in the state’s project of happiness, the ruler demands ownership of your conscience, copyrights over your tastes—and unhindered access to the realm of the private. The homogenisation of minds makes it easier for the state, which is personified in the maximum leader, to banish questions. Ideology becomes an alternative to religion, and internalises its worst instincts. That is why when it comes to the invasion of the private, there is not much difference between the two.

Indian democracy, considered to be the world’s most volatile, has the bad habit of yielding to totalitarian temptations. The Emergency was the most obvious example. The little traditions of dictatorship, provincial as well as national, have not got similar historical attention. The violations of the private and the suppression of dissent were most blatantly carried out by a paranoid Indira Gandhi, but there were—and there still are— provincial potentates who brook no threat, politically or culturally. A new eco-system of sacredness was created where a novelist or a painter or a filmmaker could become an enemy of the truth, a saboteur of culture, or a debunker of faith. That was why the Indian politician banished Salman Rushdie even before the Ayatollah could make up his mind on the blasphemer. That was why MF Husain abandoned India in his final years.

Censorship, official as well as unofficial, became so common that there was always a group, a leader, a god’s advocate, a political family out there, ready to be hurt by a book, a film, a painting… Everything was sacred. There are still limits of how far a biographer or a historian or a filmmaker or a novelist can go in India. The hurt industry is so powerful that it can intimidate and get away with it. It is the cultural hurt that has now prompted the Telecommunications Ministry to deny internet access to pornography. The Ministry, in the end, is unlikely to achieve anything but the dubiousness of becoming an agent of moral proselytisation. An unsolicited contribution by Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister ordained to fight the base instincts of Indians, to the further vitiation of the cultural atmospherics today.

His moral service to the nation comes at a time when the stereotype of a culturally unipolar India is gaining momentum in the minds of those who are getting disenchanted with the other side of this government’s modernisation agenda— call it not the medieval side, but the mythological side. A pornography-free India goes perfectly well with an India whose official history project is supervised by someone whose scholarly credentials are questioned by his peers, and its cultural institutions are increasingly headed by C-list sevaks. Narendra Modi won India as a modernizer who famously said that what the country needed most was not the temple but the toilet. As candidate, he was not leading a culture war; he was in conversation with the young and the discerning on the future. Modi on the stump was not one of those Hindutva votaries desperately shopping in the black market of mythology for wares he could sell to the crowd. He found technology more alluring. And as Prime Minister too, he did not cease to be modern in his outlook or in action. He did not counter the moral agenda of the cultural right either, sadly. Time is still on the modernizer’s side.

Till then, we may have to live with the pornography of morality politics.