Suspension of writer-journalist Salil Tripathi’s account by Twitter India is an outrage
Voices of truth face relentless assault from the throttlers in the government and their minions incorporations monetising hypocrisy and racist double-standards
When writer-journalist Salil Tripathi, who’s a universally-renowned free speech activist and the Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of the PEN International, posted a 2009 poem titled ‘My Mother’s Fault’ on the Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat and 1947 on Twitter, he soon realised that his friends and readers back in India were unable to see not just the said tweet, but his entire account. The curt, bureaucratic minimalism of the Indian counterpart of the American social media giant notified to residents of India that Tripathi’s account was suspended; the fine print said his tweet/s violated Twitter rules.
Global literary superstar Salman Rushdie personally chided Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for the ridiculousness of his company’s Indian executives; Indian-American author of This Land is Our Land Suketu Mehta said “India needs Salil’s voice”, while liberal Indian Twitterati reposted Tripathi’s moving poem making it “go viral”, exactly what those who were offended by the poem wanted not to happen.
First of all, let’s read the poem in solidarity with Tripathi:
My Mother’s Fault
By Salil Tripathi
You marched with other seven-year-old girls,
Singing songs of freedom at dawn in rural Gujarat,
Believing that would shame the British and they would leave India.
Five years later, they did.
When you first saw Maqbool Fida Husain’s nude sketches of Hindu goddesses,
When I told you that some people wanted to burn his art.
‘Have those people seen any of our ancient sculptures? Those are far naughtier,’
Your voice broke,
On December 6, 1992,
As you called me at my office in Singapore,
When they destroyed the Babri Masjid.
‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said.
Aavutekaraay koi divas (Can anyone do such a thing any time?)
You asked, aghast,
Staring at the television,
As Hindu mobs went, house-to-house,
Looking for Muslims to kill,
After a train compartment in Godhra burned,
Killing 58 Hindus in February 2002.
You were right, each time.
After reading what I’ve been writing over the years,
Some folks have complained that I just don’t get it.
I live abroad: what do I know of India?
But I knew you; that was enough.
And that’s why I turned out this way.
The poem first appeared in Tripathi’s book, Offence: The Hindu Case (2009), published by Seagull Books. The demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 was the day India’s secularism suffered a near-fatal blow, from which it still hasn’t recovered, and the historic miasma has now spread all over and inside its body. On the 28th anniversary of that day of national shame — a day that has divided India ever since; a day that is condemned in the ever-shrinking liberal circles as it is celebrated in the ever-expanding Hindutva circuit —Tripathi posted a video clip of him reading the poem. Twitter India promptly suspended his account soon after.
The immense first layer of this many-tiered irony, that of Twitter India suspending Tripathi’s account in the wake of Twitter pledging to do more to uphold free speech, while flagging and taking down hate speech and fake news/claims, hasn’t gone unnoticed, as is evident from the admonishments by Rushdie, Mehta and other global writers.
The second layer of irony is that Tripathi’s myriad columns have been in the service of free speech, augmenting the cause of thinking language, incarcerated poets and artists worldwide, authors in exile, in jail, banished from or fleeing their countries that are out to get them and shut them up.
In a brilliant talk two years back at the Edinburgh Art Festival, Tripathi winged the piercing installation by artist Shilpa Gupta, honouring, remembering and amplifying the imprisoned poets of the world. He said: “We live in the post-truth world, where facts don’t matter. The world is turning binary, between us, and them. It is a very different world today. Rather than ushering in an era of freedom, we have reverted to an older form. Jailing poets was supposed to have gone out of fashion after the end of the Cold War. The sad reality is that it continues. Poets continue to be jailed – in Turkey, in Vietnam, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Cameroon and in Kazakhstan. Old names are replaced by new ones.”
He recalled the slain US president John F Kennedy who honoured the poet Robert Frost in the following words: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence, when power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure…if sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”
Tripathi spoke thus: “We live in a time where the liberal imagination is under threat. There is an assault on our collective consciousness and memory. Truth is tying its shoe-laces, even as lies have already spread far and wide, because it wears imported sneakers and runs fast, like an idea on Twitter. And yet, poets – those canaries in our mines – continue to sing. They assert that in spite of the authoritarian forces at work, humanity survives. Milan Kundera said that the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Memory reminds us of what is being lost and it does not speak in absolutes.”
Twitter India’s little apparatchik act of arbitrarily suspending a noted writer’s account isn’t just algorithm gone awry; it’s the continuous muffling of dissent, of remembered memory as opposed to manufactured, mass-broadcast official propaganda that’s infinitely louder than the intrepid songs, cries and whispers of those who refuse to forget.
Whether it’s Tripathi, or fellow Gujarati Aakar Patel, whose account was also suspended by Twitter India for a while, or the Kashmiri diaspora collective Stand With Kashmir, voices of truth face relentless assault from the throttlers in the government and their minions in corporations monetising hypocrisy and racist double-standards. This writer expects an eloquent read from the London-based Tripathi meditating on him facing this transnational hostility from Twitter India, genuflecting to homegrown Hindutva while its parent company grandstands on the values of free speech in America. That would be quite a read, if it’s allowed to remain uncensored, of course.