SUPPORT www.unreserved.in : an appeal by Ram Bhat, on behalf of Maraa and UR/Unreserved team
Approximately two weeks ago (around 18th of August, 2017), our website www.unreserved.in was blocked by various internet service providers across the country, although it later emerged that some people could still access the website. UR/Unreserved is a traveling arts project that involves 14 artists from Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Kashmir traveling on the Indian Railways for a month – interacting with passengers and then performing at public spaces in the above mentioned states in between the journey. The focus would be on how identities are constructed in India, i.e. how we see ourselves in relation to the Other – thereby implicating ourselves and the Other in daily life, often with profound consequences for millions of citizens.
Our experience with the block of our website, some of our plans to deal with it and how it impacted us is worth reading for artists or anyone else who might be susceptible to censorship in the future. Thanks to Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama who has already covered these details. This statement will focus on other aspects of what can be learnt from this painful but also farcical episode of censorship.
We are curious about why the government wants to block our website. A traveling arts project is not exactly threatening the status quo. Further, curiosity and engagement with processes of identity construction is necessarily an open-ended process. There is no in-advance condemnation of any particular party, politician or any social group. From concerns about language, to food habits, to religion, marriage, divorce, clothing, color of skin and other minutiae of public and private life, identity has acquired weight if you live in India.
The arts invite a process to observe daily life practices where such identification processes are constructed. Artists can then deconstruct such processes and show them back to audiences in public spaces across the country. Audiences, when they see their own identity construction processes re-constructed via actors, might be open to acknowledge difference (what do you mean by ‘difference’). This project is not insisting on a somewhat rosy but ultimately unrealisable demand for all people of all kinds to integrate themselves into a seamless and harmonious multicultural entity. Neither do we fall back on some supposedly universalist common minimum programme of rights and rationality. Rather, this project seeks to investigate the contours of how difference exists – thereby putting the spotlight back on the always present negotiations of enforcing, distorting or even subverting established notions of difference. Rather than divide society neatly into villains and victims, the arts can throw open the entire complex but pervasive negotiations of all identity constructions – individually and collectively.
In such a context, to be faced with censorship is at once puzzling, comical and somehow infuriating. Because of this block, we are not able to fundraise, we are not able to talk to potential collaborators for the future, apply for festivals where we might want to showcase our work, document our processes, write blogs and in general document and represent our work. In any case, this is not a complaint. The slippages of bureaucracy are such that even censorship is only half baked in this case. Telecom service providers themselves say it is blocked by TRAI, then they say it is not blocked at all, and then they just avoid talking to us. Government agencies maintain a stony silence. In the meanwhile, because they can’t stop us talking about the block, our project itself attracts more attention than it has received in prior months. Ironically, in what is called the Streisand Effect, the censorship of our website has actually increased our visibility.
In such times, one can only say that censorship works in strange ways. With such polarisation, at least in discourse, perhaps it is better to be censored. True, or insidious censorship would have meant the government endorsing and embracing our project. A half-baked blocking of website not only has established the fragility of power but at the same time increased attention towards us. We are grateful to Raiot for agreeing to publish content from our website. After the block, we have maintained a low key blog for live updates on the project, including our attempts to unblock the website. Also we have a Facebook pageand a fundraiser page. If you find our work interesting or worth supporting, do consider contributing in any capacity you can. The fine gentlemen at the Department of Telecommunications may wish to continue their efforts at blocking our website, but they cannot block our work. Our work will transcend us artists, and our censors. As they say, Ars longa, vita brevis.