The Indian Heroine
Tulsi Falls in the Battle For Freedom of Speech in Karzai's Afghanistan
June 11, 2008
On a snowy Afghan
evening, I had to watch Agha Jan and his son fix my car in a make-shift garage
in Kabul. As Agha jan the mechanic (mistari) was fumbling with wrenches and
pliers, his phone burst into a Bollywood-music ring tone. With greasy hands, he
laboured to pull a blackened cell phone out of his large side pocket. Moments
later I overheard a female voice urging him to rush home.
"The mother of my
kids," he said to me smilingly while preparing to wrap thing up. Realizing
that Agha Jan's stop-work-alarm-bell had rung, I acquiesced to bring the car
the next day. Meanwhile Agha Jan continued muttering his evening to-do-list: he
had to wash up, buy groceries, and drive home and watch the
"un-miss-able" episode of Tulsi -- an Indian Soap Opera, about which
he had spent a good part of his day speculating.
The drama of Tulsi -- a
young Indian girl -- broadcast by a private TV channel (Tolo) had become the
talk of the town and an incredible commercial success by the time my car was to
be fixed by Agha Jan. Millions of Afghans across assorted demographics would
huddle around their TV sets to watch the opera acted out in indoor settings by
jewelry-covered Indian stars.
Little did these
millions know that the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture were to ban
the drama soon -- "on religious and national security grounds."
Needless to mention that the opera is no Sex and the City, nor is it Fahrenheit
9/11. In fact Tulsi would make a G-Rated American movie look 'obscene'.
decision to ban the opera has not gone unchallenged though. It has at least
opened up a vigorous and somewhat heated debate dividing Afghans into pro and
cons of what constitutes freedom of speech. The "freedom of speech"
argument however has missed the point. At the end of the day, it has failed to
bring back Tulsi and remove the prospect for its fans that the status quo would
A different argument
relates but is not exclusively centered on the definition of "freedom of
speech." It is to go back to the basics and remind Karzai's administration
that the decision to ban an innocuous drama is anachronistic, discriminatory,
un-Islamic and undemocratic. Regardless of the motive (political, religious or
cultural), it is particularly cruel to ban a family-oriented drama in a country
whose populations were deprived of all legitimate entertainment opportunities
for over half a decade under the Taliban.
Banning a truly popular
drama hits the poor harder than the elites of the Afghan government. It
deprives people like the mechanic, Agha Jan, his wife and kids of a joyful
moment that they would share over dinner. The poor could barely afford to buy a
TV set to watch national channels, but those with means already have or would
readily substitute to international channels accessible through cable networks
or beaming satellite dishes.
The dish-like antennas
are widely available at "affordable" prices in almost every Afghan
marketplace. It is not uncommon to see big dishes hypocritically hanging from
the rooftops of the very 'elites' who allegedly lobbied for the ban. Assuming
that the lobbyists genuinely cared for Afghan religious and cultural values,
the ban would not only have no effect to preserve Afghan culture, but it would
also entail unintended substitution effects -- which would undermine its very
intent and purpose. That is, those who could afford it are likely to substitute
towards even more "destructive" international programs completely
alien to Afghan religion and culture.
administration, mimicking Ahmadinejad's cronies in Iran and their notorious
penchant for censorship is not a shrewd political strategy. Nor does the ban
broadcast the piousness of his administration as he attempts to win the hearts
and minds of god-abiding Afghans ahead of the 2009 presidential elections. A
better strategy might be to put principles before politics, human nature before
mob mentality and the global and technological realities before alarmist
private space is against the Islamic concept of privacy (Harim), principle of
individual liberty and a clear indicator of the State's messed-up priorities.
As the late Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau famously said, "The
state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." To Karzai's ministry of
Information and Culture, however, it is obvious that not only the State has a
place in the nation's bedrooms but in their living rooms as well.