The issue of sensibility should be at the top of the new government’s agenda because its attitude to freedom of expression will determine whether it is truly committed to the wonder that is India

The giddy rise in the Sensex is a measure of the anticipation that has gripped the country. Pundits have forecast a stable government and “those who know better” are predicting a period of growing prosperity. In such a period when reading the tea leaves is the prevailing fashion, let me add my own forecast to the many already on the table. I predict that the first test of the new government will not be in the area of public finance, or on the policies for economic growth, since measures that are to be taken to reboot the economy have already been identified, but will be on developing a policy framework on sensibility. The first test will not be on Sensex but on sensibility.

India’s essential pluralism

Let me explain. The new government will have to very soon pass what I shall call the A.K. Ramanujan test. This is a simple test based on just two articles that A.K. Ramanujan wrote on which the new government must take a stand. The first is: Is there an Indian way of thinking? For many members of the new government, the title would be enough reason for their cultural nationalism to be invoked. Of course there is an Indian way of thinking. Of course it is this thinking that makes us, as a people, superior to others because we have over millennia evolved a way of conceptualising our cosmos, and of our place in it, our Dharma shastras, that have been the basis of our grand civilisation. It is this Indian way of thinking, it is argued, that has produced the great Mahabharata and the Natya Shastra. This, Ramanujan would accept. But his position is more complex and more subtle than a superficial reading of the title may suggest, since he argues against a simple universalism, showing how, time, place, and community are all factors that qualify the moral law. The dharmic injunction is thus for anyone a combination of the universal and the contextual. Our challenge, therefore, is to identify the reasons why a particular combination is both relevant and right. Ramanujan’s reading serves as a powerful defence of the diversity of India, of the essential pluralism which is at the heart of Indian civilisation.

A stand on heterodoxy

Which brings me to the second article: “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” If the Indian way of thinking is right then we as a society have produced 300 Ramayanas. What will be the new government’s stand on A.K. Ramanajun’s second essay? I have raised the core issue of a government’s attitude to sensibility because I anticipate that in the next few months we are going to see all the little hecklers — who have shown their faces in the last few years demanding censorship of books, articles, cartoons, paintings, plays, films, photographs, a music band, discos, film songs, and even casual remarks about premarital sex — come out of the woodwork. Textbooks will come under scrutiny. Cultural organisations will face protest. Art works will be vandalised. Universities will develop a moral police and self-censorship will grow. All in the service of restoring the glory of Indian civilisation from the depradations of pseudo-secularism. The censors, both political and social, will demand forms of expression that do not offend. Sections of the IPC, 295A and also 153A will be used to silence expression that self-styled protectors of Indian civilisation find objectionable. Aubrey Menen faced it in 1956. Salman Rushdie in 1988. Wendy Doniger in 2014.

I have placed the issue of sensibility at the top of the new government’s agenda because its attitude to freedom of expression will determine whether it is truly committed to the wonder that is India. Let not the professions of loyalty to Bharat Mata, by the hecklers demanding censorship, deceive us. The truly loyal are those who appreciate the six schools of Indian philosophy, who see not just the Brahmana but also the S´ramana traditions, the Sufi and the Bhakti movements, the Syrian orthodox practices and the metaphysics of Kashmiri Shaivism, as part of our culture.

The list of what is to be included is too long to be presented here. But it must be noted that they are all a part of Indian culture. Faiz’s lamentations and Tulsidas’ prayers are as much a part of our tradition as Periyar’s scepticism. The new government will have to take a stand on such heterodoxy. Sensibility, as an aesthetic disposition, as a culture of appreciation of the diverse forms of cultural life, is what the new government will have to nurture and protect. Sensibility has to become a treasured national resource for the new age. Sensibility sustains society more than the Sensex. Man truly does not live by bread alone. We ignore this basic truth at our own peril.

The signs of the last few years are not encouraging. Lest the last three sentences are seen as being too rhetorical, more political bluster than philosophical depth, let me get scholars whose scholarship on Indian philosophy and culture is unquestionable to echo my views. I quote from the introduction of the first volume of the 20 volume series on History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, whose General Editor Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya sets out the seven principles for inclusion of articles in the encyclopedic project. Elaborating on the second principle he states, “we try to show the linkages between different branches of learning as different modes of experience in an organic manner and without resorting to a kind of reductionism, materialistic or spiritualistic. The internal dialectics of organicism without reductionism allows fuzziness, discontinuity and discreteness within limits.” Organic evolution, no reductionism, fuzziness, and discontinuity, all keywords that lead India’s intellectual life into a comfortable heterodoxy.

Freedom of expression conflicts

I mention this authoritative scholarship because I see the censors reappearing. Fortunately we have a new Chief Justice of India who has assumed office just as the new government will take its oath. In one of the first decisions of his term in office, he has recommended for elevation to the Supreme Court two outstanding senior advocates and ex-solicitors general of India. The Court is where the emerging Freedom of Expression (FoE) conflicts will have to be decided and direction given on the core principles of India’s constitutional democracy. If Indian civilisation is as plural as scholarship suggests, and if this plurality grows because of non-reductionism and organic evolution, and if we are to be enriched by the great dissenting traditions such as Buddhism, and if we are to nurture, for our civilisational benefit, some present day Ca¯rva¯kas, then the court must move beyond seeing FoE disputes only through IPC 295A and 153A and read them through 19(1)(a) and 19(2) of the Constitution. We need a new jurisprudence for a vibrant India and such jurisprudence must be a friend of FoE.

Democratic societies across the world have produced impressive case law on FoE, the most extensive being the United States where in defence of the first amendment fine distinctions have been made on content, intent, place, procedure, offence, etc, of hate speech. The Court has to go beyond asking for a report from the Law Commission on hate speech and be prepared to see FoE as part of basic structure. It must be prepared to act suo motu. We need to build first amendment type case law in India. We need to do so urgently. Soli Sorabjee, in an article titled “Freedom of Expression and Censorship: Some Aspects of the Indian Experience,” published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly of 1994, concludes with the words of Madison endorsed by the SCI that “it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding proper fruits.”

Which brings me back to the point that the new government must develop a policy on sensibility. If they fail the A.K. Ramanujan test then, as good Indians, we will give them a retest. And always in such cases the retest will be more difficult.

They will then have to pass a Namdeo Dhasal test.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

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