Opinion » Comment

Updated: September 20, 2013 02:41 IST

A novel way to curb free speech

Bageshree S.
Comment (16)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu
Illustration: Satwik Gade

The arrest of Yogesh Master in Karnataka for allegedly insulting Hindu sentiments through his book deals another blow to the freedom of expression and creative literary interpretation

The Kannada novel Dhundi created history of sorts in Karnataka when, on August 29, its author was arrested on the charge of outraging the religious sentiments of Hindus. Though controversies around books are not new in Karnataka, Yogesh Master became the first writer to be arrested under IPC 295A (deliberate acts intended to outrage religious feelings) and IPC 298 (uttering words with intent to wound religious feeling).

Following another case filed by Pramod Muthalik, founder of Sri Rama Sene, a City Civil and Sessions Court passed an interim order of injunction on the sale and distribution of the novel until September 28.

After political change

That the arrest took place under the newly-elected Congress government in Karnataka led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah — he is known to be a man with “secular” credentials — and not during the previous Bharatiya Janata Party regime marked by communal tensions — has left many baffled.

The unprecedented arrest has led to a reversal of sorts in Karnataka’s intellectual circles: while the liberal and progressive voices that had openly supported Mr. Siddaramaiah have been highly critical of the handling of the issue, right wing groups have congratulated the “secular” government for its swift action.

Earlier examples

Karnataka has had a long history of caste and religious groups protesting against what they perceive as “offensive” characterisations of their communities or their heroes and gods. Kuvempu’s portrayal of the Shudra Shambuka episode from Ramayana was seen by some back in the 1940s as an insult to the epic, and Masti Venkatesh Iyenger’s historical novel on King Chikkaveera Rajendra saw the numerically strong Lingayat community demanding its withdrawal in the 1980s. Controversies around Mahachaitra by H.S. Shivaprakash, Dharmakarana by P.V. Narayana, Anu Deva Horaginavanu by Banjagere Jayaprakash and Gandhi Banda by H. Nagaveni have resulted in them being withdrawn from circulation or from university syllabi.

On the other side of the divide, cases were filed against M. Chidananda Murthy, a scholar with an unequivocal right-wing position, for his writings on Tipu Sultan. The portrayal of the Muslim community in the S.L. Bhyrappa novel Aavarana resulted in heated debate. But the works of the two authors have never been withdrawn from circulation.

Based on reports

What sets the Dhundi controversy apart, however, is not just the arrest of its author, but also that the book was withdrawn from sale and circulation within 10 days of its release, even before it was read and an opinion formed. The complaint and the court petition were based on reports in a section of the Kannada media that were clearly fuelled by the right wing propaganda machinery. The articles and television debates quoted from the book selectively and out of context and went to the extent of conducting a media trial of the author, projecting him as a “pervert.”

Author Yogesh Master was unknown except in theatre circles before the controversy erupted. A former schoolteacher and a theatre activist (which has earned him his second name “Master”), he chose a wide canvas for his novel that revolves around the character of Dhundi Ganapathi. He described the novel as the story of how an Aranyaka (forest dweller or tribal) became Ganapathi (a valiant clan leader) and eventually god.

The novel is set in a period of great churning in ancient India when different migrant groups and natives fought for survival and supremacy. The novel centres around the newly-arrived Aryans slowly establishing control over the natives like Aranyakas, Shudras and Dasyus. The subjugation takes place partly through coercion and partly through manipulation and co-option of the local elite. At a cultural level, the moral codes and sexual mores of these groups are often in conflict with those of the Aryans. The prime objection against the book is the perceived obscenity and disrespect in the portrayal of characters like Rudra, Parvathi and Dhundi Ganapathi and their relationships, disregarding the reverential places they occupy in the Hindu pantheon today.

Not new

While there can always be debates on the literary merits (or the lack of it) of a fictional work and the extent of its historicity, the core subject of this novel is not an explosive new idea. Historians such as D.D. Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Rahul Sankrityayan, P.V. Kane and several others have written extensively on this phase of history, with the materialist interpretation of Indian mythology forming an important part. Broadly on these lines, the novel fictionalises the conflict-ridden period of ancient Indian history from a perspective that is subaltern and critical of hegemonic Brahminism. Yogesh Master lists the books of these scholars and historians as his reference material. Quite ironically, the angry responses to Dhundi appear to be in continuation of the subject of the novel itself, stemming essentially from a highly puritanical and Brahminical value system.

At a broader level, the controversy around Dhundi has once again rekindled the old debate on freedom of expression and its limits. The protest by liberal intellectuals against the arrest of Yogesh Master has been dubbed by their detractors as “hypocritical” with a predictable taunt on whether they would react similarly if the novel was offensive to non-Hindus. In turn, the defenders of Dhundi have questioned the high-decibel defence by the same people of Bhairappa’s novels in the name of “historical accuracy” and freedom of expression. Clearly, there is a need for a carefully nuanced argument that can tell a hate speech from a creative interpretation of history and mythology.

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Don't we have more pressing issues at hand, like poverty, malnutrition
and unemployment, which are common to all and needs to be addressed.
Shame on these people who time and again draw attention to these petty
'issues'. The best way to respect any religion is to be human and by
showing human sensibilities. Any belief which is easily "offended" is no
belief at all.

from:  Remya
Posted on: Sep 21, 2013 at 18:24 IST

There is nothing surprising about the chief ministers' action.
Congress politicians always play it safe, lest anybody brands them a
lesser Hindu, starting from Rajib Gandhi in Ayodhya case. What is
important here is that this Ram Sene, is not being chastised by BJP,
which is eyeing for power in centre.
I am worried about the prospect, not for the minorities, but for my
own religion. Hinduism in its essence explores the relationship of man
with the rest of the universe, self realization being its goal. Unlike
some other religions it is not designed to be used for socio-political
BJP seems to endorse the value system prevalent at the beginning of
British era, value system of a nation under foreign rule for
centuries. In pre muslim era, dissent was quite acceptable and
Charbaka, who denied existence of soul was also a sage or rishi. Kama
was one of the chaturbarga (four goals to be pursued) and not a sin
as in biblical tradition.
Need to know BJP's stand on caste system.

from:  Uma Dasgupta
Posted on: Sep 21, 2013 at 17:22 IST

Considering that the book was to be released during Ganesh chathurthi celebrations portrays a lack of sensitivity from the writer/publisher's part and needs to be condemned as such, notwithstanding its references to the aryan invasion theory, and the like. The AIT itself was rejected by none less than Dr. Max Mueller in the latter days, although significant damage was done, by then.

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 22:51 IST

People who oppose published material always have the option of not
reading it and encouraging others not to read it. This happens only in
India... where appeasement is taken as a form of governance... started
with Gandhi, the original, and continued under all governments...

from:  Swami Ganesan
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 21:38 IST

What does around comes around - if we can Ban Satanic Verses, it follows that this can be banned too! You are either SECULAR all the way or NOT // The SELECTIVE SECULARISM practised by our "Intelligentsia" and the "4th Estate" is abhorrent.

from:  G V
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 20:07 IST

This is purely violation of religious sentiments as Ganesha is
considered as symbol of destruction of obstacles in Hindus. The author
should have reminded free speech as guaranteed by the constitution
comes with limitations. We were determined to form secular country,
which require certain restrain from the people, else due to diversity
the edifice of secularism will collapse , We also know pen is mightier
than sword, The ideas offensive to certain religious feeling will
invariably incite tension and government has taken right decision to
balance this secular vision. The basis of every religion is contestable
but we as a nation are not bothered about that unless the religious
practice is very derogatory in nature.

from:  karthik
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 19:46 IST

Religion is the enemy of freedom and democracy. Right to free speech,
right to equality, and right to freedom of religion are democratic
rights, not religious ones. Religion preached hate and division and an
us vs. them mentality.

from:  Jayesh
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 19:02 IST

I love free speech. Best fundamental right ever! But it is ridiculous
when the media keeps quiet as the govt arrests teenagers for posting
on FB, when the Censor Board censors, when the govt bans movies,
books, cartoons etc, when courts decide whether movie release or not,
when the govt beats unarmed protestors in Delhi, when govt forces
Youtube, Twitter, FB to remove things it deems "offensive", when govt
orders websites be blocked, and countless more times, I have never
seen the media jump in. The media exercises selective offense. Free
speech is for all. You cannot defend censorship by one and criticize
the other. Finally, the media offense at Congress arresting Yogesh is
ridiculous. BJP till date has censored speech once, when the SS-BJP
govt in Maha banned a book critical of Shivaji. Every other book, plus
every movie, painting, cartoon, video etc was banned by Congress
govts. So much for "secular" credentials. Why so surprised that the
part of the Emergency doesnt like freespeech

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 19:00 IST

If this book peddle hate theory of britishers known as Aryan Theory than this book needs to be banned. If it was about Ganesha's fictional interpretation I would be happy and would read it. But if this is again the same fake debunked Aryan theory than author needs to be arrested for propagating propaganda against India, hindus for hurting sentiments and also for sedition.

from:  harsh vs
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 18:48 IST

Yogesh Master does not seem to be familiar with the demise of the Aryan Invasion Theory. Indic scholars have criticised this theory extensively in the last three decades or so.

from:  Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 16:45 IST

Oops. Seems like the same laws which can be used to showcase your secular credentials can also be used against you. Sword cuts both ways, eh?

from:  Vinod
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 16:22 IST

It is not a matter of free speech. It is utter mischief to play with social peace. I am wondering why not such authors write on more severe issues - like pathetic political situation, illiteracy, corruption, other social evils which are common across religions. Why they are silent on strong living currupt profiles in society? Clearly this is a good way to garner cheap populatity and not to correct a mistake. Such people must be silenced - not because they wrote against Hinduism (or for that matter any religion), but becuase they are stoking emotions which could be dangerous to the society. Write something which brings all together and not to defame one. I do not appreciate such writers and write up.

from:  Avinash Baranwal
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 15:32 IST

This is realy a shameful act. It is both scary and discomforting to note that any and every fringe group in India can so blatantly push their views on any creative writer and get him arrested. Just because they have people behind them they bulley others.
Even if we assume that there was a any controversial lines in the book, shouldn't it go through the proper channels of review before subjecting ther author to an arrest. And in this present age of digitization , how can you stop people from reading it? The author should release an ebook in protest. I wish the Government and the Judiciary stoop up for rights for a change sometime.

from:  Kamal
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 14:09 IST

This growing intolerance is alarming. Political/pressure groups wield
disproportionate power, esp by proclaiming to have been "hurt/offended" by some material or the other. It's really appalling.
A common man gets arrested in the blink of an eye, while MPs/MLAs roam
scott-free even with non-bailable warrants issued against them. This
country is going to the dogs!

from:  Raj N
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 12:33 IST

D.D. Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, etc., were marxist historians. So, citing them in this context is obvious to elevate the status of the current author's work and his novel. They selectively targeted Hinduism culturally/religiously/rationally/historically and dividing Indians. Another important issue is to further the rift with imagined aryan-dravidian divide through this work. The indian discourse on this issue has quintessetially been promoted by the marxists. Neither the early Sanskrit or Tamil literature contain notions of "outsiders". There are many recent genetic and archeological evidence based works for no such "violent" conflict between incoming migrators/aboriginals. One can take a look at the recent book "Breaking India" by Rajiv Malhotra.

from:  D Raju
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 12:32 IST

I don't know why a religious belief took this much importance even in this modern world. If at all, one is trying to modify the history or its behind mystery, it will not change according to one's thinking. So, why people consider it seriously and give much importance to the controversies.

from:  Dhanunjayaro Marisarla
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 10:15 IST
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