The demand that ideas should not cause offence to any ‘community’ serves to protect vested interests and prevents social and cultural progress

The most frequently invoked justification for censorship during the colonial era was that a particular utterance or writing would hurt the sentiments of this or that community, thereby leading to public disorder. At the present time too, this idea dictates the manner in which a great number of public conversations are allowed to be carried out. Suggestions over presenting ideas in a way that do not hurt public sentiment — and apologies for hurting them — have become guiding principles for conducting debate and discussion. It is, of course, important to protest against public expressions of bigotry and sentiments that stereotype, say, religious, ethnic communities. However, too frequently the idea of hurt sentiments is used as a tool to prevent the questioning of established power structures. It also imagines people as incapable of reflecting upon their conditions of life and thinking of a future that is not a mere repetition of the past.

Some months ago, I was talking to a group of village women who work for an NGO in Jagjitnagar in Himachal Pradesh. Our conversation was about the nature and meaning of rituals. What was particularly striking was the women’s understanding of the gap between the symbolic promise of certain rituals and an everyday reality where such promises are rarely fulfilled. So, the women vociferously pointed out, ties of care and responsibility in rituals such as Rakhi are conveniently overlooked by brothers when it comes to sharing family property. And yet, we continue to think of the questioning of certain religious and cultural practices as the hurting of community sentiments.

A community is not a monolithic object and not all members of a community — however it defines itself — enjoy equal rights and privileges. In fact, very frequently, the idea of not hurting public sentiments only serves to mask the fact that it is the attitudes of the most privileged that are being protected from criticism. There are, actually, not only communities, but also individuals with different interests, and relationship to power and privilege. The women I met at Jagjitnagar knew that well enough

Another important backdrop to the ‘hurting sentiments’ argument is a particular notion of the past. It is an irony that our modernity is characterised by a peculiarly sacred relationship with the past. The Indian past is perceived to be home to great civilisation, religious tolerance, mutual understanding, community and family harmony and a great many other things. When public commentators are urged not to hurt public sentiments, it is an implicit plea to allow past practices and beliefs to dictate contemporary life.

‘Glorious’ past

The past is a wonderful treasure trove of human achievements, but human achievements also come about through questioning the past. Movements against, say, caste oppression, female infanticide — and whatever degree of success that have been achieved — are the result of a critical attitude towards the past. Exactly the same holds for innovations in religious thought and art. Continual glorification of the past is, in fact, a frequent indicator of contemporary cultural nervousness.

It is not, therefore, surprising that the ideas of a ‘glorious’ Indian past is a frequent source of comfort for NRI populations anxious to counter images of India as an ‘inferior’ culture among their host (usually western) societies.

Prevention of sentimental hurt among home populations, on the other hand, present a situation in which we want material advancement but not social and cultural change that accompany conditions of economic change. So, we want better highways, newer airports, and faster internet connections but not the free movement of ideas that threaten to pass through such avenues. We want our modernity to be purely technical and not social and cultural.

That is, in fact, the demand that is made through the language of hurt sentiments. So, for example, instead of trying to come to terms with the changing behaviour of young people, particularly young women, as part of the broader set of cultural and social changes this society is undergoing, we prefer to view it as a decline in moral values. We want more shopping malls but not the freedom of women to become consumers, if they so chose.

Demands for respecting public sentiments are not only premised on the idea that there is a homogenous public out there, but that sentiments and beliefs are themselves unchanging. Further, that the slightest questioning of an established way of thinking will lead to civilzational chaos, disharmony and social disarray.

The idea of ‘community’ is, in the final analysis, both an objective reality as well as fiction. For, we might, for instance, pray in a similar manner to many others (and the act forms an actual religious community), but to think that all members of a community must continue to believe in ideas that might have been prevalent a hundred years ago is to present a fairytale version of what community life should be about. Fairytales, complete with a glorious past where valiant heroes rescued simpering maidens and everyone lived happily together, mask cultural and social complexity. But then, they are intended for children. Mature societies do not require fairytales as guides to the present and the future.

(Sanjay Srivastava is professor of Sociology and co-editor, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi.)