‘The novelist, Thomas Mann noted in his diary on March 27, 1933, two months after Hitler had become German Chancellor that he had witnessed a revolution of a kind never seen before, “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice…accompanied by vast rejoicing on the part of the masses.” Fascism, an affair of the gut more than of the brain existed by mobilizing passions from below, setting aside democracy and due process in public life to the acclamation of the street.’ Robert Paxton.

Waves of emotion are threatening to engulf much more than cartoons and the exciting new NCERT textbooks. Currently, they are washing in from Tamil Nadu. Responses by many intellectuals, however, have been dismaying. Prabhat Patnaik’s article in the Hindu (May 22, 2012) in the context of the arbitrary and cowardly withdrawal of the NCERT political science textbooks by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), for instance, was an exercise in shadow boxing. The jurisdiction of Parliament and of people’s representatives in citizens’ lives, are justifiably--even though problematically--thrown up for discussion by Patnaik in times when democracy is under multi-pronged attack and politics, politicians and Parliament are belittled at the drop of a hat.

The problem is that by choosing to debate mainly this in the context of l’affaire cartoons, Patnaik ends up beating about the bush, drawing us away from what is truly alarming about the demand for, and the decision to go after cartoons, textbooks and their authors.

Restricted zones

Films, paintings, photographs, cartoons, textbooks and literary and historical writings affect each of us differently. While causing ‘hurt’ to some, the same works may exhilarate and open doors of perception for others. The expression of joy and appreciation, or anger and disagreement accompanied by informed public debate in this regard are to be expected in a functioning democracy. The trouble with current times is that ultimatums are issued and knee-jerk, arbitrary decisions taken to censor works and punish authors and artists--mainly, but not only when matters of religion are involved--for ‘causing offense’ or ‘hurting sentiments’.

Since nothing can be said, depicted or written that would please or be acceptable to all, the logic of such mindless authoritarian responses to felt ‘hurt’ can only lead us into situations where there would be nothing left to say because nothing can be said. This, apart from being an outrage against democracy -- in the name of democracy -- would cause irreparable damage to our meticulously crafted fabric of universal freedoms and constitutional rights. It is ironic, for instance, that in secular India, oversensitive political responses to imagined ‘hurt sentiments’ have come to mean that religious beliefs, doctrines and laws, which like everything else, including iconic leaders, should be subjects for critical reflection or lampooning, are becoming restricted zones, supposedly ‘untouchable’ by critics, skeptics or cartoonists. Obviously secularism and democracy are now less important than proclaimed ‘hurt sentiments’.

II

When M.F. Husain was hounded into exile, Salman Rushdie threatened, Rohinton Mistry and AK Ramanujan exiled from syllabi in the Universities of Mumbai and Delhi respectively, Taslima Nasreen’s writings, Deepa Mehta’s film and James Laine’s historical work on Shivaji attacked, the resistance to these attacks was not centrally concerned with the content and quality of the creations under fire. These have always been open to public criticism. This is equally true with regard to the innovativeness and critical pedagogy embodied in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005 and articulated through the revised NCERT textbooks. In fact, across the globe, many have often stood up for art, and literary and historical writings despite being critical of the people and the works they were defending.

Nor was this resistance contesting the rights of groups and individuals to feel aggrieved by, demand a public debate on, and protest these works. It was nobody’s case that ‘hurt sentiments’ were always figments of fertile imaginations. Everyone, including in the current cartoons’ controversy, has the right to demand that they be heard and their criticisms and sensitivities engaged with intellectually and politically, in parliament if necessary. This can only strengthen cultures of dissent and discussion and would be a democratic response to anguish rooted in real or imagined ‘hurt sentiments’. Far from being cause for alarm it would be welcome.

Alarm bells rang and outrage crystallized, as has happened again in the case of the NCERT textbooks, primarily because historical truths and works of the mind instead of being critiqued and judged on grounds of intellectual and artistic merit; and constitutionally guaranteed rights to read, write, view, think and create without fear of clan, culture, gods and other liberty- bashing alibis, instead of being deepened through debates and a respect for democratic processes, were being sacrificed to rhetorical claims made on behalf of the ‘hurt sentiments’ of imagined homogeneous communities, backed in each instance by the threat and use of violence.

The alarm was, and is felt today, over an authoritarian politics, deeply fearful of individual liberty, critical inquiry and independent-minded thought and action. This politics seeks to instrumentalise ‘hurt sentiments’ for mobilizing popular passions against ideas, knowledge, due process and rights in the name of identity, purity and force. The severe erosion suffered by cultures and practices of democracy as a consequence of the normalization and increasing legitimacy accruing to demands and decisions to censor, banish, threaten and surrender in the name of ‘hurt sentiments’ is leading to a rapid fascisation of political culture.

‘Democracy threatened anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere’. The threat to democracy from fascism is the greater because unlike classical tyranny fascism does not clamp silence upon citizens from above. It glories instead in the mobilization of masses. Authoritarians, no matter how cruel and brutal, would rather leave the population demobilized and passive. Fascists want to engage and excite the public. This is why fascism can create the illusion of being democratic even as it manipulates mass enthusiasm into demonic energy towards the giving up of free institutions.

Democracy being singularly important, ‘hurt sentiments’ while enjoying universally guaranteed freedom of expression, should never be allowed to become the reason for curbing rights.

Politics of ‘hurt sentiments’

Delhi University’s Academic Council arbitrarily ratified the ABVP demand to delete A K Ramanujan’s ‘300 Ramayanas…’ from the undergraduate syllabus in the name of the ‘hurt sentiments’ of Hindus. This act was more disturbing than the demand itself and the accompanying violence and intimidation.

The single most frightening aspect of the denunciations of the NCERT textbooks, cartoons and authors in the name of Dalit icons and ‘hurt sentiments’, irrespective of whether particular cartoons are ‘innocent’ or not, has been the unprecedented, almost reflexive convergence of parliamentary opinion in deference to the politics of ‘hurt sentiments’ and against constitutionally guaranteed rights and processes.

This is even more worrying than the MHRD bending over backwards to assuage claims of ‘offended sensibilities’ through the week-kneed, anti-intellectual and authoritarian excision of cartoons and textbooks from school syllabi. Sharifuddin Shariq, the MP who refused to conform, belonged to the National Conference. His lone voice speaks volumes for the fear of freedom that has come to haunt the Indian political establishment, including the parliamentary left.

When the gut rather than the brain begins to drive academic decision-making and ‘sentiment’ becomes a major source of mobilisational energy on the street, within government and inside parliament as well, then it is time for us to look closely at what transpires within the highest academic bodies and representative institutions in our land. It is time to speak about the dangers to democracy emanating from the ideas, speeches and practices of those who inhabit these spaces even as we try and ensure that this criticism is not used to rubbish politics and politicians.

It is unfortunate that Prabhat Patnaik chose to focus on parliamentary supremacy and jurisdiction whilst writing on a controversy driven primarily by the politics of ‘hurt sentiments’, irrespective of who is driving this politics. Responses like these fail to weaken the authoritarian political culture that we already inhabit. They play with shadows while ‘hurt sentiments’ clothed in proclaimed concern, barely veiled contempt rather, for ‘impressionable minds’ (as in the Ramanujan instance) strike yet again at democracy’s fragile frame.

Mukul Mangalik teaches history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi

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