>A comedian, Kiku Sharda, has been arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code for presumably “outraging” the religious sentiments of Dera Sacha Sauda adherents by mimicking their leader, >Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh . The case was filed by a Dera follower in Haryana, and the State police reached Mumbai to make the arrest. In Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, a court has accepted a plea by a local leader of the Hindu Mahasabha for proceedings against >actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan . Their misdeed: wearing shoes in a “temple” on the sets of a television show. By the standards of intolerance to creative, literary and academic work over the past two decades in India, these instances are unexceptional — and it is beside the point to iterate the commonsense distinction between reality and representation, between fact and superstition. It is a meandering but firm line that links them up with the vandalisation of the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune over a single line in a fine study of Shivaji; the intimidatory outrage that inhibits the release of films such as > Bajirao Mastani and Jodhaa Akbar which unsettle orthodox storytelling; the moral policing that forced the shooting of Water , on the treatment of Hindu widows, to be shifted out of Varanasi; and the pressure on publishers to withdraw from circulation entire books (Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History ) or excise chapters from compilations used as university texts (A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’). It is the line that has also run through the murders of Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar.
There is no doubt that Section 295(A) of the IPC is in urgent need of amendment to limit its misuse. As is the section dealing with sedition, freely imposed by the state on >folk singers , cartoonists, students watching cricket and defiant political upstarts. But these are attendant issues of the crisis in India’s politics today. In democracies worldwide, questions of representation and liberty have been taken forward in the political sphere, and in India even more so. India’s politics, by parties of the freedom movement like the Congress but also regional parties, took the lead in increasing the space for rationalism, modernity, liberty and freedom of expression. That uncompromising cover for liberty is now giving way to pervasive political competition to frame hurt identities and nationalism for partisan advantage. And those freedoms and the modernity project have been rendered yet more fragile in the past couple of years, with many of the so-called fringe outfits that feast on communal intimidation drawing strength from their affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, and thereby to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Months after writers, academics and artists foregrounded the abnormal circumstances today, it is unfortunate that India’s politics and its legislatures have not joined the debate wholesomely. This is why it takes just a couple of outraged persons to remind the world’s largest democracy that it has lost the essential instinct for liberty.