Comment

A novel way to curb free speech

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

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Narayana, Anu Deva Horaginavanu by Banjagere Jayaprakash and Gandhi Banda by H. Nagaveni have resulted in them being withdrawn from circulation or from university syllabi.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 But the works of the two authors have never been withdrawn from circulation.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.

bageshree.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 3:27:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-novel-way-to-curb-free-speech/article5146976.ece

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