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Freedom and restraint

While in most Western societies, individual rights are absolute and community rights limited or non-existent, in India, the situation is the opposite. Illustration: Deepak Harichandran

While in most Western societies, individual rights are absolute and community rights limited or non-existent, in India, the situation is the opposite. Illustration: Deepak Harichandran

Pope Francis’s recent statement that he would punch anyone who insulted his mother reminded one of a heated discussion on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by a group of train passengers. As the dispute got animated, a Muslim youth enraged a Rushdie supporter by making offensive comments about the latter’s parents. Then, apologising for the outrage, the young man said: “I did this only to give you a sense of the outrage that Muslims feel. What I just told you is a passage from The Satanic Verses , replacing the names of the Prophet and his wife with your father’s and mother’s.  For a Muslim believer, the Prophet and his wife are manifold more respected than his own parents.”

However, what is offensive is a matter of subjective feelings, and therefore, cannot be a reason for restricting an individual’s freedom of expression, which must be absolute, the liberal opinion concluded, after the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who drew offensive cartoons.

“My right to free speech has to be absolute, and if you are offended, you have the right to respond. But if we start placing restrictions, we are shaking the foundations of tolerance for views that one finds disagreeable, and tolerance has to be one of the foundations of a true democracy,” Rakesh Sharma, documentary film-maker, says.

The cartoonists apparently drew with the purpose of making Muslims immune to the ridicule heaped on the Prophet. Around the same time, in yet another episode in India, the writer Perumal Murugan has been forced into a creative exile as a section of society felt “hurt” over one of his works.

Both events have been debated primarily as a question of freedom of expression, but the more fundamental issue at stake is the terms of engagement between various cultures in a multicultural society. That similarity apart, the two incidents highlight divergent challenges in their respective contexts of France and India. In France, the cartoonists were promoting a French culture in which individual freedoms are absolute and collective sensibilities overlooked. Murugan’s case is part of an ongoing political project to eradicate multiple voices for the sake of a grand cultural narrative, a claimed collective hurt shutting out an individual.

The Charlie Hebdo episode questions the desirability of an assimilative approach to diverse cultures; Perumal Murugan’s literary suicide represents the dangers that lurk behind India’s multicultural existence.


Inclusive state, inclusive society  

While in most Western societies, individual rights are absolute and community rights limited or non-existent, in India, the situation is the opposite.  While individual rights are not respected, community is valorised and glorified in India. Individual rights still do not command social legitimacy as opposed to the sentiment of “collective hurt.” The “hurt sentiment” phrase is often quoted to define or represent the feelings of a larger group and rarely of an individual, when outrage is created. And this is when vested interests can latch on to “hurt sentiments” to accentuate any act that supposedly critiques a group or tradition or culture as it has happened in the case of Murugan.

Experts say there is a clear exploitation of religiosity in projecting “hurt sentiment.” Whose hurt sentiments, the question is. “Individual right is not established while community rights, which are valorised and glorified, are easy to manipulate,” says Subhash Gatade, author.

 It is not that the individual’s right to criticise others, including communities and religions, should be made absolute. “Criticism should be given space, but it should be done under a certain sense, under a limit. There are no two views to blocking out inflammatory material, but a censure to all forms of criticism is not the solution. We must give ‘soft directions’ to people and not merely censure,” says Badri Narayan, Professor at the G.B. Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad.

What is happening in India is perhaps one extreme, where even stray references questioning beliefs and faiths are censured, academic commentaries on religions and social groups are banned, even as vested interests, groups and political parties play upon fears, alienation and differences between communities for gains. While real offenders who peddle hatred through speeches and create social disharmony get elected to legislative bodies and find protection routinely, rationalists are silenced by death or exile. To cite one recent example, anti-superstition campaigner Narendra Dabholkar was brutally killed in Pune in 2013 by people who considered his ideas “offensive.”

That is why good laws are necessary but not sufficient for the building and sustenance of a multicultural society, says Anand Patwardhan, film-maker. “I do not think the law in India on the subject of freedom of expression needs substantial revision, but it still needs wisdom to apply it without prejudice. Having been on the receiving end when several of my films and those of other colleagues encountered attempts at state censorship despite the fact that our work explicitly promoted secular, democratic values and was factually correct, I am reluctant to call for greater control mechanisms than those that already exist.  Outright racist, malicious and bigoted content apart, all expression must be legally permissible. But outside the legal frame, a lot more work needs to be done culturally to embrace our pluralist society with all its angularities and difference,” he says.

Though laws are an important part of maintaining communal harmony and restricting hate, more engagement at the social level will play a big role in bridging gaps, particularly in the context of growing suspicion about Muslims. The first step in building trust between communities is to stop ghettoisation, which Mr. Badri Narayan says defines religious identities and leads to regimentation, thereby increasing alienation and leaving groups vulnerable to communal mobilisation.

To ensure harmony, Anand Patwardhan says, there must be acceptance of other religion but as long as it does not impinge upon others’ freedom.

T.K. Oommen, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says: “If a Muslim woman wears hijab in France, does it anyway impinge on anyone else’s freedom or rights? As long as one’s cultural expression is not harming anyone else, there is no reason why it should be disallowed.”

Director-General of Police, Maharashtra, Sanjeev Dayal recently told a newspaper that to stop radicalisation of Muslim youth, he had suggested to the Maharashtra government to take inspiration from the Singapore model of housing, which mandates housing complexes with a fixed percentage of different communities — in its case, Malay, Chinese and Indian owners. While our cultural sensibilities and logistical limitations may not allow this model to be replicated in India in its entirety, Mr. Gatade endorses the DGP’s views and says that engaging the people at the community level is the right approach. “The State and the political parties can enforce laws, but as importantly, a dialogue between communities must be initiated,” he says.

Mr. Gatade says the judiciary must become proactive and take suo motu action in cases of hate speech, which have the potential of triggering communal tensions. “A lot of the problem arises from not knowing each other,” he says. “Intolerance will lead to violence, so we must learn to give space to all cultures. There is a need for a people’s movement and increasing awareness about each other,” Mr. Badri Narayan says.

Manufacturing offence  

It is a difficult situation when political interests manufacture the feeling of being offended. Artist Atul Dodiya cites the example of painter M.F. Husain. “Husain was a modern painter, and if you see his Madhuri Dixit or Ganesha or Mother Teresa series, there is no sensuality in his painting. He was a formalist and painted without stylisation. He never painted Mother Teresa’s face in his paintings, but used the space to convey certain darkness. But, that does not mean he was showing disrespect,” Dodiya says. “Husain was misunderstood. He was not a calendar artist. He was a modern painter. If someone feels he was depicting Hindu goddesses as nude, it is very difficult to explain why. A fixed law would not help, true education about modern art would,” Dodiya says.

When political groups play the communal card, following the thumb rule of dealing with offensive material — avoid it — becomes impossible. A small minority begins to adjudicate what truly represents a particular culture or tradition and takes up cudgels on its behalf.

Immigrant-receiving societies are increasingly multicultural and correspondingly, the challenge of squaring notions of individual freedoms allowed by Western modernity with demands of cultural rights of various groups is also increasing. In India, the challenge is in the form of various political forces trying to negate diversity by homogenising projects, seeking to shut out alternative voices and narratives.

“The challenge is to strive for a balance where individual freedoms are protected, but in the process, no offence is caused to collective sensibilities. When you talk about causing offence, we have to understand that there is also a hierarchy of sensitivity regarding various aspects within a particular culture — some things are sacred, some things are ritualistic. An order based merely on individual freedoms cannot be sustainable in a multicultural society,” says Professor Oommen. “Perhaps, one way out is that restrictions that we impose in our interpersonal interactions could apply in interactions between communities. We don’t defend on grounds of freedom, a person abusing another. If that is the case, should we allow a person to abuse a community?” asks Shajahan Madampat, a cultural critic. 

Endless List:

Noted artist M. F. Husain was forced to spend the last few years of his life in exile as Hindutva groups strongly opposed his depiction of Hindu Gods

‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, a play which was banned in Kerala in 1986 following protests from the Church, triggering debates on the freedom of expression.

The hounding of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen over her 1993 book Lajja, which shows persecution of a Hindu family. Muslim fundamentalists have not shied away from issuing fatwas.

Kamal Hasan starrer Vishwaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu after several Muslim organisations raised protest saying that it stereotyped them in the war against terror.

Deepa Mehta film Fire, one of the first mainstream films to depict homosexuality (Lesbian relationship), led to protests from tright-wing groups who vandalised theatres saying that the film depicted Indian culture in poor light.

In 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, prominent rationalist and social activist, was shot to death in broad daylight by alleged Hindutva groups for his stance against superstition

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 9:30:36 pm |