The proliferation of offence takers in recent times is the final proof that the politics of identities is tightening the noose around the idea of India as a pluralist, secular and democratic country. The consistent capitulation of the state to all types of offence peddlers in the name of law and order maintenance or hurt religious or other confessional sentiments has made the pursuit of art and scholarship a dangerous vocation in India.
Since India is a Noah’s ark housing all imaginable varieties of faiths and identities in their domesticated and wild states, any work of art or scholarship critical or even mildly unappreciative of aspects of the existing reality or beliefs can now stir up a row and end up facing the manufactured wrath of lumpen mobs and the rabble rousers that lead them. The recent happenings in the country confirm that India is an illiberal polity and a compromised state that boast a liberal constitution no one really cares about.
The pattern is sickeningly uniform in all recent uproars against the practice of free speech: A group of self-styled defenders of a faith or identity claim their sentiments are hurt by a film, a book, a statement or an art exhibition; the media hype up the claim making a fringe group of a few thousand loonies in a billion plus population look so humongous as to threaten the stability of the country and the state promptly steps in to do the hatchet job against the “offender” on the pretext of maintaining law and order.
The most fascinating part of the story is that the urge to suppress free speech cuts across all confessional boundaries. While Professor Ashis Nandy, arguably India’s greatest living public intellectual, was nearly arrested on the basis of protests by Dalit groups for making a slightly clumsy remark in a literary forum, Kamal Haasan, one of India’s top actors and filmmakers, had to capitulate to the dictates of groups that claimed to speak in the name of Islam. No sooner had the Muslims got their pound of flesh than another gentleman approached the court in the name of Christianity for the film Vishwaroopam apparently hurt the religious sentiments of the Christians as well!
Flouting the constitutional safeguards
Meanwhile, another group, the Durga Vahini, was protesting in Delhi against an exhibition of nude paintings which purportedly hurt the Hindu sensibilities — Ajanta, Ellora and Khajuraho notwithstanding. Not to be left behind, groups in Kashmir have managed to ruin the musical career of three teenage girls for the grand mufti of the troubled valley decreed girls singing in front of strange men would be unacceptable.
In all these, the public discourse focused more on whether there was enough ground for feeling offended than on the implications of flouting the constitutional safeguards for free speech. A civilised society confident of itself is expected to facilitate the free flow of ideas and images, regardless of whether they conform to or diverge from popular certitudes. There may indeed be scope for disagreements and objections, and some works of art, literature and scholarship do betray bad taste and offensiveness. That is in the very nature of artistic and intellectual expressions.
The basic tenets of one faith may appear downright offensive to those of another; the monotheism of Islam and its denunciation of any semblance of polytheism may be construed as totally derogatory and offensive to Hindu sensibilities; and vice versa. Will any sane person argue that either of the two should be banned in order for the other not to feel offended?
The time-tested method of dealing with these apparent polarities is to engage in healthy debates and discussions. Some differences can be resolved, and some others will persist. Pluralism is all about forging relations of coexistence and mutual respect in the face of diversities and contradictions impossible or undesirable to homogenise.
Unless the growing culture of intolerance and engineered hurt sentiments and subsequent violence is curbed forthwith, India will soon cease to exist as a secular democratic country. It is a shame that the state looks on while the letter and spirit of the constitution is trampled upon day in and day out by sundry groups that seek to monopolise and instrumentalise the faiths and sentiments of various communities. It is frightening that the wholesale merchants of intolerance of all hues are making their ominous presence felt all across the country at a time when the demands for making Narendra Modi — that ultimate personification of genocidal hate and communal divisiveness — prime minister grow in strength.
Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator based in Abu Dhabi.