Faith stifles free speech in India

Both Hindu and Muslim fanatics are up in arms against artistic and literary freedom in India. One of their targets is the old "sinner" Salman Rushdie. But there are two others.

One of them is social scientist Ashis Nandy, who stirred a hornet's nest by saying at the Jaipur Literature Festival that most of the corrupt people in the country happened to be from the lower castes (he said this in a certain context that was ignored). It is a slur which champions of these communities can hardly ignore if only because their entire political career is based on promoting caste consciousness that fuels antipathy towards the upper castes.

Foremost among them is Dalit czarina Mayawati, whose slogan at one time was: "Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro jootey char." It meant beat with shoes the Brahmins (who wear 'tilak' on their foreheads), Banias (who weigh the goods in their shops with 'tarazu' or pair of scales) and Kshatriyas (the warrior class who sport 'talwar' or sword and hold second place after Brahmins in caste hierarchy).

Mayawati's demand was that Nandy be arrested forthwith under an act which seeks to protect Dalits and adivasis (tribals) from atrocities.

What she did not care to consider was whether the law, meant to safeguard these communities from a continuation of the centuries-old social denigration, could be applied to a scholarly thesis. It has to be noted that the person mentioned by Nandy in this context was former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda, a tribal, who is now in jail on charges of corruption.

The point, however, is not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about whether a renowned sociologist has the right to express an opinion based on his study of the social and political scene - or whether he should be put in jail for saying what he believes to be correct.

Nandy is not the first academic, of course, who has to confront the bigots. Not long ago, the Oriental Research Institute in Pune was vandalised because historian James W. Laine had worked there while preparing a biography of Shivaji, which was not liked by the present-day admirers of the Maharashtrian warrior.

Arguably, if vandals and intemperate politicians are having a free run in the matter of intimidating those holding contrarian views in their opinion, the reason is that the governments at both the centre and in the states have tended to yield ground to the extremists.

One notable instance of such a retreat was the banning of Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses", by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 under pressure from Muslim hardliners. The fact that the kowtowing did not satisfy them is, however, evident from Rushdie's decision to stay away from the Jaipur Literature Festival last year because of the government's reluctance to guarantee him protection.

And this year too, he had to call off a visit to Kolkata for the same reason along with filmmaker Deepa Mehta in connection with the release of "Midnight's Children", a film based on his Booker prize-winning book of the same name.

The government did not even allow the film to be shot in India for fear of offending fundamentalists. As a result, Mehta had to shoot the film in Sri Lanka.

Another film, which is having to run the gauntlet of the Muslim militants is Kamal Haasan's "Vishwaroopam" even though it shows an Indian Muslim intelligence officer battling Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan and should be a matter of pride therefore for "patriotic" Muslims, as Haasan said.

The standard explanation given by the Muslim radicals for lambasting Rushdie or Haasan is that they have hurt the community's religious sentiments.

It is the same argument which compelled Galileo to deny in the 17th century that the earth moved round the sun since his claim was found hurtful to their beliefs by Christians at the time. It took the Catholic church three centuries to offer a formal apology for its denunciation of the astronomer.

Yet, this argument is offered time and again in 21st century India to satisfy the prejudices of the diehards. In view of the difficulties which his film faces, Haasan has even said that he may have to seek refuge in a secular country just as painter M.F. Husain had to flee from India and die in exile because of the threat posed by Hindu storm-troopers.

Regrettably, it is no secret that the silent majority of Hindus and Muslims do not subscribe to the irrationalism of the fanatics.

Yet, the government is reluctant to act against the trouble-makers in case it is seen to be directed against the community as a whole.

Interestingly, the Marxists are no better despite their claim to be progressive, for it was when they were in power in West Bengal that the controversial Bangladeshi author, Taslima Nasreen, had to leave Kolkata because of the disturbances caused by a minor Muslim outfit.

There is little doubt that the decline of the Congress and the growth of backward-looking parties based on specific castes and communities are responsible for the prevailing cultural terrorism.

(02-02-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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