Posted on 1-October-2015
Towards the middle of the last month, a group of Jains, claimed, during one of their religious feasts, that it offended their sensibilities that people should during this period, sacred to them, be consuming meat. The government of the Indian state of Maharashtra issued a ban on the sale of meat during the period of the Jain festival--a ban that was nullified by the Supreme Court of India on the principle that people could not be forced into given food habits. The Jain agitation was curious. Jains have been around in India for two and a half millennia, since Vardhaman Mahavira, a near contemporary of Gautama, the Buddha, taught the basic tenets of their creed of ahimsa, which includes an especially austere form of vegetarianism. In more recent past, they have existed as a small business community, mostly present in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Maharashtra. They rarely obtrude on public awareness. Part of their non-violent creed is tolerance, even permissiveness, towards beliefs and practices of other groups. Since the Maharashtra government order about four meatless days came not long after that government's order of earlier this year banning the slaughter and sale, even storage, of all bovine animals and their meat, this latest order was seen as another instance of the BJP which is in power in Maharashtra trying to impose its restrictive, stifling version of Hindutva on all the diverse communities of India.
While it can fairly be stated that different forces of intolerance, regression, darkness and evil feel emboldened in Narendra Modi's India, such forces have in fact been on the rise for several years past, in part because of the pusillanimity at best and connivance at worst, above all of India's politicians--politicians have to take the blame because they control the state machinery and in doing so they have the power to keep disruptive and violent forces in check. In present day India--by that I mean India of the 21st century--it has become common for any group to claim that its religious or tribal or caste sentiments have been hurt by some speech or some writing and silence the voice of the offender by coercion, acts of vandalism or worse, by murder. In the last two years there have been three especially condemnable cases of violence. In August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was murdered on the streets of Pune, ostensibly because his lifelong campaign against superstition had seemed unpalatable to some people; in February 2015, Govind Pansare, a communist was murdered because his views offended some people; and in August 2015, Maleshappa Kalburgi, an eminent literateur in Kannada language, was killed in Karnataka apparently by some Hinduist group which did not like his opinions on image worship in Hinduism. The first and the third murder happened in states ruled by the professedly secularist Indian National Congress and the second happened in a state ruled by the self-appointed defenders of Hinduism, the BJP.
There have been earlier protests, some serious, some risible by different offended groups. When James Laine published his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India in 2004 there were were not only silent marches in Pune, but also the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, where Laine had done some of his research, was ransacked; the protests resulted in Oxford University Press withdrawing the book in India and much later when in August 2014 the Maharshtra government conferred the title of Maharashtra Bhushan on Balsaheb Purandare, there were protests in Maharashtra, not only because of his own views on Shivaji but also because he was believed to have helped James Laine--the protesters said Laine and Purandare had hurt Maratha sentiments. In 2007, the atheist Tasleema Nasreen who is quite fearless in debunking many aspects of Islam was threatened with beheading in Kolkata by some mullahs because of what she wrote and said. Rather than take legal action against the mullahs for issuing a death threat against a non-violent writer, the Marxist, and presumably atheist, government of Bengal and the secular Indian National Congress government of India together pushed poor Tasleema Nasreen out of the country. It would be interesting to speculate about what would happen if an eighteenth century anonymously published French and English book, The Three Imposters--the three imposters being Moses, Jesus and Mohammad--were to be published in modern, democratic and secular India. Then there was the episode of Penguin Books deciding in February 2014 to withdraw the Indian edition of Wendy Doniger's 2009 book The Hindus. All that Wendy Doniger does in her well researched book is among others to say two things that might be considered offensive by some Hiindu groups: that there is an earthy side to many Hindu texts and that Hinduism comprises myriads of beliefs and practices some which may not have found full expression but can be inferred from existing literature. A semi-literate man leading an organisation called Shiksha Bachao--meaning save education-- decided that the book offended Hindu sentiments. He took advantage of a quirky provision in the Indian Penal Code which makes it a criminal offence to hurt people's religious sentiments and sued Penguin India. Various governments of India have not thought it necessary to repeal this section of the Code introduced by the British Government in 1925 in order to deal with a specific situation in Punjab. One also wonders whether it has occurred to this saviour of education that the average Hindu, even the one who at the drop of a hat spouts half baked, half understood opinions on the Upanishads, the Bhagvat Gita and the two great Hindu epics, can be as earthy, as this worldly as the next human being. Another capitulation was that by Delhi University which decided to remove A. K. Ramanujam's essay on different versions of the Ramayana from the reading list on one of its curricula when faced with protests from the defenders of Hinduism.
In 2009, a Hindi film called Billu Barber ran into trouble because the barber community--the barber jati, if you will,-- claimed it offended their sentiments. How would they have reacted to Beaumarchais' Le Barbier de Seville, one wonders--burn down theatre houses? The film was released in India without the word barber in the title. Another film Jo Bole So Nihal earned the wrath of sections of the Sikh community but it was rescued by a decision of the Shiromani Akali Dal and of the law courts. Another film which supposedly offended Tamil sentiments, was banned by the Tamilnadu government on the ground that it would create public disorder. The matter went to Madras High court where the judges chose to view the film before deciding, as if the issue before them was the quality of the film or the competence of the Central Board of Film Certification and not that of freedom of expression--judges, being human beings can also err!.
Salman Rushdie, visiting India not long after serious disorder was threatened when at one of the Jaipur Literary festivals some sections of his Satanic Verses were to be read, spoke very aptly of a growing culture of offendedness in India. This makes it possible for any group to try through agitation and different other means of coercion to silence any voice it considers unpalatable. In a democracy, freedom of expression subject to legal restrictions on grounds such as libel, defamation, slander or conspiracy for committing a crime should be absolute, as indeed it is meant to be according to the Indian Constitution. As for hurting people's sentiments it should be possible for us to laugh at each other whether as individuals or as groups without fear of causing offence. Historically brahman priests have been among the favoured subjects of jokes in most of the country. In more relaxed times more recently, all over north India, Sikhs were common butts of jokes--Sikhs themselves could tell some of the most egregious Sikh jokes. But jokes aside, it should be possible for me to say that there was never a king called Ramchandra who ruled in Ayodhya, or that Jesus's claim that he was son of God was nothing more than a propaganda ploy or that Mohammad could successfully claim that Gabriel spoke to him on behalf of Allah because in his time belief in angels, djinns and other spirits was widespread, without fear of a baying crowd appearing at my doorstep or of my head being severed--the only inadmissible offences to another person's religious sentiments are: desecration of his place of worship and interference with his religious practices. Free speech is not only a matter of legal rights but is essential for nurturing creative literature, the arts and science. This new form of censorship in the shape of offendedness has to come to an end for the good of Indian society. Unfortunately, the present ruling dispensation in India seems bent on taking the country into the opposite direction.
Why this phenomenon of offendedness has arisen at this time is for academic sociologists to ponder over. But a layman's view could be that there are far too many half educated people in the country at the moment with too little to occupy their minds and too much empty time to fill.