As of now, the only establishment voice, political, executive or judicial, to have spoken publicly on the Wendy Doniger case is the president’s. Inaugurating the World Book Fair in Delhi on February 15, Pranab Mukherjee said it was imperative for a plural culture like India’s to “preserve, protect, promote and nurture” the ideals of a liberal, democratic, multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious country. Freedom of speech, he reiterated, is one of the most important fundamental rights in the Constitution.
Although only an oblique reference to the withdrawal and eventual pulping of Doniger’s book by her publisher, it is nevertheless the only affirmation of an individual’s right to freedom of expression that we have heard from the upholders of our Constitution. No single political figure, party spokesperson, judicial functionary, and none of our vocal MPs who wax eloquent on television, have spoken on the subject. Secular or not, rightwing or left, centrist or liberal, their silence has been deafening.
As with every other such instance over the last 10-15 years, the Doniger case conforms to a familiar pattern. Someone decides that a particular representation of a religion or its customs and observances “offends the sensibilities” of a particular community (for instance: M.F. Husain’s painting, Deepa Mehta’s film Water, M.S. University’s student exhibition, Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography, James Lane’s book, Ajeet Cour’s gallery, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay). A mob descends and intimidates, through direct violence, the individual or group responsible for making public this “offensive” representation by displaying or disseminating it. More often than not, the individual or group is intimidated and forced into silence or withdrawal of the “offending” material. The mob, exultant, disperses. The agencies of the state, charged with protecting those very fundamental rights that the president asserted the importance of, stand by. Not one of them intervenes to safeguard the individual or group under attack. Indeed, in one infamous instance, a state government was actually instrumental in hounding a writer out of the state for being a potential threat to “communal harmony”.
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Street censorship or censorship by the mob is not new, and in some cases it might even pre-empt state action on a contentious issue, obviating the need for a formal response. No one, after all, is responsible for a mob. Moreover, unlike an individual or an identifiable group, a mob is faceless and forms and dissolves spontaneously. This is why it is almost impossible to charge a mob with criminal intent — no FIR can be registered against it. The mob knows it. The police know it. The administration knows it. The courts know it.
However, the most alarming and sinister aspects of this situation are that the state and its agencies have abdicated their responsibility to individuals and to society, first by withholding protection and allowing violent intimidation and second, by shifting responsibility and culpability away from those who attack onto those who try and defend themselves. Thus, it is Husain and Mehta and Ramanujan and Doniger and all the others — and us — whose bounden duty it is not to “offend”. If we, and they, are foolhardy enough to behave “irresponsibly”, we must accept the consequences. The state cannot help. Neither, actually speaking, is it concerned enough with one individual’s rights and claims on the state’s duty to uphold its constitutional responsibilities.
Having worked on the issue of informal censorship for over a decade, having moved the courts and written and spoken out about it on innumerable occasions, I now think we need to change tack. Necessary though it is to register our protest at those who succumb to such pressure, it’s time to seriously challenge the inaction of the state and hold it to account.
In the Doniger case, for instance, on what basis did the court accept the petitioners’ contention that her book was an “insult” to Hinduism? Which Hindu community were they representing? Whose sensibilities did they claim had been offended? There are countless other Hindus in the country whose dearly held values of tolerance and non-violence (no less “Hindu” even according to the most fundamentalist Hindu) have been equally offended and outraged by the petition. So, one might add, have their respect for freedom of speech, of mobility and association. Why, in the court’s opinion, was D.N. Batra’s claim and contention admissible? Why are governments, courts and the police so susceptible to the “injury” claimed by one set of people that they willingly suspend their obligation to society? Is this an indication of aggressive mob, regressive state?
Then, Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code are liable to serious misuse and abuse by anyone and everyone. Even if — and it’s a pretty big if — one were to concede that “religious” sensibilities can be “offended”, by what logic does that become criminal, an offence against the state? Section 153A deals with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc” and “doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”; and Section 295A says: “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class
by insulting its religion or religious beliefs… Whoever, with deliberate or malicious intention of doing the above with regard to citizens of India… shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or both.” Section 153A carries a maximum five-year imprisonment and/ or fine.
It doesn’t take much to see that, going by this loose and all-things-to-all-people description of “religious feelings”, anyone, anywhere can claim to be “offended” or “insulted” by even the most casual comment in conversation, let alone by a book or painting or film. How, then, can the police or courts decide when to register a case or admit a plea? What yardstick can reasonably, legally and validly, be used to gauge “religious feelings” and how they have been offended? And what argument, after all, can privilege a D.N. Batra’s “religious feelings” above yours or mine, creating a spurious hierarchy of hurt and injury?
There are millions of Indians who find succour and affirmation in religions of their choice, and it is their inalienable right to do so. And there are equally millions of India’s citizens who look to the state to protect their inalienable right to security, freedom of speech and association. But what if church and state are the wolves that howl at the door? What deliverance, then, can we expect?
By all means, let us continue to protest and picket, but unless we expose the pusillanimity of the state and its institutions and call them to account, even our freedom to protest may be withdrawn.
The writer is with Women Unlimited, Delhi