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”.
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 continued…