The regressive state

Don’t blame the mob when a book is pulped or withdrawn. Ask why the state sanctions a spurious hierarchy of hurt and injury.

Updated: February 20, 2014 8:52 am
American Indologist Wendy Doniger whose book "The Hindus: An Alternative History" was withdrawn following objections that it hurt sentiments of Hindus is "angry and disappointed" over the development and says the "true villain" is the Indian law. American Indologist Wendy Doniger whose book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” was withdrawn following objections that it hurt sentiments of Hindus is “angry and disappointed” over the development and says the “true villain” is the Indian law.

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 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

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  1. A
    Feb 20, 2014 at 5:37 am
    Fundamantal right does not mean offending others religion. why such cry for this book. Books has been withdrawn by out of court settlement with publishers , no volient act was noticed. rather than writing these columns can somebody ask publisher why ?
    1. A
      ANIL P.
      Feb 20, 2014 at 8:47 am
      Although everybody will agree that freedom of expression is most important and state must protect it, nobody is willing to sacrifice anything for its upholding. This author and many like her write articles only when the matters relate to Hindu. Because Hindus are tolerant and donot harm 'normally' ; the writers can take liberty. In this very article the author was afraid to state the name of Taslima Nasarin who was hounded out of Kolkatta by most vocal secularists CPM government because some muslims didinot like her. This author also didnot even mention that author of Satanic Verses was not allowed to attend the Jaipur Lit. Festival becasue of opposition by Muslims. Hindus have even tolerated Charwak's almost 2000years earlier. Ms. Wendy and her book is nothing to worry about for Hindus. The opposition to her book and similar things are only reaction to the atude of Intellectuals and politicians to partial behaviour. Actually these intellectuals are cowards and cowards cannot protect anything leave alone freedom of speech.
      1. A
        azad k
        Feb 20, 2014 at 5:15 am
        i dont wish to redd article in full. my question is only why writers choose controversial issues. just to get fame ? non sense. there are other numerous issues related to human development, poverty, environment................ Mob is not not ordinary mob. it is bread and butter for writer fraternity. grants, donations, royalities all are funded through money belonging to the Mob through taxes, tickets etc etc.Writers should stop indulging exploiting emotive issues.
        1. C
          Feb 21, 2014 at 4:35 am
          The withdrawing of the book is voluntary by Penguin after realizing that it was on shaky ground and going to lose the case. The author of this write-up is unhappy that someone has taken the judicial route. Why ?The question is - whether the author is only gets concerned when a Hindu raises question about a rotten book with "Alternative History" tag ... or does she question about any strong criticism / judicial act against any book anywhere in the world ? Unfortunately, it has become highly fashionable and trendy to deplore anything related to Hindu. And many fools are jumping in to the bandwagon to get labelled as "Progressive and secular" by criticizing Hindu way of life, knowing well that he/she would get support from Mainstream media of India.
          1. Arun Kumar
            Feb 20, 2014 at 7:08 am
            In This case there was no mob fury or anything. The peioners went to the court in accordance with the law for which they have equal rights as any other.
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