Kerala’s leading daily Malayala Manorama on Tuesday ran an unconditional, front-page apology on behalf of the group on behalf of their 150-year-old literary magazine Bhashaposhini after two images in its latest edition results in protests from two powerful communities in the state. Some local Christian groups were not amused by Tom Vattakuzhy’s painting accompanying the play Mrudwangudeh Durmruthyu which was about the last days of Mata Hari but vaguely resembled Da Vinci’s Last Supper but with nuns sitting around a bare breasted dancer. The magazine edition was retracted from the newsstands within a day and relaunched with the controversial painting cropped beyond recognition. Alongside, Bharat Dharma Jana Sena – an NDA constituent that claims to represent the Ezhava community, took umbrage to the cover photograph of a bronze sculpture of Sree Narayana Guru by Riyas Komu, which they claimed to be “distorted”. Komu’s bust shows the Guru as a tortured soul who had to witness caste discrimination prevalent during his time. In a Facebook post, the BDJS leader warned that any ‘disrespect’ to the revered social reformer would not be brooked.
The withdrawal of the publication and the public apology is, unfortunately, hardly an uncommon response in India to images and art that inadvertently end up ‘hurting’ sentiments of certain groups. Expressing his shock at the intolerance shown by the groups, playwright C Gopan said, “It’s a war against the image. What frightens me most is the sculpting of a new generation without images. This is not a problem of communalism alone, but of dangerous aesthetics”. The painter Vattakuzhy also shared that he was shocked at the opposition to the painting and felt that it happened due to reading of the image out of context.
As a pluralist democracy, India possesses extraordinary ethnic, religious, lingual and cultural diversity. But diversity in thought is not exactly welcome when it comes to expressing alternative views on religious and sexual morality. The overall result has been a cultural minefield for any Indian artist, author or performer who wants to push boundaries. For the most part they must do so at their own risk. Sure, freedom of speech and expression is an integral part of the Indian Constitution, but cumbersome exceptions are coded in to ‘reasonably’ restrict it.
Among others, IPC section 153 (A) — a British Raj formulation introduced in 1898 — sets the provocation threshold low. It states, “whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, … shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.” Another British Raj law from 1925, IPC section 295 (A) makes it a crime “to outrage religious feeling” “with deliberate and malicious intention” and has been used extensively over last 81 years to attack and ban art exhibitions, books and theatre performances and to bully authors and publishers into withdrawing ‘controversial’ works. In this prevailing climate, emboldened by draconian laws, our religious leaders — from all religions — can afford to take the smallest disagreement as a ‘provocation’ and an insult to the faith.
The experience of the late M F Husain — one of India’s great modern artists — is probably the most iconically tragic in modern India. Trouble stirred up for him in 1996 when an old sketch of a nude goddess Saraswati — not unlike the ancient depictions of the goddess in Khajuraho — drawn by him resurfaced in the magazine Vichar Mimansa, rousing right wing Hindu groups to file multiple criminal lawsuits for profaning their faith.
The problem lay in the desire to ban and silence alternative views. “The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of “nirakara,” or formlessness,” observed Salil Tripathi in WSJ. Husain’s controversial anthro-morphic depiction of ‘Bharat Mata’ as a distressed woman in the nude challenged the monolithic, widely-propagated imagery of the nation as a desexualized, fully-clothed, nurturing mother.
Consequently, extremist Hindus — like all extremist leaders — did not like their ideas to be challenged, and reacted with violent anger, slamming him for obscenity and wounded religious sentiments. In addition to the lawsuits, Husain’s house was attacked and his artwork vandalised by members of Bajrang Dal, an extremist group. Even though both the High Court and the Supreme Court eventually ruled in Husain’s favor — acknowledging that his depictions neither arose from malicious or lascivious intentions, nor amounted to insult merely because of nudity — this acquittal did not stem the tide of vitriol, litigations and threats to his life. He could not paint in peace and went into a self-imposed exile in 2006, until his death in 2011.
Husain’s aggressive naysayers were hardly hard pressed to justify their violent opposition when the Indian state has come under pressure of other faiths to ban the art and literature deemed offensive to them. In 1989, under pressure from the vocal militant section of its large Muslim minority, India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’. Christian groups in Nagaland, Goa, Punjab and Tamil Nadu pushed for a ban on the screenings of the Hollywood movie “The Da Vinci Code”, along with Dan Brown’s book by the same name, even though it was not banned in any other country.
In his paper, “Free speech in India: Still plagued by pre-modern laws”, Constitutional law scholar Bhairav Acharya explains that since colonial days, the Government of India (British, at the time) “had shown a readiness in overturning its courts to suppress free speech when faced with community protest”. Indian laws thus bowed to community concern that allied with a strong state to threaten freedom of expression.
Understandably, the British Raj made no attempt to enshrine principles of freedom of expression and individual sovereignty to protect individuals from community morals and state powers. Remarkably, those laws were adopted as such into independent India’s Constitution. So long as these provisions exist in the statutes, no one can be faulted for approaching the courts for attempting to shut down and silence alternative views that they personally do not agree with.
Expression of disagreement and rigorous debate is part and parcel of a healthy democracy, as long as physical and legal oppression are not deployed for controlling and silencing the other. Art and satire should never become the reason for anyone to go to jail, get maimed or killed. While hate speech, malice and libel have to be guarded against, laws that provide a free reign to feeling ‘offended’ and hold it as valid ground for suppressing any contrary expression must be rescinded as they achieve little other than empowering a narrow fundamentalist faction to act as trustees of community beliefs, customs and sentiments — altogether in a violent casualty to one of the markers of liberal democracy.