Where The Mind Is Without Fear
Predictably, almost all the leading English dailies have carried out critical editorials and articles on the out-of court settlement between the Penguin Books India and what they say “Hindu fundamentalist” Siksha Bachao Andolan, according to which the former will withdraw from the Indian market all its copies of 2009-published The Hindus: An Alternative History, written by American Indologist Wendy Doniger. The author has also reacted badly to this settlement. In a statement, she has said, “They [Penguin India] were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”
Wikipedia describes Wendy Doniger as an American Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought. She has been teaching at the University of Chicago since 1978. Much of her work is focused on translating, interpreting and comparing elements of Hindu theories through modern contexts of gender, sexuality and identity. She describes herself as “a Sanskritist, indeed a recovering Orientalist and “an old-fashioned philologist”.
According to Wikipedia, beginning in the early 2000s, a disagreement arose within the Hindu community over whether Doniger accurately described their traditions. Christian Lee Novetzke, associate professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Washington, summarizes this controversy as follows: “Wendy Doniger, a premier scholar of Indian religious thought and history expressed through Sanskritic sources, has faced regular criticism from those who consider her work to be disrespectful of Hinduism in general.”
It may be noted that while Doniger has agreed that Indians have ample grounds to reject postcolonial domination, she claims that her works are only a single perspective which does not subordinate Indian self-identity. But then the fact remains that on this controversial book, she has, as our cover story this week by a distinguished Indian scholar points out, avoided debates. The book has been a “bestseller”; so neither the author nor the publisher is going to be hurt financially. Now, the real controversy is over the principles. Should any expression be curbed in a democracy? No. The best way to tackle dissent is through debates and counter expressions. Unfortunately in India that is not happening. There is no consistency on the issue. Most of the scholars and commentators who have criticised the latest out-of-court settlement would not have cared if a pro-Hindu book or art, or for that matter any publication critical of Islam or Christianity, was banned in the country.
Take for instance novelist-activist Arundhati Roy’s letter to Penguin India in today’s Times of India (February 13, 2014). She writes: “ You have fought for free speech…And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly….. The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it is looking bad, but they are not in power: Not yet. And you have already succumbed?” What it means is that the likes of Roy will not mind if any book is withdrawn following a fatwa, a ban or a court order. And the likes of her are upset that the publisher has decided to withdraw even before the “fascists” (obviously meaning the BJP and Narendra Modi) have assumed power!
This is what I say lack of consistency or selective freedom. The likes of Roy, who dominate the Indian academia and media, will want books critical of Hinduism to flourish in India but they will advise against the circulation of anything that is critical of other religions. In fact, the basic point that strikes me here is that Doniger, a Professor of “Religions” in an American University is a great “secular” for our so-called liberals in India, but these very liberals will leave no stone unturned to foil any attempt by any university in India to introduce courses on “Religions”. In fact, they will have nothing to do with the promotion of a “dead language” such as Sanskrit. Even any elective course on “Vastu Sashtra” or”astrology” will be dismissed as attempts towards “safronisation”. Such are the double standards of these so-called liberals!
These liberals remained mum when the then Communist government of West Bengal banished Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen, known for her liberal views and moderate interpretation of Islam. But, these very elements got wild when the late Maqbool Fida Husain, arguably India’s most celebrated and richest painter, went on a self-imposed exile from India to become a citizen of Qatar. Apparently, he left the country when some people confronted him over controversial paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. Several legal cases had been filed against him. In other words, Nasreen wanted but was not allowed to settle in a plural, secular and democratic India, while Husain opted for an “Islamic monarchy”.
Despite Hindu anguish from time to time, Husain continued to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. For example, in one of his paintings he showed the Goddess Sita totally naked seated on the long tail of the Monkey God Hanuman. Hindu religious texts contemplate a very pious relationship of mother and son between Sita and Hanuman. In another painting of Hussain, Sita is shown sitting naked on the thigh of a naked Ravana, the demon. Imagine a bull copulating with the Goddess Parvati and Lord Shankar watching the act on the pious Shivratri festival day, or Goddess Durga in union with her lion. But that is what Hussain’s painting portrayed.
Husain’s countless liberal supporters said that by painting Hindu gods and goddesses he was expressing his artistic and creative freedom and that he had no anti-Hindu motive. They further argued that nudity in paintings and sculptures has been a part of Hindu culture and tradition, as displayed in magnificent temple sculptures in Konark, Khajuraho, Ellora and Bhubaneshwar.
But these supporters miss the point that nowhere in the mentioned temple sculptures are the main deities displayed as nude. The problem with Husain’s paintings is that he did not allow people much scope for imagination in his work. Invariably he wrote the names of the gods and goddesses like Sita, Laxmi, Parvati and Hanuman at the bottom of his paintings, which explicitly clarifies what he meant. And that is really offensive. In fact, in one of his “much acclaimed” paintings, he drew a naked woman in the shape of the map of India and titled it “Bharat Mata,” or Mother India. Significantly, however, whenever Husain painted celebrities that are Muslims or Christians, he displayed utmost sensitivity and ensured that all of his figures were properly dressed.
That brings in the factor of politics behind the inconsistencies. No government in India would dare to annoy religious sentiments, even those based on flimsy grounds and unreasonable matters, as doing otherwise could adversely affect the so-called vote banks or “identity politics” of political parties. It is this “identity politics” that erodes liberty. Fearing the loss of Muslim support, the West Bengal government led by Communists that were supposedly most secular and rational banned all of Nasreen’s books and refused her permission to live in the state.
Worried over a backlash from Christians, who are extremely important in the politics of Kerala and the northeastern states, the government banned the screening of the religious thriller The Da Vinci Code, which was a highly successful film in the United States and Europe. In India, it is common to succumb to threats by protestors against creative persons, whether they are writers, artists or filmmakers. Books and plays questioning some of the thoughts and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar have evoked passionate Enquiry, while some others have been proscribed. Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and Arun Shourie’s “Worshipping False Gods” have been banned. A few years ago, the government decided to stop the BBC from filming Rushdie’s epic, “Midnight’s Children,” because somebody in power feared that the sentiments of some communities might be hurt.
It is therefore no wonder that there are double standards in political and intellectual circles over matters pertaining to freedom of expression. However, it so happens that the secularists and leftists who dominate India’s educational and cultural infrastructure have tolerated more incidents of banning and restrictions on ideas than anyone else. In fact, they are more intolerant of others’ views. They can rewrite and reinterpret history books, as they did under the Congress Party regimes, particularly under education ministers like Nurul Hasan and Arjun Singh, but deny the same right to rightists as they did under the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime.
Let us remember the words of the great philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose magnificent vision of India was to make it a country “where the mind is without fear.”
Authors and artists have the right to express whatever they want, as long as it is not libelous. That is the best way to fight against intolerance, ignorance and the enemies of reason.
But the key here is a thing called consistency.
By Prakash Nanda