In September 2014, Gujarat Police arrested Muslim cleric Mehadi Hasan for calling Navratri a ‘festival of demons’.
When I read the above statement on a website, I guffawed. I could not fathom why and on what grounds he was arrested. India is inhabited by hundreds of millions of human beings. Some groups of these human beings follow one faith; another group another faith and some do not follow at all. Then what gives us the right to impose our beliefs on others and what makes us believe that others shall treat our religion with the same respect as we have for ours ? This reminds me of one of my favorite stand-up comedian, Bill Hicks. He was an outspoken stand-up comedian with strong, unbending views on the most divisive of subjects and when one of his shows offended a priest, he replied to the priest directly by letter.
While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.
The connection between how Indians take offence and how that is used as a tool to curb the right to freedom of speech and expression is sought to be explained in the following short note.
The Indians today are offended in varied aspects. These aspects can be narrowed down to certain heads which are (i) religious matters or matters involving one’s dogmatic faith and the representation of its critical view through art and literature (critical view takes the form of sarcasm or demystification of one’s religious/historical personage or simply poking fun at one’s religion.), (ii) food habits of different religious or cultural groups, and, (iii) nationalist sentiments.
I have specifically dealt with the religious matters which offend the Indians most.
India, a socialist secular republic, is home to diverse groups of people and also to their beliefs and practices. India has been tolerant of diversities since time immemorial. One of the grandest emperors of India, Akbar not only made unequivocal pronouncements in the priority of tolerance, but also laid the formal foundation of a secular legal structure and of religious neutrality of the state, which included the duty to ensure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.’
Akbar supported dialogues between adherents of religious faiths. Akbar’s overarching thesis stated that ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than ‘reliance on tradition’ is the way to address difficult problems of social harmony.
But today this pursuit of reason seems to have been lost on the lunatic fringes of our society. In the case of Ajay Gautam v. The Union of India, where a ban on the movie of PK was demanded by the Hindu fundamentalists, the court came out with the tenets on which religion is based upon.
“Religion relies on faith and humor on fantasy, with each performing the important function of society. The more devoted a person in his religious belief, the greater should be his spirit of tolerance. Our country enjoys a shared membership of human race and our future depends on the tolerance of distinctions that mark the richness and diversity of the plural community of man which this country enjoys”, the Court said.
Indians’ religious sentiments get easily hurt and that is evident in the sectarian conflicts that the country has seen. But this does not give the license to the government to ban any and every type of art and literature that provokes or arouses the audience to commit harmful acts. A line needs to be drawn and this was done in by J. Holmes in Schenek v. United States. He for a unanimous court evolved the test of “clear and present danger”.
It was held in this case that free speech cannot be suppressed on the ground either that its audience will form harmful beliefs or may commit a harmful act as a result of such beliefs unless the commission of harmful acts is a real close and imminent consequence of the speech in question.
Gandhiji has spoken about the importance of free speech along the same lines. In his book, ‘Hind Swaraj’, he writes, ‘Every man and woman has the right to hold any opinion he or she chooses and to give effect to it so long as in doing so she or he does not use or advocate physical violence against anybody.’
India basks in the glory of being a democratic country cherishing the principles of equality and liberty. But the laws, acts, and statute of this democratic republic glorify the laws of colonial times. The Customs Act, the Post Office Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Press Registration Act of 1867, and Sections 124,153 and 252 of the Indian Penal Code retain the major tenets of what was originally drafted by the British. Also the glaring examples of public censorship where the citizens wield the censorship sword in their hand and dictate the government to ban the books or movies which have offended them indicate how the government has become subservient to the whims and fancies of the masses and further how these colonial-era laws have emboldened leaders and fanatics to make concrete their demands.
But today, not only these statutes and lunatic fringes of some religious groups, it is us too who have become antagonistic towards others views and opinions.
LET US REMEMBER
“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell
[i] Source: Love All the People: The Essential Bill Hicks, Revised Edition.
[ii] Translation in Vincent A. Smith, Akbar: The Great Mogul (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917), p.257.
[iii] Irfan Habib, Akbar and His India ( Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
[iv] 249 U.S. 47 (1919).