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What's the Indian State's fault in the cartoon controversy?
February 21, 2006
There have been rows and rows over insults to religious sentiments of the many groups that make up the Indian mosaic. Off the top of my mind I can easily rattle off a few: A company in the United States put Hindu deities on toilet covers; someone else put them on footwear; while another put them on underwear. Only last week, there was a report about a European company putting Durga images on beer bottles.
Those are by no means it. For a more detailed account, you can go to Hindunet.org and get the whole lowdown on how Hindu gods and goddesses have been shamed in various countries at various times.
I can understand the sentiments that are hurt, even though I don't believe faith is so weak as to come tumbling down because of such acts born out of ignorance. Personally I don't give a damn, probably I will wince once at reports of such stupidity, tell myself 'forgive them my lord, for they know not what they do', and move on.
A healthy practice, I have always believed, but prudent? I have been harbouring serious misgivings over that of late in the light of the snowballing row over the Prophet cartoons.
The row, let's get it straight, has nothing to do with India. The cartoons appeared in a European country, and does not violate any of the laws prevailing there. Yet, look at the protests that are mushrooming across the Indian landscape, from Kashmir to Hyderabad, taking in Uttar Pradesh and other regions on the way.
In the protests in UP, a state where the government is precariously perched and could see elections anytime, a five-star hotel was vandalised by the protestors. And, in a first of its kind in independent India, a Samajwadi Party minister offered a bounty of Rs 51 crore on the cartoonist's head, plus gold -- which will be raised from the Muslim community.
And now, a Shariat court has ordered the cartoonist's death under Islamic law.
Amidst all this, one can be forgiven for believing s/he is not living in a secular democracy but in some medieval kingdom to our west.
I have the deepest sympathies for those offended by the cartoons, as I have for those offended by other similar portrayals, but I have always held that calling for censorship in the face of such expression is an assault on the freedoms we profess and which set us apart, and that democracies all over must band together to keep out such demands and stick by each other.
Why is public property in India being damaged over the hurt sentiments, why is the Indian legal process being subverted by extra-official authorities who are issuing edicts? Why is an Indian minister, sworn to uphold the Indian Constitution, abetting murder and why is no action being taken against him?
What exactly is the Indian State's fault in the cartoon controversy? That it is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world, because of which it must be subject to every ebb and flow in the Muslim world?
A related query: when Hindu deities were being, correction, are being defiled in many parts of the world, how come Hindus in India, from where the faith originated, never demonstrated although they must number a billion, how come the religious heads did not issue any edict like 'off with his head' etc? In the light of the cartoons row, wouldn't such behaviour have made sense?
Now that I have raised some uncomfortable questions, let me brace for the inevitable charge that will follow, that I am a closet Hindu fundamentalist, someone who is entirely bereft of feelings for the minority community's feelings, and who is so blinded by his prejudice that he cannot see the full picture. Which is that Islam does not recognise national boundaries; Muslims all over are one community; what affects them in one corner of the world affects everyone equally; since 9/11, the faith and its practitioners have been branded as a terrorist bunch, and the cartoons are the latest in a long line of the Western/Free World's refusal to accept its religious icons and so on.
Sure, there's a stereotype in place, why just about the Muslim community but about all communities. And the Muslims who are protesting out on the streets, damaging public property, calling for death etc are doing their faith, or their cause, no good; on the contrary, their behaviour only reinforces the stereotype. I wish the community will stop blaming the world at large for its many ills and pause to look within.
Why am I saying all this now? Because I notice a disturbing similarity with the past in the present protests that threaten to snowball. Because I don't think the United Progressive Alliance government is looking at the greater danger its inaction, I daresay actual encouragement, in the face of challenges to the Indian State, is doing to the nation.
Last week a colleague and I were in Bangalore to interview Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual guru and founder of the Art of Living Foundation, on AoL's 25 years. Among the questions we asked him was if he still believed, as he did four years ago, that a Hindu cannot be a fundamentalist. And this what he said:
'Fundamentalism in one religion will cast a shadow over the other religion as well. You can't expect one religion to not have fundamentalism if it's there in other religions.' You can accept the wisdom therein, or pour scorn over it and move on.
Now rewind to the late 1980s. It was the time of the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi and his brute majority in the Lok Sabha, and the Bharatiya Janata Party was a decimated lot, with just two MPs. The main Opposition party then was the Telugu Desam Party, actor N T Rama Rao's party that had withstood the mighty Rajiv wave, that's right.
In 1989, however, the Congress had lost power, the BJP had almost 90 MPs, in 1996 the BJP formed a 13-day government and from 1998 to 2004 it ruled India in league with other parties. How did that happen? The easiest answer is that it consolidated the Hindu vote.
But the truth is, it managed to prey on the misgivings in the Hindu community that in the name of secularism it was being given the short shrift, while Muslims were being pampered.
Were Muslims being pampered? They still remain on the fringes of development, so there was no real pampering in terms of jobs, benefits etc. But what gave the impression that they were a special lot was that the government bowed before the community's vocal leaders, who were mostly fundamentalist.
A series of genuflection by Rajiv Gandhi's government reinforced this belief. First was the Satanic Verses controversy. Then, as now, the community took to the streets, rallied that Islam was in danger, and the Congress government decided to ban the book even before our Islamic neighbour Pakistan had done so.
Then came the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, where a poor old divorced woman was granted alimony by the court. The court, in passing, also pointed out that a Uniform Civil Code, envisaged by the Constitution, remained a dream despite so many years since independence.
I still recall some of the names from the dusty confines of my memory. Forest Minister Z A Ansari was one, diplomat turned politician Syed Shahabuddin was another. Many made their careers as custodians of the Muslim votebank; faced with the cry that Islam was in danger, and a fear the Muslim votes will slip away (that was before Mulayam Singh Yadav had become the community's sole guardian, mind), the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned the court verdict in Parliament.
Next, to assuage 'hurt' Hindu sentiments, the government also threw open the doors to a ramshackle mosque/temple in Ayodhya and allowed the shilanyas at the site.
As it turned out, the BJP walked away with the aggrieved Hindu votes; and V P Singh, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Yadav et al garnered the hurt Muslim votes, and the Congress was left facing the darkest phase of its existence.
The Congress, thus, cannot escape its contribution to the BJP's growth. And I am not sure how much of the lessons from the 1980s it has learnt today. Many if not all who are in positions of authority both in the Congress party and the government were witness to the events of those days, did they not learn anything?
If they did, what is the need for us to protest with the Danish government, or for Sonia Gandhi to write to Imam Bukhari expressing her regret over the cartoons? Why oh why conduct a survey of Muslims in the defence forces, the last and only establishment to have escaped the poison our political class has injected into every single institution?
I don't recall the government or Parliament doing any of this for the many instances of religious insensitivity to singe other faiths, so why single out a case where street power is once against being mobilised?
What will it take for the Indian State to develop some steel, tell the protestors 'sure, we are sorry your sentiments are hurt, we will convey them to the Danish authorities, but beyond that we have nothing to do with the controversy, can we get on with our life here?' and enforce the Indian laws if the protests get out of hand rather than stand by and watch meekly?
Just as democracies need to huddle together in the face of terrorism, they need to also unitedly stave off attacks on liberty, both individual and collective. India cannot expect liberal democracies to come to its aid when it is fighting a war against terror on the ground, and turn its back on the same nations when it comes to a terror battle for the head and heart. And as a democracy, its interests are in tune with the West, not to our west.Saisuresh Sivaswamy
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