Some of you may have read Arun Jaitley’s deplorable piece in the Indian Express a week ago, in which he invoked the concept of blasphemy to justify the violation of free speech that took place in Baroda. (Blasphemy as a concept happens to be “alien to Hinduism,” as Salil Tripathi pointed out in this excellent piece.) Well, I was having an email conversation with the renowned poet and artist, Dilip Chitre, in the course of which he sent me a response to Jaitley’s piece. With his permission, I publish it below in full:
Crisis in Culture
by Dilip Chitre
The real crisis in contemporary Indian culture—where any dissent can be seen as an act aimed at ‘hurting sentiments’—is that few of us are prepared to celebrate the heterogeneity of our cultural heritage; and by dissent I mean any non-conformist self-expression.
Politicians have always exploited religion and sectarian faith to create law and order problems. Today, they only need to announce that their followers’ ‘sentiments are hurt’ and we all understand the not-so-veiled threat to take the law into their own hands. The State—representing the political will of the people—is only too glad to clamp down bans, tighten censorship, and muzzle dissent. It only increases the State’s own power over the individual citizen and the minorities.
The latest example is the row between the Shiromani Akal Takht and the Dera Sachha Sauda. But our history provides ample examples of various inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian clashes among ‘Hindus’, Muslims, and others, not to speak of internecine communal conflicts. Religious sentiments are easy to hurt unless we accept heterogeneity in a religion-neutral sense as our common way of life.
Caste has been constitutionally abolished in India. In practice, however, by drawing water from the same source, a dalit offends supposedly more chaste Hindus. The Hindu’s ‘religious sentiments’ are ‘hurt’ and the provocation is enough for caste Hindus to physically attack dalits, wherever they can be found isolated and vulnerable.
As regards ‘blasphemy’, it is true that British, European, and American law tacitly accords Christianity the title to all religion and the entire sacred domain. Our Constitution—-on paper and perhaps in spirit—-is more secular. But the catch here is the word ‘secular’. In India it is often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’.
Via politics, religion has wreaked enough havoc in India since independence. Revivalists and atavists have succeeded in taking us back to a mythologized past which should have become increasingly irrelevant to our public life since we embraced our present Constitution. If the executive gives in to populist pressures and violent threats to any minority, and if even the judiciary succumbs to majority public opinion, all minority opinion and individual expression is doomed to go forever underground in this country.
Adult franchise gives each individual a vote. What if despite adult franchise no individual is allowed to voice dissent? For those who don’t believe in God, there can’t be any blasphemy. For those who don’t believe in fundamental rights, there can’t be any democracy. Whether God or democracy is our priority as citizens of this nation cannot be left to God to decide. He is not a registered voter in India.
That last para superbly puts it in perspective, as also the bit about the term ‘secular’ being “often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not as ‘equally neutral to all religions’.” Indeed, it strikes me that when the Hindutva right condemns the Congress for being pseudo-secular, they seem to be expressing their support for genuine secularism, in the sense in which Mr Chitre articulates it. That, sadly, could not be further from the truth.
(My posts after the Baroda incident: “Fascism in Baroda.” “Only live in fear.” “The Hindutva Rashtra.” “Why Indian ‘liberals’ aren’t quite liberal.”)