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Everybody Loves A Good Ban

The last conversation I ever had with Pramod Mahajan concerned a column I had written on this page about The Da Vinci Code, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: May 14, 2006 03:25 IST

The last conversation I ever had with Pramod Mahajan concerned a column I had written on this page about The Da Vinci Code. The point of my piece was that Hindus tended to be less tolerant than Christians. Consider what would have happened if somebody had written a Da Vinci Code-type of novel about Hindu gods, I asked. Would we have allowed such a book to be published?

On the other hand, I wrote, Christians had shown themselves to be astonishingly tolerant. The central thesis of The Da Vinci Code is that modern Christianity is a hoax and that Jesus did not die on the cross but married Mary Magdalene and went on to have children.

Despite these apparently blasphemous claims, The Da Vinci Code is the best-selling novel in the history of the world and it has broken all records in nearly every Christian country. When, I asked, would Hindus learn that a mere novel poses no threat to a religion and stop demanding bans on everything?

Pramod Mahajan phoned to say that he disagreed. It wasn’t that Hindus were intolerant. It was just that Indians liked protesting. After all, the campaign against The Satanic Verses did not begin in the Islamic world but was launched by Indians. And as for all my arguments about how Hindus would react to similar claims about our gods, was I aware that blasphemous books suggesting an illicit relationship between Ravana and Sita (and casting doubts on the paternity of Luv and Kush) had been published in Marathi?

I said that this was news to me. And, in any case, if this was so, then why hadn’t he, as leader of the Maharashtra BJP, protested?

That was just the point, he said. The books were written by Dalits at the height of the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra. “Dekho Vir,” he explained. “At that stage the Dalits were protesting more. How could we, as Brahmins, have complained? It would have been seen as an anti-Dalit activity. In our country, Dalit agitation will always be more powerful than Hindu communalism. He who protests the loudest always gets his way.”

I was reminded of my conversation with Pramod when I read about the protests against the impending release of The Da Vinci Code movie from Indian Christian organisations. While these organisations had been largely content to let the book become a massive bestseller in India, they had suddenly been galvanised into action by the news that the movie was about to hit our screens.

Pramod had said that the propensity to protest and the desire to censor had nothing to do with Hinduism, or Islam for that matter. It had to do with Indians. We are a nation of protestors. Give us an issue and we will demand a ban. Some religious or caste groups were better at protesting (Muslims and Dalits, for instance), so they usually got their own way. But given a chance, everybody would protest.

And sure enough, India’s Christians have not let Pramod down. Even though the film The Da Vinci Code is made by Christians in a Christian country and will be watched by millions of other Christians all over the Christian world, India’s Christians say that they are so offended that it should be banned in our country. Never mind that the rest of the world will see it.

Say this for Pramod: his slightly cynical but entirely pragmatic perspective has been vindicated. India’s Christians are Indians first and Christians second. In other words: give them an issue and they will protest, protest, protest.

And what about the nature of the protests? All of us were outraged when Yakub Qureshi, a UP minister, offered a reward of Rs 51 crore for the head of the Danish cartoonist who drew the cartoons lampooning the Prophet. But Nicholas Almeida, a former corporator in Bombay and a self-described Christian activist, has attracted little outrage for doing much the same sort of thing. Almeida has offered a reward of Rs 11 lakh to anyone who brings Dan Brown (the author of The Da Vinci Code) before him “dead or alive”.

And what will Mr Almeida do if Dan Brown is actually produced before him in the flesh? “That is between me and him,” the saintly Nicholas told the Bombay edition of the HT. “I know what I have to do. I have no fear. Even Jesus gave his life for the people.”

Clearly, Almeida would prefer to give Dan Brown’s life for the people, rather than his own. But just in case members of his local parish fail to produce the author before him, the saintly Nicholas has a Plan B ready: he will burn Dan Brown’s effigy in front of St Antony’s Church, Vakola.

As he says humbly, “God may forgive Dan Brown. But Almeida will not.”

In case you think that Almeida is a nutcase and that I am unfairly caricaturing the Christian community by quoting him, I should point out that he is not alone. A week ago, the Catholic Social Forum (CSF) called people of all faiths to fast unto death at Azad Maidan in central Bombay until the government banned such anti-Christian films as The Da Vinci Code. For good measure, they also asked for a ban on Tickle My Funny Bone, a film I have never heard of but which presumably also poses a grave threat to the holy Church.

The CSF is nothing if not far-sighted. Recognising that others like me will not know why Tickle My Funny Bone is so offensive, they also planned to show objectionable clips from the film at the Canossa Convent in Bombay’s Mahim area. Well may you ask: if the damn thing is so offensive, then why in God’s name are you going to show clips from it to people who would otherwise never have heard of it?

Another organisation, the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS), has already met the Chief Minister of Maharashtra to demand a ban on the film. Surely, it is not in the nature of Christians — a well-educated and reasonable community — to demand such bans? Not at all, BCS president Dolphy D’Souza told the HT, “Freedom of expression is being used in a whimsical way.”

Moreover, adds the good Dolphy, The Da Vinci Code film is part of a concerted campaign against Indian Christians: “There is a pattern emerging. The Bishop of Vasai, Thomas Dabre, was attacked in February. There were ridiculous molestation charges against Father Gonsalves in Nallasopara recently. Now, Christ is being depicted wrongly.”

Huh?

All right, I concede that none of this sounds entirely sane. And it would be tempting to dismiss it as the work of a lunatic fringe. But it isn’t.

The CSF has already met with some success over Tickle My Funny Bone. Along with the All-India Christian Council, it approached the Censor Board in Delhi and secured guarantees that all visual Christian symbols — a church, a rosary, the cross, clergy and even a woman dressed as a nun — will be deleted from the film. Now, says Joseph Dias, general secretary of the CSF, it will continue these protests till The Da Vinci Code is subjected to similar butchery — if not banned altogether. A Christian member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, Arnold James, has already written to Sharmila Tagore, chief of the Censor Board, demanding a ban on The Da Vinci Code: “This movie is sheer blasphemy and has deeply offended millions of Christians.” (How? They haven’t even seen it. They’ve only read the book. And nobody’s asking for a ban on that. But it’s no use looking for logic in these protests.)

My guess is that the Censor Board will hold firm on a big film like The Da Vinci Code even if it is willing to hack the relatively unknown Tickle My Funny Bone. But don’t be too sure. Remember, India is probably the only democratic country in the world where the film Jesus Christ Superstar — a musical that was credited with starting a Christian revival in the West — was banned by the censors because Catholic organisations took the bizarre line that it was anti-Christian.

What does all this prove? I don’t think we should draw any general conclusions about the liberalism of the Christian community from these protests. After all, some liberals such as Bishop Agnelo Gracias have said that though they regard the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code as absurd, they are against banning movies on principle.

But equally, I think, these protests should also tell us something about religious sensitivities in India. Most of us regard Indian Muslims as extremely
illiberal. And we are shocked by the regular demands to censor anything that Hindu fringe organisations find offensive.

The truth, of course, is exactly as Pramod Mahajan described it: it is not Muslims or Hindus who are illiberal when it comes to religion. It is Indians. Even Indian Christians will demand bans on films that Christians elsewhere in the world regard as entirely acceptable.

And the tragedy is that because we give in to anybody who protests loudly enough, we risk becoming an illiberal state, held to ransom by any nutcase who claims that we have insulted his religion.