Enough has been said about the intolerance inherent in Indian society and about the danger posed to free expression by the willingness of mobs to burn books, destroy paintings and disrupt exhibitions.
Most of us will agree that all of this is terrible and deserves the condemnation it has received. Few people will also dispute that the behaviour of the authorities in Baroda was reprehensible. And some of us may agree that it is not a coincidence that these events occurred in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.
But my concern this week is with the issue that underlies the debates of the last few days, not with the events themselves. Of course, we’re all liberals and, of course, we stand for freedom of expression etc etc. You don’t have to be an intellectual giant or a moral philosopher to say that art students should not be arrested or painters persecuted.
But are we right to see the issue in liberal vs reactionary terms? Let’s take the simplest example. Every liberal I know argued that MF Husain had the right to paint a naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata. Yet, hardly any liberal of my acquaintance extended the same principle to the Danish cartoons. The liberal position was that Hindus should be tolerant of the manner in which their gods and goddesses were portrayed but that Muslims were right to complain about any visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed.
It’s not necessary to be a fully paid-up member of the RSS to recognise that there is a huge logical contradiction here. The Muslim objections to the Danish cartoons were not based on the Muslims-are-terrorists subtext of the content. Muslims argued that even if the content had been laudatory, even if the Prophet had been portrayed as the saviour of the modern world, it would still have been deeply offensive to have seen a visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed.
So why is it okay to show Hindu goddesses in the nude and not okay to show the founder of Islam in any form at all, flattering or otherwise?
The Muslim contention is that Islam forbids its followers from visually representing the Prophet. This is fair enough and Muslims are entitled to regard this stipulation as binding.
But what about the rest of us? We don’t necessarily believe in Islam. Why should we be subject to Quranic injunctions? Why are liberals, who claim to value freedom of expression, so willing to surrender the right to visually represent as major a historical figure as the Prophet Mohammed?
If we say that we do this out of respect for Islamic sentiments — which is the explanation usually offered — then we lay ourselves open to the obvious follow-up question: why shouldn’t we also respect Hindu sentiments then?
It is not my case that we should all go out and visually represent the Prophet or that we should seek to cause offence to Muslims. My point is more fundamental: let’s not see this debate in secular vs fundamentalist terms. And let’s not pretend that it is about liberalism vs intolerance. The issues are far too complicated for that. And while Modi-bashing may be good fun, it distorts the whole subject to see it through the prism of contemporary politics.
The problem with the manner in which the debate over intolerance and artistic expression is conducted in India is that we confuse too many different components. It’s easy enough to condemn violence, authoritarian overreaction or conservative definitions of obscenity. But none of us ever touches the real hot potato: the relationship between art and religion.
This is a debate that is as old as art itself. The two extreme positions are well-defined. Some artists believe that art can be subject to no constraints at all. In the aftermath of the Baroda incident, we have all read innumerable articles about how artists function in the land of the imagination and cannot afford to worry about the limitations of the real world.
The religious position, which we now associate with the mullahs and the Hindutva zealots, was actually formulated by the Christian church when it was ready to burn heretics at the stake and impose rigid definitions of blasphemy. The Spanish Inquisition made the RSS look like a bunch of namby-pamby wimps and what the West now sees as Islamic extremism is nothing compared to the historical intolerance of the Catholic church over many centuries.
Almost all the liberal arguments that have been trotted out over the last month are, essentially, intellectual cop-outs. Yes, it is probably right to say that a man is free to paint or draw whatever he likes. But is he as free to exhibit it in public? If he is, then why do we have obscenity laws? Why do we have a film censor board? Clearly, there is a distinction between private expression and public exhibition.
I am one of those who believes that there is nothing obscene or offensive about the Husain paintings. I accept also that Hinduism has been full of nude representations of gods and goddesses throughout its history. But it does not follow from that — as many liberals have claimed — that there should be no limits to artistic expression of religious figures. Would those who defend the nude Saraswati be as forgiving of obscene pictures of Ravana and Sita or of a pornographic representation of the epic? Obviously, there are limits to our tolerance no matter what we may claim in the heat of the argument.
If you want to take a liberal stand on this issue, then there is only one position that you can take and still remain ideologically consistent: every artist is free to paint any religious figure he likes, in any form or activity of his choice. If that means copulating Hindu gods, joyous portraits of the Prophet or Jesus Christ engaged in deviant activity –– well then, that’s just too bad. Once you accept the principle of artistic freedom of exhibition, then you have to extend it to every religion and to every kind of painting or artistic representation.
Personally, I am quite willing to take this position. I genuinely believe that art poses no threat to religion. I believe also that religious standards change from year to year while art is timeless: much of what the Catholic church sought to ban five centuries ago is entirely acceptable to the Vatican today. And I regard it as integral to liberalism to argue that just because you are offended by something, it does not follow that I have no right to paint it or display it.
But, are the many liberals, who have been so vocal over the last month, willing to take the same stand? Would we have been so ready to defend the Baroda art student if he had painted portraits of the Prophet? Would we still talk about the experience of the artist in the land of the imagination if a painter had done an obscene take on the Mahabharat?
My guess is that most liberals would have funked it. The truth is that we take absolute rhetorical stands on issues where we hold positions that are far from absolute. And we caricature the debate by tossing terms like secularist and fundamentalist around when they have no real relevance.
Most societies recognise that freedom of artistic expression must necessarily clash with religious sensitivities. Mindful of this conflict, they create their own balance and draw their own boundaries to decide what is acceptable and what is not. For instance, the Islamic world regards all offence to religion as entirely unacceptable. In the West, such societies as Britain and Denmark reckon that artistic freedom is so absolute that religious sensitivities are irrelevant. When cultures clash, as they did over the Danish cartoons, each society must decide what balance it prefers.
Our problem in India is that we have no standards, no barriers and no sense of what is acceptable and what is not. Instead, each time the issue erupts, we engage in the same meaningless, finger-pointing debates, and call each other names. No principles are ever discussed. No guidelines are drawn up. No balance is reached.
And three months later, when another such incident occurs, we have the same pointless debates all over again. In the process, we learn nothing and forget everything.