Just as we were about to wrap up this cover story, the news sphere exploded with the fracas involving Taslima Nasreen and some hardline Muslim activists.
The striking part of the attack on the lady author from Bangladesh was not the attack itself. Because of her writing, Taslima is now a veteran of attracting death Fatwas and threats. The striking part – as fortunately, and probably only for the first time, highlighted by the English press and broadcast media – was the total silence of the individuals and organisations who have built their luxury ivory towers simply through the earnings from criticising the doings of the Hindu hardline groups like Bajran Da, VHP and even political parties like BJP.
“Jo hua uski hum ninda karte hain; Lekin writers ko bhi yeh dhyaan rakhna chahiye ki woh kya likhte hain aur uska kya asar ho sakta hai”, said the poster boy of Congress from Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad – also the Chief Minister of J&K.
The Samajwadi Party, another secular party according to Congress, Left Front and ‘liberal, urban, intellectuals’, went a step ahead and supported the attack on Taslima!
We have no case in favour of Taslima. We neither subscribe to or oppose any of her writing. We neither worship her as a great writer nor pull her down as a ‘trash writer in search of publicity’. We neither care for her Bangladeshi identity nor support any call for granting her Indian citizenship. Or, cutting the long story short, we neither love Taslima nor hate her for anything. Indifferent might be a curt word, so let’s say we are aloof from her identity, her writing and her values.
And yet, we would stand in front of her if someone tries to murder her for what she writes or what she had once written. Because, physical violence against any defenceless living being – human or animal – is cowardly, repelling and inhuman.
But we would support all peaceful protests, all voluntary social boycotts and all responses of similar nature as that of the stimuli from Taslima, viz written word.
Get the picture?
The point is a very simple one; while physical attack on art and artists is not a human (or humane) way of registering one’s protest, the artist (including writers and communicators) cannot wash his or her hands off the turmoil by merely citing ‘freedom of expression’ as both a tool and an excuse.
If we restrict ourselves for the moment to just the subject of religion in art, one can’t help but ask Taslima, MF Hussain, the Danish newspaper and their clan of all religions and regions of the world, “Which sane, intelligent (nothing to do with formal education!) and generally aware person/artist/writer would NOT know that people everywhere are extremely touchy about their faith/religion”.
It is this query that is summed up so beautifully by the quotation in the middle of this page. Yes, the so-called creative persons (including journalists like those of the Editorial team of this magazine) demand a world when it comes to the right to speak; but often don’t spend a penny on thinking before expressing.
What is freedom of expression anyway?
Officially, freedom of expression (or speech) is the concept of being able to speak freely without censorship. It is regarded as an integral concept in modern liberal democracies. The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under international law through numerous human rights instruments, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries.
In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, although the degree of freedom varies greatly. Industrialized countries also have varying approaches to balance freedom with order.
For instance, the United States First Amendment theoretically grants absolute freedom, placing the burden upon the state to demonstrate when (if) a limitation of this freedom is necessary.
In almost all liberal democracies, it is generally recognized that restrictions should be the exception and free expression the rule; nevertheless, compliance with this principle is often lacking.
The thing is, whatever the definition or the ambit of the term ‘freedom of expression’ might be, it has to be said that the virtue – which always comes home with huge responsibility – gets abused every time it is put to practice without taking into account the sensibilities of its audience – either deliberately or inadvertently.
Freedom of expression & religion:
Without doubt, freedom of expression permits and ought to permit criticism of religious beliefs. But it does not confer a fundamental right to either heap abuses any religion or its founder or deities; or even show them in poor light.
In such cases an inference of deliberate intention of outraging the religious feelings can be raised and which is punishable under Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code. Whether we like it or not, in India religious feelings are easily ruffled by scurrilous attacks on religion and the founder and central figures of that religion. Courts in India have tried to balance the values underlying freedom of expression with the maintenance of peace and order.
Keeping that in mind and going back to the subject of the protest by Muslims against the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, while hurt felt by Muslims – who generally take religion more seriously than followers of most other religions – is perfectly understandable, what is not acceptable is failure of some Muslim leaders in some countries to restrain the mobs from getting violent while registering their protest.
That reaction sums up the title of this story quite aptly – it really was an exaggerated response to an exaggerated sense of liberalism on behalf of a Danish newspaper. Unfortunately, exaggeration generally operates in the form of a cycle. So now, the exaggerated response by some Muslims have made sure that there is an exaggerated association of Islam with intolerance and violence in those parts of the world that had borne the brunt of violence.
It has to be mentioned here that Christ was blasphemed in a play called The Temptation of Christ, which attributed unnatural sexual proclivities to him. Christians were deeply offended and there was strong condemnation, but their protests did not result in any large-scale, violent acts in the ‘Christian world’.
Is this something new?
We might believe that the world is getting ever more intolerant aboiut art with each passing decade, but art vandalism’s roots can be found centuries ago. Medieval Greeks are said to be the first to have coined a term to define those who attack sacred images by combining words meaning “likeness” with “breaker or to break.”
During the 8th and 9th centuries in the western world, countless Christian paintings and sculpture were destroyed throughout the Byzantine Empire during the original Iconoclast Period. During the Protestant Reformation, much Catholic art—stained glass windows, mosaics, church interiors, altarpieces, and statues—fell under the iconoclast’s tools of destruction.
In the Islamic countries, because of the prohibition against figural decoration, some Muslim groups have often damaged devotional images. The most furious of all examples, of course, was the recent furore over cartoons about Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. Another notable example of recent times was the destruction of frescoes and the statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.
Often, and justifying the title of this feature, attack on art represents THE EXACT purpose that art often carries – that of being a symbol of something or also being symbolic.
So, extremist reaction to art can often be seen as a symbolic act of protest against any particular ‘belief’ or ‘being’. For example: In 1989, there was the man who entered the Dordrechts Museum and slashed ten Dutch works in less than two minutes in protest of workers from foreign countries living in the city. He justified his actions stating, “By letting all those foreigners live in our country, we are throwing away our Dutch culture—thus, there’s no need for those paintings anymore.”
While artists generally have always used art as a symbol of their take on life and its issues, problem arises when they either exaggerate the negatives or create new, less than flattering aspects of a belief or the symbol of that belief. Examples, amongst thousands, are both nude Goddess Saraswati by M F Hussain and cartoons of Prophet Mohammad by a Danish newspapers.
Reaction is futile, stupid:
There might have been violence across the globe about the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, but the truth of the hour is that ALL OF THOSE CARTOONS ARE STILL AVAILABLE ON THE INTERNET. So, tomorrow someone in Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat or Rajkot can coolly download those cartoons, take out prints and, under the cover of darkness, throw it around in ‘sensitive areas’ of those cities. What would happen then? Burning of the entire cities in Hindu-Muslim clashes? But can’t the miscreant be a Christian or a Sikh or a Jew? How do you know who spread them around?
The same is true for portraits of Saraswati or ‘Bharat Mata’, as drawn by Hussain.
Or DVDs and copies of Da Vinci Code.
Or pictures of some nonsense person in the clothes of some holy guru of Sikhism.
More support for the above argument:
Those who are Internet savvy or deal with research on the subject of Internet itself would know of a entity called ‘Gripe Sites’.
A gripe site is a type of website devoted to the critique and or mockery of a person, place, politician, corporation or institution. The web gives ordinary individuals the opportunity to publicly criticise the rich and powerful, including multinational corporations.
Today it is multinational corporations, tomorrow it can be faith. Who would be able to stop those sites or people?
And that brings us to the very heart of the conundrum viz:
You cannot ever suppress or kill the so-called ‘freedom of expression’, however responsible or deliberately mischievous the ‘expression’ might be.
It would, in some form or the other, find its way out through one medium or the other. And as the box on the page left to this one shows, the more you turn something into an underground cult, the higher would be its following. And the more fanatical its supporters would be.
So, is it a free hit for artists?
Well, yes, if you are talking of their need, intent and ability to express. But no, if you are talking of the effectiveness of their work.
Our holy scriptures have taught us that fragrance of truth can never be hidden. So, if the expression of the artist is a true reflection of not just his unique viewpoint but also compassionate consideration for its recipients, it would sooner or later find its way into the hearts of people.
On the other hand, if there is a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to rake up some mud, the best method for rationalists would be to lay bare the fake artist’s intent by means of compelling arguments against the expression. And that too only if the artist has managed to get undeserved audience and acclaim for it. In absence of that, propping up a better work or supporting his more rational competitor – without ever mentioning the mischievous one – would do a better job than what thrashing an art gallery with sticks can ever do.
Unfortunately, in today’s world of insatiable news mongers in both print and broadcast media, it is not always possible to completely ignore deliberately controversy-prone. Otherwise, indifference to such so-called artists would have gone a long way in separating the real artists from dust.
And what about the goons?
There can never be any second opinion about it. Anyone who destroys property or human life; or even threatens to do any of that should be treated very harshly by law. They should be severely punished and be barred from venturing into any art gallery or towards any art show for life – irrespective of whether their sentiments were truly hurt by any mischievous or ‘blasphemous’ expression of any artist.
A criminal is a criminal. And people who go around ransacking art galleries or threatening artists are criminals; petty, publicity-seeking losers.
The League take on the subject:
We at League are very clear on the subject: we do not encourage any form or expression that might be taken as an affront to any particular belief – however unfounded that claim of hurt might be.
How can one measure the true ambit of sensitivity anyway?
And isn’t it the job of an artist to keep coming up with newer expressions for any thought? Can’t the Danish cartoonists come up with an alternate form to say the EXACT SAME thing? Ditto for M F Hussain? Yes, every artist can; provided the intent is there.
On the other hand, if someone still goes ahead with an expression unacceptable to any section of the society, League would fight for the physical safety of both the artist and his or her work. Any attack on that would be considered grave crime by League.
Do join us if you agree with our take.