Salil Tripathi’s Offence: The Hindu Case is part of the in the Manifestos for the 21st Century series “about faiths, offence, and censorship, which includes similar titles on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The series purportedly aims to defend freedom of speech against religious intolerance and censorship.
For anyone so inclined to review the cases of Hindu intolerance, the book offers an easy reference guide for it is a comprehensive compilation of all those cases where Hindus or rather groups who profess to represent them have taken offense. From the more famous, such as the case of MF Husain, the celebrated painter, to the trite—publicity hungry “activists” like Rajan Zed in the United States demanding ban on movies like Love Guru—nothing, it seems, is too trivial to have escaped Mr Tripathi’s attention.
This is not to argue that the book does not raise an important issue–the right to free speech is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian constitution. In the last few decades, a growing intolerant streak has challenged this constitutional right—an essential tenet of a liberal democracy as India professes to be—and the state and the society have more often than not meekly acquiesced and surrendered. In fact, often it is the politicians who are the first to take offence—latest case in the point, the reality show Sach ka Saamana, which has parliamentarians up in protest demanding a ban for damaging Indian culture.
Therefore, a book which unapologetically defends free speech and raises its voice against intolerance and bigotry is welcome. Unfortunately, Mr Tripathi’s book lacks the intellectual heft needed for a work of this nature and does not go much beyond arguments writers like him have repeatedly made in op-ed columns.
Mr Tripathi traces the rise of Hindu intolerance to the Shah Bano case and the controversy over banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which, he argues, led to a sense of majority resentment cynically exploited by the Hindu Right for advancing its political goals. Subsequently, it led to the Ayodhya movement which facilitated the BJP’s rise as a major force in the Indian polity. This emboldened the Hindu Right which channelled its clout in different ways: from riots in which Muslims were specifically targeted to growing intolerance to what were seen as assaults on Hindu religion by artists, scholars and other intellectuals. Factually, Mr Tripathi’s narrative might not be incorrect though it certainly oversimplifies a complex argument. Horrible as Gujarat riots of 2002 were, worse riots had happened in that very state in independent India. They happened much before the rise of BJP as a potent political force. Also, Mr Tripathi does not break fresh ground. These arguments are well known to anyone with even a passing interest in modern Indian history. It also leads us to a more fundamental disagreement with Mr Tripathi’s thought process.
Discussing the MF Hussain case, accused of hurting Hindu sentiments by painting nude images of Hindu goddesses, Mr Tripathi offers a brief overview of Hindu mythology. He points to famous temples like Khajuraho with their explicit depiction of myriad sexual acts and argues that Hinduism historically celebrated sexuality; the modern puritanical streak is result of transplanted Victorian sensibilities. Again, this is a well-known strategy which essentially attempts to delegitimise conservatives by pointing out that their protests are inconsistent with the religion they profess to protect.
Convenient as this strategy may be, it is also fraught with danger. Arguing in terms of religious sensibilities and acknowledging that outrage against Husain’s painting would have been somewhat understandable if Hinduism did not apparently sanction and celebrate similar paintings invariably leads to a slippery slope. Proponents of Hindu religion would no doubt point out, as they have done in the past, that Husain is misinterpreting and deliberately exploiting deeply religious symbolism. More importantly, it raises a fundamental question: What if Hinduism did not have these depictions or if someone were to paint Muslim figures—should they be prosecuted because they apparently enjoy no religious sanction?
Mr Tripathi’s answer would no doubt be unequivocal: No. But by placing his arguments in religious morality rather than constitutional morality, he leaves room for unwinnable religious arguments. To be fair, he does discuss the constitutional weaknesses—Article (19)(1)(a) of the Constitution and Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code which allow the state to proscribe ‘’offensive’’ material—but that discussion is perfunctory. This is not a mere pedagogical argument—after all, it is only the constitutional weaknesses which have allowed Hindu fundamentalists to file hundreds of cases against Husain, virtually hounding him out of the country. It is the Indian state which has permitted this travesty by arming itself with an arsenal of draconian laws which impinge on free speech. And lest it be forgotten, those laws were incorporated in the Indian constitution not by religious fundamentalists but by founding fathers and their parliamentary successors, encouraged by an overarching and overzealous government.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s liberalism in that particular sense was as much a failure as his economic policies. After all, despite the BJP being out of power for the last six years, Husain remains a persona non grata in India. There are no easy villains and heroes in this complex narrative as Mr Tripathi seems to suggest and popular Western definitions of liberals and conservatives find limited traction in the Indian political context.
The books closes by briefly touching on politically surcharged topics like Aryan invasion theory and textbook revisions. This section is one-sided and not particularly relevant to the rest of the narrative. The process of politicisation of Indian history is hardly new and some of the historians who Mr Tripathi approvingly quotes have participated in it as willingly in it as the ones foisted by the BJP’s Murli Manhohar Joshi.
In the books in the Manifestos series, Brian Klug looks at Judaism, Irena Maryniak discusses Christianity and Kamila Shamsie examines the Muslim case. Like Mr Tripathi’s, authors with names that suggest a particular religious affiliation are tasked with critiquing their own religion. Perhaps, more than anything else, that conveys the weakness of this endeavour.