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The Mob As Censor

By Ranjit Hoskote

The Hindu
13 February, 2004

The Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists who attacked the Garden Art Gallery in Surat, on January 29, appear to have taken destructive criticism to its extreme. Labouring under the delusion that the Hindu pantheon required defence against artistic blasphemy, these ruffians destroyed eight works by distinguished contemporary Indian painters including M. F. Husain, K. H. Ara and N.S. Bendre, and the younger Kolkata artist, Chittrovanu Mazumdar. This manifestation of a terrifyingly illiberal tendency, which has come to dominate our public life, flagrantly challenges the Constitutional right to the freedom of expression. Conversely, it champions the self-arrogated right to take violent offence at affronts, real or imagined, to belief or identity.

The Surat outrage follows the model set by the Sambhaji Brigade's rampage through Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute on January 5. Far from being aberrations, these incidents are continuous with a shameful series of violations of artistic and scholarly freedom in the recent past. These precedents include the vilification campaign launched by various Hindu-majoritarian organisations, during 1996, against Husain for his alleged portrayal of a nude Saraswati; the disruption of the Pakistani vocalist, Ghulam Ali's Mumbai concert by the Shiv Sena, in 1998; the demonstrations by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) auxiliaries in Varanasi, which forced Deepa Mehta to stop work on her film, Water, in 2000; and the withdrawal of an exhibition by Pakistani artists at Mumbai's Sakshi Gallery in 2001, under Sena pressure.

These infringements of the freedom of expression share three common features: all take, for their basis, the plea of offence to sacrosanct religious or ethnic sensibilities; all have been instrumentalised through ignorance or the deliberate misrepresentation of the cultural production in question; and all have been enforced by the threat or enactment of mob violence. Unfortunately, in every case, the victims or the authorities have yielded before kangaroo-court censorship. Can India's citizens be held to ransom by any ragtag outfit that claims monopolistic authority over a tradition that has, ironically enough, always been diverse and dialogic in its expressions? The contemporary guardians of Hindu pride would surely proscribe the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded, who sang: "God is stone, the temple is stone,/ head to foot, all stone./ Hey priest-man, what's the object of your worship?" Witch-hunting through the centuries, they would probably lynch the 15th-century saint-poet, Kabir, who sang: "Maya set up all these traps... / The ten avatars are divine malarkey/ for those who really know." Indeed, the fanaticism that we routinely describe as `medieval' is a quintessentially modern phenomenon, an outcome of aggressive mass mobilisations based on religious and ethnic identity.

In responding to the challenge posed by the hooligans of the Right, we are all too often lured into a Shakuniesque game of dice, a debate whose terms have been pre-programmed against us. While defending Husain against the accusation made against him in 1996, for instance, none of us paused to question the substance of the accusation, namely, that he had portrayed Saraswati as a nude.

We forgot that the nude is a figurative genre defined within the naturalist tradition. In the stylised expressionism that Husain favours, noted for its minimal linearity, the nude has no meaning. The body is neither surface nor volume in Husain's handling, but a refined calligram invoked as a glimpse, an allusion, a darsana achieved by High Modernist means.

This recognition reminds us of a fact, often overlooked, which lies at the base of the wars of iconography that have convulsed India with alarming frequency during the last decade. In a gradually modernising society that remains pervasively dedicated to the murti, icons — a term by which I mean, here, the images of deities, folk heroes, structures of worship as well as canonical texts — are often constituted as the objects of several simultaneous conversations, treated very differently in each.

Rama is the object of ecstatic devotionalism, for instance, but also the leitmotif of aggressive politicised religiosity, and a text for cultural history. Similarly, Shivaji is a hero venerated by a particular ethnic group or region, but his life is a narrative readable as political history. The difficulty arises when one conversation claims a monopoly for its treatment of a particular symbol, artefact or narrative, and rejects the claims of other conversations to conceive of it in other terms. In such a situation, that conversation prevails, whose participants can enforce their monopoly by violence.

In a republic, it is not the monologue of belief, but the multiplicity of conversations representing diverse viewpoints, that is sacrosanct: this imperative cannot be ceded to the whims of any single group. All artists live with the occupational hazard of an uncertain audience response. They should not, however, be subjected to the insecurity of a situation where they can be blackmailed into silence, obliged to practise a tacit and debilitating self-censorship. A truly liberal and democratic society cannot afford such a costly compromise with bigotry and repression.