Are there too many sacred topics in India?

July 16, 2010

Protests and television debates on the apex court’s decision to OK  the publication of a book on Maratha ruler Shivaji, banned in 2004 by the Maharashtra government, has put India back in the spotlight on the question of freedom of expression.

India is secular and a democracy but a country with a billon-plus population — consisting of hundreds of tribes, clans and castes following myriad beliefs — can be pretty fickle when it comes to defining ‘sensitive’ topics and easily susceptible to parochial politics.

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The list of subjects considered “sacred” in the country include the extended Gandhi family, Ambedkar, Periyar, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Veer Savarkar and maybe a few thousand more people, said an editorial in the ‘Mint’ daily.

“Shivaji – The Hindu King in Muslim India” by American James Laine was banned after a little known rightwing group ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, which Laine had mentioned in his acknowledgement. The group alleged the book was derogatory to the Maratha leader.

India has always been accommodative of interest groups with political parties quick in trying to score political points over sensitive topics. Any literary or artistic work on religious, political and historical figures has always endured intense public scrutiny.

Reams of newsprint and television debates have focused on the clash between censoring works deemed objectionable by some and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

If countries like France lay emphasis on the separation of religion and state, in India, most aspects of public life are inter-connected with religion, not to mention caste, tribe and what not.

This manifests in religious and social quotas and extends to the safeguarding of religious and cultural ‘sentiments’. (Spare a thought for an artist whose creativity has to consider the sensitivities of the world’s second largest population)

India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” which later resulted in the author receiving a fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The movie “The Da Vinci Code” was banned by a couple of states because of objections raised by some Christian groups. Also, India’s most well known artist M F Husain was forced to live for years in self-imposed exile before taking Qatari citizenship – he had been targeted by right-wing groups who objected to his depiction of Hindu goddesses in his paintings.

The Supreme Court has urged caution in using the power to ban books/publications as it has a “direct impact” on the right of freedom of speech and expression, even as the Maharashtra government plans to enact a law to stop the defamation of national, historical or community icons.

So is it a case of trying to protect the sensitivities of the public or an issue of too many sacred topics?

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i don’t get it.

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