Is the outraged Indian over-sensitive or culturally prudent?
Protests are as common in India as the ‘Singh’ surname in the national hockey team.
On the face of it, it’s one indicator of a free society where every citizen can get his voice heard. But agitations like the recent one against a film crew for recreating parts of Chandigarh to look like a Pakistani city seem to create an impression of misplaced priorities (and some would say too much free time for the protesters).
Hindu radicals decried the Pakistan link; and not to be left out, a Muslim umbrella body said the movie about the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden showed their religion in a bad light.
Apart from Pakistan and religion, one also has to be careful in making public comments on topics which touch on caste, class, ethnicity, geography and gender.
The straight-talking and self-professed forward-looking chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Mamta Sharma, discovered the gender minefield when she said at a seminar that girls should not be offended if someone calls them ‘sexy’.
Rights activists and politicians slammed her, saying the sexually suggestive word “promotes violence”.
But there are many liberals who defend the right to free speech and artistic freedom. Local artists in Chandigarh defended Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s film crew on their right to make a realistic movie set (even if it meant temporarily creating a mini-Pakistan), while the protests against author Salman Rushdie’s scheduled presence at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January was slammed by the media and many literary figures.
But with a population of 1.2 billion where competition for resources and jobs between tribes, castes and religion is still the norm (job reservation is a prime example), India is not exactly South Park in which everybody is free to deride anybody.
The consequences of ‘loose’ talk or ‘insensitive’ actions can be far-reaching. The country’s checkered history of religious tensions and ethnic clashes provides ample proof.
The same can be said of actions. Think of the recent Koran burning incident at a NATO base in neighbouring Afghanistan, which triggered widespread protests and led to several deaths.
Many politicians, religious zealots and self-proclaimed cultural guardians protesting against ‘western ideas’ (like Valentine’s Day celebrations) often talk of the need to preserve Indian culture.
So can a cultural melting pot like India be expected to conform to the idea of absolute freedom of speech?