Is the outraged Indian over-sensitive or culturally prudent?

March 7, 2012

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.

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, commenting on the protest by Muslim groups against Rushdie, said freedom of speech should not be used to hurt religious sentiments.

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?


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India was meant to be a country of tolerance, of unity in diversity, of being brothers and sisters, all — at least, those were the lessons we were taught in school.

Some hypocritical lessons those were! Hindus can’t stand Muslims, Muslims can’t wait to badger Hindus, and Christians suspect that everyone else is after their lives, Buddhists and Jains on the side lines trying to pretend to be Hindus, while not really being Hindus… reminds me of a song from the 50s…

Dekh teri sansar ki halat kya ho gaye bhagwan,
Kitna badal gaya insaan.
Raam ke bhakt, Rahim ke bandhe,
subh ban gaye haiwaan, kitna badal gaya insaan.”

Posted by Awesomeness… | Report as abusive

This guy should try this line in Manipur or Nagaland first

Posted by IndiaSpin | Report as abusive

What is the point your are trying to make? Indians protest left, right and center. At the drop of a hat. When a Hindu protests, there will be some muslim who will protest the fact that the Hindu is protesting. So on and so forth.

If that is not freedom of speech, what is?

Are you saying that India does not have freedom of speech because somebody will protest if an Indian speaks his or her mind? The second person protesting against the first person has freedom of speech too!

So what exactly are you trying to say here?

Posted by gautamsatpathy | Report as abusive