Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rochelle Pinto - Catholics should shrug off Hrithik Roshan's Pope joke and stop participating in the politics of hurt

the Catholic community in particular could refresh public culture with a display of its sturdy sense of humour by wishing Roshan better luck with his love life and moving on.

Abraham Mathai, the president of an organisation called the Indian Christian Voice, has asked for an apology from Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan for allegedly hurting “the religious feelings and sentiments” of Christians. Earlier this week, Mathai’s lawyer sent the actor under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, after Roshan tweeted this message to emphasize his degrees of separation from the various women with whom he has been associated in the media.

One could probably find more Pope jokes shared among Catholics in India than Roshan could ever think of. But if some in the community are greeting his remarks with indignation, it is because claiming equal opportunity hurt has become a way to establish political rights at a time when hyperbolic violent speech has changed the terms of public debate.

More significantly, in the current context of political representation in India, public insult and sexual threats are seen to substantively diminish the political status of the recipient. Perhaps the Catholic community should seize the opportunity to refuse this position, given that Roshan’s throwaway tweet is something that would not receive more than a passing glance at another moment.

Section 295A, put in place prior to Independence to guard against denigration of religion, has been used to contest dissenting views by believers as well as offensive representations of religions. Semitic religions have a long history of negotiating what is permissible (or not) in images and words. The interaction with practices in India, where political rituals and gestures endow and divest people of power and status, makes the question of representation and hurt more layered than the words suggest.

Thus jokes about Christ or the Pope are less likely to elicit action in countries where religion has ceased to be defining, though it may continue to offend. Sexuality and caste are also volatile symbols of political identity, and for as long as dignity in India is stripped through gesture and word, any easy equalisation of all representation into a freedom of speech category obscures these issues. Protective legislation is still necessary in spheres other than the religious.

This has, however, provided a large canvas for the manipulation of community sentiment and for unethical uses of laws that were intended to protect the rights of religious groups. Post Independence, the politics of religious hurt has been used to mold political behavior providing political parties with a handy model for instigating acts of desecration and sparking violence.

Masculinity and religious sentiment
Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code has, as a creative development on the uses of the law, spawned the politics of comparative hurt. If a community does not respond to defilement of images or jokes, members feel they have been disallowed a share in the politics of hurt; leading to the idea that public shaming has occurred.

Under different political regimes, community formation has also been effectively gendered so that not responding to real or perceived threats is seen as a sign of weakness and emasculation. This has helped the culture of authoritarianism immensely, as it uses the political connotations that this provision has acquired to draw all communities, especially minorities, into accepting the offer of equal opportunity fundamentalism or control.

As authoritarianism as a political culture has expanded, it is evident that sharing in its politics has neither helped disadvantaged minorities, nor has it protected them from assault. It has instead, worked well as an alibi for strengthening authoritarian rule. It has also complicated the position of dissenters within minority groups, who have to assert distinct identities against majoritarian ones while distancing themselves from aspects of minority politics that they disagree with.

Rather than being held hostage to these tensions, perhaps minority groups could refuse the offer of equal opportunity hurt through which they are deflected from securing political rights or building an alternate political culture. At the same time, it is worth clarifying that the term “minority appeasement” merely signifies a majoritarian perspective and participates in the ideology of Hindutva as it casts all minority issues in the category of unjustified demands on the state.

An opening for minority politics
While acts of intended defilement or insult have an intimidating effect in polarised and marginal community neighbourhoods or at the time of elections, a detached view should be taken of utterances by film stars or movies and books that are not direct attacks.

Further, there is a vast difference between expressing difference, and taking legal action. Not demanding an apology would diminish the effect of the tweet especially as the swirl of media attention is likely to shift to something equally irrelevant in the next few days. Besides, the community scarcely needs to define itself in relation to a soap-operatic public spat.

In previous instances, Abraham Mathai’s responses have been to more substantive issues such as asserting the right of Dalit Christians toreservation, and protesting attacks on tribal communities. Significantly, in 2012, he opposed PA Sangma’s exoneration of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for responsibility in the Godhra riots of 2002 and the attacks in Orissa on Christians in 2008, when the Christian politician sought Modi’s support for his candidature as President.

In his critique of Sangma, Mathai has shown the way to rejecting the duplicitous offer of political tokenism in exchange for a democratic space for minorities. If this is extended to avoiding the use of Section 295A especially at this moment when it is most associated with intimidation of free speech, it would restrict the use of the law to cases of vulnerability and violation of democratic rights and expand the sphere in which public persuasion and critique is still possible.

More promisingly, it would distance minority political practice from the culture of prohibition and bans through which the current government and fundamentalist groups intimidate civil society into silence. It may be recalled that an impetus for the ongoing student agitation was the attack against the screening of the film on the Muzaffarnagar riots by Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and his peers in Hyderabad Central University. The attack on both, the potential solidarity expressed between Dalits and Muslims, and the assertion of free speech, is a political opportunity for minorities to build wide solidarities based on mutual rights rather than a reactive politics.

For minorities in India, there is much to be gained by isolating fundamentalist forces in their use of bans, book burning and unethical use of the law. As someone who represents no other Christian, I might add that the Catholic community in particular could refresh public culture with a display of its sturdy sense of humour by wishing Roshan better luck with his love life and moving on.