Thursday, March 19, 2015

Romila Thapar: The real reasons for hurt sentiments // Subhash Gatade - The Challenge of Unreason in South Asia

Romila Thapar: The real reasons for hurt sentiments
The right to freedom of expression is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this right is incorporated in the Indian Constitution. Yet, week after week it is being violated by what are euphemistically called “fringe groups.” This allows those who govern to remain unconcerned. It is, therefore, a matter that concerns civil society now. We have to react irrespective of promises from the government. It is incumbent on us to protect our rights. This right has to be discussed openly and fully because it sustains the autonomy of the individual in society. We are, after all, human beings and not robots.

This is especially so since the claim is always made that what is objected to hurts the religious sentiments of the community stating the objection. But this raises important questions that are neither asked nor answered. Does the objection reflect the sentiments of the entire community or only a small fraction of it? Who constitutes this community and represents it? It is time now that we all start asserting that we too represent a community in society, and that our sentiments are deeply hurt when freedom of expression is denied to us. We do not stamp out other people’s rights, but we do have to defend our right to express ourselves.

Objection to the novelWe also have to question what may be the real reason for the “hurt sentiment.” Is it really caused by a slur on religion or is religion being used as a mask for other reasons more closely related to our social values? What is Perumal Murugan addressing in Madhorubhagan? It is a human predicament — a childless couple desiring a child — depicted with admirable sensitivity, anguish and gentleness. So, are there other themes implicit in the story? Is the objection really concerned with the revival of a past Hindu religious tradition that is no longer legitimate from the perspective of the laws of the land, or is there an objection to the novel because it casts a slur on a religious tradition?

What is implicit in the narrative is the juxtaposition of the individual to society. The main characters are happy as a couple but are taunted for being childless by the family and the community. As always it is the woman who is blamed more than the man, and has to find a solution. She is advised to resort to what was regarded as a legitimate solution in traditional terms. It was not regarded as immoral. Was this perhaps a kinder way of resolving childlessness in the days gone by? Consensual sex with a stranger for purposes of conception on a particular religious occasion would not have been considered adultery but accepted as a sanctioned religious custom. People today do not recognise the fact that in past times, customary law that was outside the social code of brahmanical law was regarded as quite legitimate, as long as it had the sanction of the community, and this sanction is made explicit in the novel.

Is the objection to this action because it is a custom that was once permitted but is now contrary to the law, and therefore should not be legitimised in a novel? But the objection is to depicting it as sanctioned by Hindu religion. But to write about an activity that was current in the past is not an endorsement of what is today, contrary to contemporary law. Nor is it in any way a slur on religion, since it is an activity that is regarded as legitimate by the community, as the novel makes clear.

Is there some other reason? The solution suggested could be a slur on the husband, for if the wife conceives with a stranger, then it reflects on the impotency of the husband. This is unacceptable in a male chauvinist society where the woman is always at fault. In a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society, such a slur would be unacceptable. 

Ultimately the woman takes an independent decision in this action, as the husband’s consent remains somewhat ambiguous until the very end. Is all this seen as contrary to patriarchy? And is that the underlying reason for the objection? Is the objection then to the novel evoking a religious ritual that is degrading to the Hindu religion, or just a mask for the real objection, which is the right of a woman to take a decision in a matter that is of importance to the husband, his family and the community ? Is it an out-of-date custom associated in past times with the communities of the region? If the purpose of the objection is to deny independence of action to women, and condemn what is depicted as a normal and affectionate marital relationship, then why drag religion into it and speak of it as maligning Hinduism — only because that will bring in more publicity in current times?

Silencing people: The action taken is to effectively silence the writer. There are many ways of silencing people. The resort to physical violence is immoral and unethical in any situation of confrontation. The alternative is emotional and intellectual silencing: silence the author by accusing him of having degraded a religion. Murugan’s sensitivity has showed in the way he has silenced himself. The demand that a book be pulped, banned or burnt is becoming a regular agenda in this country. In the name of hurt religious sentiments, the real attempt is to prevent the emergence of a society that can think for itself, that can openly discuss the issues that confront it, that can effectively understand the massive process of historical change that it is undergoing. This is a process that will force us to face more changes and more confrontations. Therefore, we need to understand the process and not give in to those wishing to take it in their own direction.

So what can we do? Do we condone Murugan’s self-censorship? Or do we stand by him, as I think we should, and as many of us do, and invite him to retract his decision to write no more? We need to assure him that he must go on writing and assert this right to freedom of expression. His shift to Chennai is a form of exile. We don’t want him to exile himself.

There is perhaps no absolute freedom of speech. But it is necessary for us to assert that such a freedom should be determined by responsible people who share the author’s profession. At least that would ensure a sensible debate on the subject. This is not to deny any organisation the right to object to what anyone is writing, but to insist that no body of people can silence an author. But if self-censorship is to be the answer then where does one draw the line even in that? It should be in the hands of those who are professionally involved, and not in the hands of the “fringe elements” of political parties — the kinds of organisations that threaten individuals with violence and demand they be silenced, irrespective of how this is done. Authors and publishers have been threatened and acted against. Are we to become a silent society?

Defending a rightCan we think of a more effective way of handling such threats? It would help if there were to be an organisation committed to defending the right of free expression, especially of authors. It could be constituted of lawyers, publishers and some authors, set up to challenge those who threaten and abuse authors. This would involve naming organisations that threaten in this manner, and their individual members, so that they are also known as being among those that threaten authors. If court action is required, that could also be considered. A statement coming from such an organisation would also give courage to many others who tend to fear controversies.

 Subhash Gatade - The Challenge of Unreason in South Asia

‘Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science’. - Avijit Roy

"Dr Dabholkar who was fighting against superstition was assassinated because he was a rationalist. All such people who have embarked upon a path of reason and rationalism, propagated these ideas, had to make tremendous sacrifices. Dr Dabholkar was not the first and would not be the last person who sacrificed himself on the altar of rationalism. This unending struggle between rationalism and irrationalism is going on since ages and it is for you to decide whether it needs change or not." - Comrade Pansare

Words, ideas scare fundoos rather fundamentalists of every kind, every colour and every stripe. The mere possibility that a free mind can question, challenge and ultimately upturn the ’ultimate truth’ the faithful have received through their ’holy books’ rather unnerves them and they react in the only way they are familiar with. Resort to machetes to take on ideas or use meat cleavers to deal with unchained minds, quoting sanction from the same ’books of wisdom’.

Close on the heels of one such silencing of voices of reason, sanity, justice, progress on the streets of Kolhapur (India) - assassination of 82 year old Communist leader Com Govind Pansare by Hindutva zealots - has come the news about similar killing of 42 year old Avijit Roy, by machete wielding Islamist militants on the streets of Dhaka (Bangladesh), when the prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger, a author, an advocate of free expression, scientific ideas and secularism, was coming out of the Ekushe book fair along with his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna. She was also badly wounded in her attempt to shield Avijit from attackers and is now admitted to ICU.

Apparently there was nothing common between Comrade Pansare and Avijit, while Com Pansare had been active with the Communist movement since his young days in various capacities and wrote in Marathi lambasting the Communal and casteist forces and was equally at ease in leading people’s movement against toll tax and participating vigorously in anti-superstition campaigns, whereas Avijit happened to be a software engineer by profession, who had started the bilingual website ’Mukto mona’ (Free Mind) in 2000 which was very popular among free-thinkers, rationalists, skeptics and humanists and was also in the forefront of coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers back home.

It is a different matter that both shared equal antipathy towards religious extremism of every kind and had taken upon themselves the task of combatting it in every possible way at tremendous risk to their own selves. Threats were part of their lives, not some time ago one such zealot had even threatened 

Com Pansare with a warning that ’Tumcha Dabholkar karu’ ( You will face consequences like Dabholkar) in a unsigned letter, reminding him of the assassination of a great fighter for rationalism in July 2013 and Avijit also continued to face similar threats regularly through emails and on facebook. It is now history none of them decided to tone down their attacks against obscurantism, closing of minds and what Avijit use to say ’virus of faith’.

It is worth emphasising that both of them also shared passion for words.

Com Pansare wielded pen like a sword and wrote articles, booklets, books in Marathi to sensitise people around and awaken them from deep slumber. Many of his books have gone into multiple editions but his most popular monograph is ’Shivaji Kon Hota ?’ (Who was Shivaji) - which has sold more than one lakh copies and has been translated in few other languages as well. In this booklet, Com Pansare had tried to counter the appropriation of medieval era King Shivaji’s by Hindutva Supremacist forces who projected his image of a ’Hindu King’ opposed to Muslims. Pansare with painstaking research threw light on his policies and administration and provided documentary proof that he had many Muslims in top positions of his army and one of his close comrade in his escape from Aurangjeb’s custody was Madari Mehtar and thus tried to present a very balanced picture of his contributions. 

In an ambience dominated by the likes of RSS and Shiv Sena, his little monograph captured imagination of the ordinary people and acted as a ’weapon’ in the hands of individuals, formations who were fighting for an inclusive polity. Challenging communal elements from both the communities he emphasised that it is high time that people recognise their composite heritage and build solidarities cutting across caste, communities.

At one place in the book he writes :
Today Muslims are being attacked by raising Shivaji’s name and similarly Dalits are also under attack by those who hail Shivaji’s name ... All those people who oppose reservation also hail Shivaji’s name but forget that Shivaji even adopted a policy of giving jobs to Dalits . One discovers today that riots are taking place between Hindus and Muslims hailing Shivaji’s name. These fanatics of religions should be told that Shivaji was never a fanatic. He was a believer but he did not hate Muslims, in fact, had many Muslims in top positions in his army

Avijit was a also a prolific writer and had penned down a dozen books, mostly about science, philosophy and materialism. His last books Obisshahser Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief) and Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), were well received around the world. In the Virus of Faith his main argument is that "faith-based terrorism will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions". In his last article in Free Enquiry he said:

"To me, religious extremism is like a highly contagious virus. My own recent experiences in this regard verify the horrific reality that such religious extremism is a virus of faith.".

While they were rather alone when their assassins came but thousands of people from all walks of life had gathered to pay their last respects to them to give them a final farewell. While a sea of humanity had gathered in Kolhapur to see Com Pansare’s last remains and giving him final ’Red Salute’ 

Avijit’s final journey was equally moving. The coffin of Avijit was placed on a platform erected at the base of Dhaka University’s Aparajeyo Bangla, the symbolic architecture built in memory of the Bangladesh Freedom Fighters of 1971. Keeping in with his wish, Avijit’s body was handed over to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for medical research.

The symbolism at the time of bidding a final farewell to Avijit was not lost on people.

It just reminded that it is rather a continuation of the struggle started during the 1971 liberation war between two ideas of Bangladesh’s ( then East Pakistan) future - a struggle between religion as basis of nationhood as opposed to secularism and democracy as the road ahead for its future. It is now history how the forces mainly belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, who yearned to hinge then East Pakistan’s destiny to Pakistan had collaborated with the Pakistani army and had engaged in untold crimes against humanity. While they lost the battle then but they never say quits and the battle continues in very many ways still... 

Anyone who has been closely following developments in Bangladesh knows that these are no stray examples. According to newspaper reports Islamists were found to be responsible for the killing of at least 15 people, including progressive teachers and bloggers, committed in the last decade. 

But justice seems much too far. 

Incidentally attack on Avijit had close resemblance to attack on the legendary Bangla writer Humayun Azad who was similarly attacked just outside the Ekushe book fair exactly 11 years ago by Islamist militants. (27 th Feb 2004) He was fatally wounded in the attack but could be. He later died in Germany under mysterious circumstances (August 2004) where he had gone to do research on Heinrich Heine, a great German poet of 19 th century.

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