For those questioning the Islamic faith, the going has never been easy. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen are both cases in point.
Protests and demonstrations were taken out and effigies had been burnt when Rushdie was knighted by the British Government, in June this year.
Taslima’s case is no different from MF Husain’s or the Baroda art students’ of MS University or Salman Rushdie’s, all of whom had to face the wrath of fundamentalist forces.
So is artistic freedom being compromised by politics? That was the big debate on CNN-IBN show Big News conducted by CNN-IBN Editor-in-Chief Rajdeep Sardesai.
On the debate was an entire gamut of voices: All India President of the Majilis-e-Mushawarat, Syed Shahabuddin and the country’s leading Arts critic, S Kalidas. Representing the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese was Father Dominic Emmanuel and from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Ram Madhav.
The debate commenced on a note from the week gone by which saw Taslima Nasreen being shuttled all over the country in the wake of protests by Kolkata Muslims that some portions of her book defamed Islam.
This led to the voicing of the sentiment that Islam is illiberal. This view also evolved due to the perceived lack of ‘moderate’ voices in Islam, which consequently, let so-called fundamentalist sentiment carry the day, making the Government intervene on the protestors’ behalf and telling the author to conduct herself appropriately if she wanted to live peacefully in the country.
Following the Government’s capitulation to the extremist voices, Taslima agreed to remove offending passages from her autobiography.
Responding to the charge of Islam’s lack of liberalness, Syed Shahabuddin felt that if a religion demands a certain stance – be it orthodox or moderate – then it is up to the believer to deliver them.
“There are certain basics in every religion,” he said. “Whether you call somebody a fundamentalist or not is your choice. But the point is that every religion has different fundamentals.”
Vis-à-vis Islam, Shahabuddin did not think much of defining terms, such as ‘moderates’, either.
“I don’t know what is the ‘orthodoxy’, what is ‘liberalism’ and what is ‘moderation’. Does the ‘moderate’ Muslim mean that you don’t pray? Or that you have half the faith and not the full faith?” he demanded.
The debate then began in earnest as the moderator tried to synthesise creative freedom with a respect for religious beliefs, a task rendered gargantuan with the divergent sensibilities of each religious group.
Art journalist S Kalidas felt that there are far too many sensibilities crowding the creative space.
“I feel this whole debate is a regressive debate, it is a civilisational regression,” he said.
Kalidas went on to explain that historically, after the Second World War, the Church and the State were separated very carefully by all enlightened democracies.
“Now, we have too many churches,” he complained, adding, “Somewhere, somebody or the other is getting hurt. So, where do you draw the line?
Taking the debate from provocation to retaliation, Shahabuddin said that any group that was offended had a democratic right to protest.
“If Muslims react violently, it’s wrong but if Muslims protest, it is as democratic as anything else and we are in a democracy,” he said, simply.
However, violent retaliatory measures have not been restricted to Muslims. The VHP and similar Hindu fundamentalist groups have a history of vandalism when paintings and books offend their so-called religious sensibilities. Most famously, MF Husain’s art gallery in Ahmedabad had been vandalised in 1996.
But RSS’s Ram Madhav suggested that all religious communities ought to take legal recourse in such matters, an ironic statement to make when the RSS has led agitations even storming art galleries and destroying paintings.
In fact, what has been happening on the streets of Kolkata is perhaps more legal than the vandalism which Hindu fundamentalists perpetrated.
Shahabuddin insisted that everyone has a right to protest.
“No freedom is absolute,” he said. “Our society is a religious society – that should be understood.”
But Shahabuddin underscored an important point about the nation: India is secular, but not in the Western sense.
“It recognises religion as an institution and it respects all religions,” said Shahabuddin, whereas the Western concept of secularism is that religion and politics are separate.
But clearly, there are limits to Indian secularism, too. What is creative freedom one day could well become blasphemy the next.
Last year had seen Catholics in various parts of the country protest the film The Da Vinci Code, demanding its ban. Most proponents of the film found it ludicrous, for the book had been released as early as 2003.
A question was then raised on about religious police – who would decide if a book or a film is offensive?
Father Dominic Emmanuel demurred over the question.
“Certain things cannot be seen as black and white,” he said. “There are always certain areas – especially areas of feelings, of faith, that are grey areas.”
That holds true for a country like India, which has a deeply pious and religious society. But would that mean there is going to be a constant tussle between faith and law, between sensitivities of communities and creative freedom?
Kalidas felt certain there be.
“The worlds of arts, sciences, enquiry are the worlds where there will always be this tussle,” he said, clearly indicating his belief that there are and will be enough factions to root for both creative freedom and religious sentiments.
However, Shahabuddin disagreed and declared that the few protesting Muslims on the streets of Kolkara adequately represent the feelings of the 150 million Muslim population of India.
Taking the debate back to Taslima, Shahabuddin raised another the issue of legalities, saying that Taslima was a foreign national, to begin with.
“Her home is Bangladesh and if she has any moral courage and if she is a great writer, she must go back and face the music,” he insisted. “Fundamental rights article 19(1): ‘Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Residence’ do not apply to foreigners,” he stated.
Ram Madhav interpolated that by that same logic, MF Husain ought to return to India and face the court cases pending against him, instead of living in virtual exile. In the course of the debate, Madhav even casually agreed that Husain would get protection from media and organisations like his.
The discussion finally turned to the quest for solutions, seeking alternatives for fully muzzling creative expression by banning books and films or vandalising paintings and sculpture.
Father Emmanuel felt that there should be enough room to check creative freedoms, too, if they begin to cause hurt or grief to the sensibilities and faith of people.
“If people have freedom to express themselves, do people have no freedom to protest?” he asked.
While legal recourse was recommended by all the panellists for those offended, Kalidas was cynical about that and raised a credible caveat.
“The problem is that the rule of the law is not allowed to take place. Before that happens, ignorant mobs collect outside your house, go on vandalising rampages, threaten your person and your family, burn your car down,” he said. “Is that civilised society?”
CNN-IBN EDITORIAL: With Madhuri Dixit and Taslima Nasreen’s cases, the debate between religion and creative expression has again opened. However, as before, the synthesis between the two is difficult to achieve, for what may be art to one may well be the foulest blasphemy to another. Despite that, representatives of most religious groups feel that civic law – the absolute rule of the law – should prevail above all, and for all.
CNN-IBN POLL: Is artistic freedom being compromised by politics?
YES: 97 %
NO: 3 %