Giving & taking offence

Print edition : February 20, 2015

At a protest at Valluvar Kottam in Chennai on January 20 in support of Perumal Murugan, Communist Party of India leader R. Nallakannu (centre) and, to his right, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, along with others. Photo: M. Karunakaran

The street sign near the "Charlie Hebdo" offices is replaced with a poster reading "Place of the freedom of expression", in Paris on January 20. Photo: Francois Mori/AP

Raif Badawi. He has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum. Photo: ads

THE problem with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Prophet Muhammad is, of course, that they were obviously meant to give offence even though that does not in any way warrant or extenuate the dastardly killing of 12 persons, including eight journalists of the publication, a caretaker, a guest and two policemen, in the attack on its office in Paris. Call it a later Islamic exceptionalist premise if you like but the proscription of any figurative representation of the Prophet has been universally in force, and sought to be zealously enforced, at least since A.D. 1500. Even verbally invoking descriptions of the Prophet’s form, drawing on khiyal (allegorical imagination) or khwab (dream), can today be contentious.

This rigorous ban in Islam, based on the authority of the Hadith rather than the Quran itself, harks back to the Bible (Exodus 20:4), which stipulates: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In Christianity, however, that was a commandment honoured more in the breach than in the observance, as the story of European art, fascinatingly chronicled by E.H. Gombrich, tells us.

The issue does crop up now and again, but it is during the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century that it looked like coming close to a blanket ban. Gombrich recounts how Erasmus sends the great German painter Hans Holbein to Thomas Moore in England with a letter recommending some work for him because, as he puts it, the “arts here are freezing”. Holbein goes on to become Henry VIII’s court painter and the best known portraitist of the time.

Raif Badawi

The problem with the 31-year-old Saudi Raif Badawi’s postings on his blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, for which the poor man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, is that it is difficult to see the problem. All he does, from what one can make out from the translation (put out in The Guardian by its Middle East editor, Ian Black), is to sporadically endorse the values of secularism, liberalism and the Enlightenment; criticise what he calls the “chauvinist arrogance” of the Muslims in New York for demanding that a mosque be built on the site of the World Trade Centre destroyed in the 9/11 attack; enthuse somewhat over-optimistically about the Tahrir Square mobilisations of February 2011 as “a decisive turning point… not only in the history and geography of Egypt but everywhere that is governed by the Arab mentality of dictatorship and security”; and, at his provocative worst, poke fun at the Saudi clerical establishment for running down astronomy because it ostensibly conflicts with Sharia law.

The problem in this case is not with Badawi but with those who choose to take offence, the custodians of a blighted and atavistic strain of Wahhabism who have been giving Islam both a bad name and a terrible time. They are quick to take offence to much that modern civilisation would normally consider humane, equitable or scientific.

The problem with the so-called offence taken at Perumal Murugan’s novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) is that it is such a badly thought-out afterthought. It did not give offence when it was published in 2010, nor all these years when it went into multiple editions in Tamil, nor when the English translation appeared in 2013. It would be interesting to know how and why this sense of slight surfaced suddenly now —whether the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which initiated and instigated the controversy in the first place, were taking their cue from a centralised Hindutva cultural censor.

There is a clear pattern emerging of a retrospective religious and cultural cleansing of scholarly and creative works which, if allowed to proceed unchecked, will wreak havoc with literary and creative expression.

Imagine, for instance (and it is not unimaginable in the current situation), if the Nair Service Society in Kerala were to suddenly find the “sambandam”—the matter-of-right liaison a Namboodiri man had with a married Nair woman—which is a recurrent theme in much of Malayalam literature relating to a period insulting and demand that all such work, current or old, be banned or pulped.

The “theripattu” (obscene songs) sung by devotees at the annual Bharani festival at the Bhagavathy temple of Kodungalloor in Kerala are an apotheosis, in a manner of speaking, of giving and taking offence. The songs would be downright vulgar and profane but for the fact that they are dedicated to the goddess and are supposed, according to the lore and belief that perpetuates this practice, to please her. Can referring to or backgrounding or foregrounding this practice in a work of fiction be forbidden?

There are quaint, unusual and heterodox customs in vogue in this country sanctified by tradition which are constitutive of its composite culture. Snipping away, with the censor’s scissors, the strands of this grand weave on one narrowly religious pretext or the other will leave us with a sparse rag fit only to be waved in our faces to enforce compliance to a standardised and sanitised religious regimen.

Perumal Murugan

What makes Madhorubagan easy meat for religious provocateurs on the prowl is one such lore which is its central thematic premise—of a practice, in times gone by, of a wife, long childless, consorting with an anonymous man on the 14th night of the temple festival in Tiruchengode (when, so goes the belief, every man participating in the festival is considered a god) in order to ensure progeny. The author handles this delicate subject with poignancy and mature restraint, and the allusion to the extramarital sexual union itself at the very end is a tipping point into the two different sequels to the novel. To read religious insult into this needs some doing and prodding. But they did, and prodded, and apparently succeeded, because—hurt and frustrated, perhaps, by the thought of being stigmatised and ostracised —Perumal Murugan was driven to plead that the novel and all his other work in circulation be withdrawn and to declare that the writer in him was dead, giving an entirely new construct to Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author.

It may appear callous to wish, from the outside, that Perumal Murugan had shown his obscurantist tormentors some defiance and not withdrawn into his self-abnegation. True, the district administration and the police, instead of safeguarding his rights and the rule of law, seem to have made him the guilty party rather than the victim and literally bullied him into signing a humiliating so-called peace agreement whereby he was required to agree to an unconditional apology, withdraw copies of the novel in the market, and promise not to write anything or say anything in interviews that might be offensive. Whether that scrap of paper will buy him peace is itself doubtful. But even while empathising with his plight, one cannot help wishing that he had taken the hands that reached out to him in solidarity, not predictably from the major political parties in the State for fear of alienating the Vellala Gounder vote bank but from the Left and progressive sections of Tamil society.

Subsequent demonstrations of support by artistes, writers and readers across the country point to the growing indignation against not only what was done to his dignity as a writer but against the dangerous precedent such vigilantism sets for free and creative expression.

One cannot help wishing that some of the hilarious irreverence and combativeness of one of his own characters in the novel—Nallupayyan, the chronic bachelor maverick uncle of the protagonist Kali—had rubbed off on Perumal Murugan. When, on a whim and against the mandated custom, Nallupayyan cuts off his top knot and crops his hair, the elders of the community meet to censure him. They rule that no one should speak to him or accept any donation from him for the temple festival, forbid him from drawing water from the common well and deny him the service of the washerman to clean his clothes. But Nallupayyan refuses to be cowed down and unleashes choice colloquial abuse against them, rendering them totally helpless.

All this leads to the delicate but important and related concept of the right to offend. It is perhaps the philosophical assumption implicit in the right to free expression guaranteed in democratic constitutions. After all, if we were only going to say nice and acceptable things to, or about, one another, we did not need the right to freedom of expression to be codified and protected in our Constitution. The protection, then, is really to express ourselves freely and frankly even if others may disagree with, or take offence to, what we say. The right to offend becomes, derivatively, the litmus test of the freedom of expression. Of course, there are reasonable restraints placed on the freedom of expression, but they can only qualify, and cannot negate or overshadow, the freedom itself.

The French credo

The right to offend certainly informs the French understanding of freedom of expression, as the extreme and reckless example of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons made only too obvious. The concession which seems to be made to the French as a people genetically wired for free expression à outrance would be understandable if their critical swipes took the whole sweep. But that, apparently, is not the case. They pull their punches when it comes to the Jews and have in place (and rightly so) laws against hate speech and Holocaust denial.

Voltaire, whose “don’t agree with what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it” is the French credo of free speech, was himself accused of being anti-Semitic. Even the uncompromisingly uncensorable Charlie Hebdo fired one of its journalists, Maurice Sinet (whose pen name was Sine), in 2009 because his column was seen as “inciting racial hatred” (read anti-Semitic). When the editor of the publication, Philippe Val, asked him to apologise, Sine, in colourful language reminiscent of Nallupayyan in Madhorubagan, responded: “I’d rather cut my balls off.” Shows of the comedian and politician Dieudonne M’bala M’bala that parody the Holocaust and Jews are continually blocked. So it is not a free-for-all after all.

When the political leadership and a good section of the public in Europe were flocking to join the “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) chorus, Pope Francis seemed to throw a spanner in the works by speaking his mind on where freedom of speech collides with freedom of faith. “You cannot,” he said, “make fun of the faith of others”; if you do, you are asking for “a punch in the nose”. It was like Newton’s third law, about action and reaction, coming to the aid of religion although, of course, the pontiff was not saying anything like tit for tat.

In spite of, rather than because of, Charlie Hebdo, and certainly in spite of those who murdered the journalists and others in cold blood and were themselves killed, the right to offend is a value to hold on to but to be wielded with discretion and care. Religion cannot, in a secular democracy, be wholly exempt from scrutiny and criticism either. The Indian Constitution gives, as a fundamental right, all persons equal entitlement “to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.

How do those who, in good and free conscience, are rationalists or atheists spread the good word about their humane beliefs or about the enduring benefits of a scientific temper other than through debunking religion and its myths? Surely, they do not deserve a punch in the nose? Clearly, then, this whole business of giving and taking offence calls for a lot of give and take.

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