Target of intolerance

Religious and social groups have trampled on the freedom of expression of artists and scholars to serve their own agendas.

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

Salman Rushdie-AFP

Salman Rushdie-AFP

FOR all the big talk about India's great tradition of cultural and religious tolerance, many forces in the social life of our country and a number of established organisations, including the so-called non-political ones, have time and again resorted to blatant suppression of freedom of expression, pointing forcefully to the dominant stream of intolerance in our society. And if one were to study the phenomenon going even a little beyond the surface, one would be able to see that this too has a historical lineage, very much part of our tradition, said the revolutionary Telugu balladeer Gummadi Vittal Rao, popularly known as Gaddar. He made this comment at a function in Kerala approximately a decade ago, but the developments in different parts of the country before and after that have continued to underscore its validity. Any number of examples, from Salman Rushdie to Maqbool Fida Husain to Safdar Hashmi to Wendy Doniger to A.K. Ramanujan, can be cited to highlight this intolerance.

Several media institutions and individual practitioners have also come under attack. Significantly, such organisations and groups professing diverse religious, cultural and ideological motivations have been involved in promoting the manifestation of this type of tyranny. Many of those who were targeted by these entities, particularly Rushdie and Wendy Doniger, have suffered harrowing experiences of suppression repeatedly for many decades. Time and again, the governments of the day have succumbed to these groups and organisations.

Rushdie had the first taste of such a phenomenon when a public outcry by a clutch of Islamist organisations led to a ban on his book The Satanic Verses in 1988. More recently, he was forced to cancel his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, after threats of violence from similar groups and a warning about a possible assassination attempt. Rushdie himself indicated that the information regarding the death threat was fabricated by the authorities to keep him away from the festival. He also suggested that the ruling party in Rajasthan and in New Delhi had resorted to such a ploy for fear of alienating Muslim voters in the elections to the five State Assemblies, which were held between January and March.

Intolerance towards free expression manifested itself twice in January when the release of a book by the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was cancelled in Kolkata following a protest by some Islamist organisations and the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi, a documentary by the Kashmiri film-maker Sanjay Kak, at Symbiosis University in Pune was barred following protests by Hindutva organisations.

It was the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar, that objected to the screening of the documentary and the reason given was that Kak promoted separatism through the film. Kak maintained that he was only trying to portray the ground reality in Kashmir, but such claims had no standing before the vandalism unleashed by the Sangh Parivar activists. Again, in January, Aseem Trivedi, a young political cartoonist, was charged with treason and of insulting India's national emblems in his drawings, which were inspired by Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. Such was the intensity of the campaign launched against Trivedi, apparently, by political activists supporting the Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, that the website run by him ( was forced to be taken off the Internet. The portal's suspension followed allegations that Trivedi had posted ugly and obscene content that mocked the Indian Constitution. The cartoons that invited such allegations included Trivedi's interpretation of the national emblem, where four vicious wolves stand in place of Emperor Asoka's lion capital. Further, the motto Satyameva Jayate (Truth alone triumphs) inscribed in Sanskrit at the base of the emblem was replaced by Bhrashtamev Jayate [Corruption alone triumphs].

Such manifestations of intolerance and suppression of freedom of expression have been a recurrent phenomenon for many years. The life of the celebrated painter M.F. Husain, who passed away on June 30, 2011, in London, is a unique example of how a person who personified creativity became the target of the intolerant stream in Indian social life. Husain was consistently hounded by activists of the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, from the early 1990s, and this forced him to seek shelter in the United Kingdom and Dubai. The Sangh Parivar launched a hate campaign against Husain in the early 1990s protesting against some paintings he had done way back in the 1970s. The Sangh Parivar suddenly discovered that his depiction of Goddess Saraswati was an insult to the Hindu sentiments. This interpretation became the trigger for a series of attacks starting with the vandalisation of his art gallery, which later developed into threats to his life, forcing Husain to leave the country.

Many other internationally renowned persons, including the American academic Wendy Doniger and the Indian poet-academic A.K. Ramanujan, suffered repeated assaults motivated by the Sangh Parivar and its associate organisations. Wendy Doniger (the author of The Hindus: An Alternative History; Penguin, 2011) is considered to be one of America's leading scholars in the humanities and is an unusually imaginative thinker/writer capable of illuminating fundamental issues through the deft use of comparative analysis. The attacks against her are based on the alleged negative sexual connotations that the academic has supposedly ascribed to Hindu mythologies and religious texts. She was a target of attack in the mid-1990s and more recently in 2009-10. These attacks emanated essentially from a number of universities in Maharashtra.

The use of centres of learning to promote aggressive communal agendas came to the fore when Delhi University's Academic Council removed Ramanujan's essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations from the B.A. History (Honours) syllabus. The essay had also attracted the ire of Hindutva activists because it referred to about 300 different versions of the Ramayana existing in India and abroad. Such was the terror unleashed on the issue that a large number of Academic Council members refused to take a position in defence of academic freedom. Two other scholars who faced threats and abuses are Professor Paul B. Courtright and Professor Jeffery J. Kripal, who authored Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings and Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, respectively.


Journalists and media institutions also constitute a section that is systematically targeted by groups and organisations that seek to impose their views on the rest of society. Fundamentalist organisations of all varieties have also charted their own path in this realm. Perhaps in keeping with the demographic indices, Hindu fundamentalists have been in the forefront of attempts to subjugate the media. Throughout the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the kar sevaks used intimidation as a major weapon to enlist the support of media organisations, particularly the regional, language media, across the country. From time to time, the national English language media were also targeted. According to Sangh Parivar insiders, the organisation had sleuths snooping around the media backyard as part of organisational tasks and this had repeatedly helped the Hindutva combine to adopt diverse methods to bring the media to its own line. As the academic Arvind Rajagopal noted in his seminal work Politics after Television, there was a tactical repertoire that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Sangh Parivar associates employed during the Ram Mandir movement.

Referring to a particular campaign of the BJP at one stage of the mandir movement, Rajagopal writes: The BJP's response was multifaceted, and revealing of its tactical repertoire. Violence and intimidation at the grassroots level were complemented by a systematic disinformation campaign. The resulting fear and suspicion served to advance apparently pragmatic arguments, alongside more explicitly interested ones, making the BJP's case seemingly difficult to refute.... On the anniversary of the Quit India Movement, the exhibition was held in Tilak Hall in Faizabad. About twenty-five Bajrang Dal activists entered the exhibition three days after it began, while the volunteers were at lunch, and systematically tore up exhibition panels, as U.P. policemen and paramilitary officials posted at the venue looked on. Nearly a week later, BJP Member of Parliament J.P. Mathur claimed the attack was provoked by a poster depicting Ram and Sita as brother and sister. In fact, two lines in one of the eighty-three panels represented the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka story, in which Ram and Sita were described as brother and sister, without any visual reference in the text. The rumour was set afloat that posters depicting Ram and Sita as siblings rather than as husband and wife were being distributed across the country and that schools were being forced to purchase them.

In recent years, fundamentalist groups have evolved their tactical repertoires in keeping with the changing times and are imparting special attention to the instruments of expression on the Internet, particularly social media. Here too, the demographic indices of the Indian context reflect strongly. The widest network of Internet groups of this genre belongs to Hindutva-oriented groups, followed by Islamist and Christian fundamentalist groups. In a recent development, the writer and activist Meena Kandasamy became the subject of a vicious cyber attack after she promoted a beef-eating festival at Osmania University in Hyderabad. According to a statement issued by the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), Meena Kandasamy was threatened with various forms of violence, including gang rape and acid attacks. More moderate groups, which were also opposed to the promotion of a beef-eating festival, pointed out that different religious groups venerated different animals and that activists should respect their sentiments. However, there was little doubt that what dominated the response was the vicious and the aggressive.

Clearly, as Gaddar pointed out, this stream of intolerance has been a constant presence amidst us and there is little doubt that it will evolve into new manifestations with the changing times. Laws, rules and regulations may prove far from sufficient to check this primarily cultural phenomenon.

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