Against cultural hegemonism

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

The Delhi High Court strikes down a notification issued in August 1993 banning the exhibition of a panel depicting the different traditions of the Ramayana legend, mounted by Sahmat.

A RULING by the Delhi High Court last fortnight showed how perilously close the country was to having part of its historical tradition excised from the collective memory. On July 16, a three-Judge bench of the Delhi High Court struck down a notification issued by the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi in August 1993 banning the exhibition of a panel depicting the different traditions of the Ramayana legend. Couched in extremely broad terms, the notification had held the exhibition which depicted the Buddhist and Jain traditions of the Ram Katha as insulting to the religious beliefs of a "particular community". Invoking Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Lieutenant-Governor proceeded to declare "every copy" of the exhibition and any other material with the "abovesaid objectionable" contents, forfeited to the government.

Most public spirited citizens, including scholars and historians, were appalled at the implications of this broad power of seizure and censorship that the Delhi administration had assigned to itself. In the months following the Ayodhya demolition of December 1992, this was a stark illustration of the manner in which administrative will had been bent and subverted to suit the purposes of an aggressive communal mobilisation. The High Court ruling striking down this recourse to draconian fiat, was in this sense celebrated by most observers as a welcome return to sanity.

Mounted in August 1993 by the cultural organisation Sahmat (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), the exhibition entitled "Hum Sab Ayodhya" was one element in a campaign designed to neutralise the image of vandalism and intolerance that had begun to be associated with Ayodhya since the preceding December. It opened in 17 cities across the country on August 9, timed symbolically to coincide with the anniversary of the Quit India movement. At Faizabad near Ayodhya, Hum Sab Ayodhya was intended to be the prelude to a major gathering of performing artists on the banks of the Sarayu on August 15. Entitled ''Mukt Naad'', the cultural event was more than an expression of syncretism, tolerance and diversity. It was also a conscious effort to recapture the space of Ayodhya that had been under occupation by the Hindutva forces.

As the momentum of public participation in the event began to gather, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its affiliate, the Bajrang Dal, floated the rumour that Mukt Naad was part of a covert operation by Muslim communal organisations to infiltrate Ayodhya and reconstruct the Babri Masjid. On August 12 some activists went on the rampage through the exhibition space, tearing up every panel that was on display. The vast simulation of rage had apparently been provoked by a panel depicting the Buddhist and Jain traditions of the Ram Katha.

SUFFUSED with righteous indignation, members belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party raised the matter of wounded religious sensibility in Parliament. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha, displaying the paralysis of political will that seemed a contagious affliction, issued his own statements deprecating the exhibition and demanding administrative action. Cowering before the threatening posture of the Hindutva forces, the administration in Delhi showed a curious alacrity in cracking down on the popular challenge to majority communalism.

On August 21, the Delhi Police arrived in force at the premises of Teen Murti Bhavan where Hum Sab Ayodhya was on display. The exhibition was ordered closed and the panels depicting the different traditions of the Ram Katha were confiscated.

One of the targets of the Delhi administration's action was the Buddhist narration of the Ram Katha , which large numbers revere and generations of historians have endorsed as being part of authentic Indian tradition. In the panel put up by Sahmat, the narration ran as follows: "The Dasaratha Jataka, dating back to somewhere between the 4th and 2nd century B.C., is probably older than the one by Valmiki. In this version, Sita is not the wife but the sister of Rama. At the end of the exile when Rama returns to Ayodhya, Sita is made queen-consort of Rama and they rule jointly for sixteen thousand years."

There is, as most historians have pointed out, little that is perceived as taboo in this version either by the expert reader or the lay audience. Rather, the depiction is only meant to emphasise the undiluted royal blood-line of the ruling dynasties of antiquity. The subtleties, however, were beyond the comprehension of Hindutva.

A similar outpouring of rage surrounded the narration of the Jain tradition, where rakshasas were depicted not as demons but as ordinary human beings. In some interpretations within the Jain tradition, as Hum Sab Ayodhya pointed out with rigorous attention to historical texts, "Sita is the daughter of Ravana who is brought up by Janaka."

In striking down the Delhi administration's seizure of this material, the High Court has held that there has been no proof of "deliberate or malicious intent". The communication sent by the Delhi Police to the Union Home Ministry and subsequently to the Lieutenant-Governor does not specify any grounds for invoking the draconian power of censorship and seizure. Indeed, as Chief Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justices D.K. Jain and C.K. Mahajan have observed, it shows a singular lack of "application of mind" by the authorities concerned. July 20 saw a gathering in Delhi to commemorate a long overdue triumph in the battle against cultural hegemonism of the Hindutva kind. The singer Shubha Mudgal rendered some of her compositions, including several composed specifically for Sahmat events.

Although it has not broken new ground, the Delhi High Court has underlined the judicial orthodoxy of the Harnam Das judgment of 1961 and the Lalai Singh Yadav ruling of 1977. The singular message of the Ram Katha ruling is that the power of censorship is not to be invoked lightly, not even under the threat of vigilante action by majority communalism.

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