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Karma is, indeed, a bitch; but there’s more to the Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and Konark Temple battle

Early on the evening of 27 May, 1953, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy marched up to the podium in the Town Hall Maidan in Tiruchirapalli to educate the audience on his low opinion of Hinduism. In case anyone missed the point, the Dravida leader proceeded to break apart an idol of Ganesha. Over the course of his long political war against caste, Ramaswamy, was liberal with agitprop. He garlanded images of Krishna and Rama with shoes claiming that these "Aryan gods" considered Shudras "sons of prostitutes".

Now, in the high noon of the Indian republic Ramaswamy helped build, we have this spectacle: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra — self-described "pro-rich, anti-poor, farmer-parasite, queer, atheist"; son of Subramanian Swamy's key aide VS Chandralekha — facing criminal prosecution for offending Hindu religious sentiment.

That this free speech battle centres not on an epic political struggle, but a poseur serving up anodyne postmodern irony to millennials, ought take nothing away from its seriousness.

Iyer-Mitra's purported crime is describing the iconic Konark Temple as a "humple", based on the explicit representations of sex on its façade.

In addition, he made known his low opinion of Odias and their political leadership, for which he has been summoned before a privileges committee of the state Assembly — another potential gateway to prison. In an exemplary display of unity, the ruling Biju Janata Dal and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress all back this action.

The ironies haven’t passed unnoticed: Iyer-Mitra had cheered news that two editors were sentenced to prison by the Karnataka Assembly. He broadcast less-than-laudatory opinions of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was prosecuted — and then assassinated — for exactly the same crimes he’s now alleged to have committed.

But there's more to this story than the learning that Karma is, indeed, a bitch.

Indians have grappled with the tensions between free speech and religious belief since at least 1924, when Arya Samaj activist Mahashe Rajpal published the anti-Islam polemic Rangila Rasul — in Urdu, 'the colourful prophet'. Lower courts condemned Rajpal to prison. Lahore High Court judge Dalip Singh, though, noted the perils of using the law to assuage hurt feelings: "If the fact that Musalmans resent attacks on the Prophet was to be the measure," he reasoned, so might "judgment passed on his character by a serious historian".

But, fearing communal violence, the colonial state moved to criminalise blasphemy. Today, Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, allows for the punishment of anyone who "destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons". Its cousin, Section 153A makes it a crime to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.

From the persecution of the painter MF Husain to Padmaavat, the Hindu Right has been enthusiastic in its embrace of the blasphemy laws. In 1993, for example, the New Delhi-based cultural organisation Sahmat exhibited a panel recording that, in one Buddhist tradition, Sita was Ram's sister; in a Jain version, she was the daughter of Ravan. This formed the basis of a criminal prosecution — even though the existence of these variant readings are well-documented historical facts.

Laws like these, though, have also served bigots of other other shade. The police used Section 295 to silence writers who spoke in defence of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival. They deployed it, too, against the Dalit godman Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, who released a rendition of the Sikh Bhavsagar Granth, a religious text suffused with miracle stories.

Fraud-buster Sanal Edamaruku was charged with blasphemy by Mumbai church-goers for pointing out that the drops of water dripping off a statue of Jesus on Irla Road weren’t holy tears, but leaky plumbing.

There’s been plenty of low farce, too: Mahendra Singh Dhoni was prosecuted for appearing on a magazine cover as Vishnu, but armed with Lays chips, Pepsi, Boost and a sneaker; a Hyderabad-based fashion designer was persecuted for having printed Quranic verses on clothing.

Screen grab of Abhijeet Iyer-Mitra from his Konark Temple video. Twitter @Iyervval

Screen grab of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra from his Konark Temple video. Twitter @Iyervval

Bloggers, film-makers, journalists — and now, Twitter provocateurs: No one is safe.

Hearing Ramaswamy's case in 1959, the Supreme Court sided with god. It urged lower courts "to pay due regard to the feelings and religious emotions of different classes of persons with different beliefs, irrespective… of whether they are rational or otherwise". In the decades since, the right not to be offended has been consistently privileged over freedom of speech. That all of Odisha’s major parties have backed the action against Iyer-Mitra illustrates the state of play in stark relief. Indeed, Punjab's chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh wants to punish certain acts of blasphemy with life sentences.

This is, it could be argued, unexceptionable: After all, what purpose does hurting someone's religious beliefs serve? How can pluralistic societies survive if we are not restrained from hurting each other?

But Indians also need ask another question: If there’s any way of moving forward without hurting some deeply-held beliefs. From the Church’s war against heliocentrism and Darwinism to more recent struggles around everything from genome research to gender, almost all progress has involved confrontations with faith. Being open to blasphemy — to the possibility that our most cherished beliefs are untrue — has been, and will be, key to human progress.

Living in plural societies makes it inevitable that there will be divergent, even irreconcilable opinions. The test of a society is how it mediates difference — not how it represses it.

Policing the expression of contentious thoughts only serves to drive resentments and hatreds underground. Years of blasphemy prosecutions, after all, have done nothing to still communal or caste hatred in India.

In 864 CE, the great physician Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria al-Razi committed this thought to paper: "Prophets are imposters". "Religions are the sole cause of the wars which ravage humanity; they are hostile to philosophical speculation and to scientific research. The alleged holy scriptures are books without values". He died surrounded by adoring pupils, none the worse for his blasphemy.

Later Islamic rulers were less tolerant of dissent — engendering an intellectual climate characterised by fear and censorship. Eventually, the Caliphate of Baghdad, one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known, atrophied and collapsed.

Rushdie said that humans "shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men". Hurt feelings are the price of freedom —and it's a price we need to be willing to pay.


Updated Date: Sep 25, 2018 10:26 AM

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