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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Republic of Hurt Sentiments

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The events of the past week involving the brouhaha over Kamal Hasan's latest film is a reminder of how intolerance and narrow mindedness has percolated the fabric of our society.

In 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American writer and Social Historian, released a book called 'Mother India' in which she highlighted the various ills of the Indian Society including the treatment of women, the Dalits and the 'character' of nationalistic politicians and made a case against Indian self rule. The book created a furore in the country with Mahatma Gandhi labelling it as "report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains." The book prompted at least 50 other books and pamphlets in response which rebutted all the arguments put forward by Mayo against Indian Independence. However, the most famous rebuttal came from Mehboob Khan, who wrote and directed a film by the same name. Mother India the movie needs no introduction. It is known to all and sundry in this country as Independent India's one of the most famous contribution to the world cinema, which lost the Academy Award for the best Foreign Film by a whisker.

Amartya Sen would agree when I say that the response to the publication of 'Mother India' highlighted the best Argumentative Traditions of the country at the time. Not only did the book receive powerful rebuttals that contradicted its claims, but in the end, the very idea of Mother India was usurped and transformed to rid it of all the negative connotations. However, while the India of 1927, with a tiny educated population responded in such an intellectually charged manner, it is a shame that the India of 21st Century has behaved like illiterati supreme over works of arts and literature that dwarf in comparison to Mayo's book. The events of the past few weeks regarding Kamal Hasan's Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy's comments over corruption in the country are an unfortunate reminder of how as a society we have become ultra intolerant towards differing points of view.

The social acceptability of a ban has encouraged the fringe political groups to soothe their sensitive egos in the limelight by jumping at a moment's notice to demand the immediate curtailment of someone's work of art or literature in the name of hurt sentiments. In a civilized society, those with hurt sentiments would have been immediately referred to a competent psychiatrist. Yet it is only in our country that these fringe elements, which rarely represent more than 5% of any community, are repeatedly entertained in the name of preserving 'law and order'. It is difficult to imagine how 20 people protesting a film can create a law and order situation for the entire city that would force the government to halt all the screenings in the entire state.

It is a mark of growing intellectual bankruptcy in the society that has allowed the conservative groups to rub the nose of artistic freedom on the ground and has sapped the vitality of the public sphere which allows an individual to make a reasoned judgement him/her self. It would not be wrong to say that in the absence of better debate and adequate control over these fringe groups, the state has shed its responsibility of protecting the freedom of speech and expression and has instead let these contractors of religion to dictate what's offensive and what's not. This is a dangerous practice inherently inimical to the values of the democracy that we so greatly cherish. For any progressive minded individual it is clear that the Muslims in the country are in a dire need of education and jobs. Instead of being treated like a vote bank, a mindset cruelly responsible for the steeply deteriorating respect for the freedom of expression in the country, they would be much happier if the government can provide them with a semblance of self respect by opening avenues of progress instead of bending over backwards every time a fringe group that does not even represent 5% of the community starts kicking and crying in the name of hurt sentiments.

One can only expect that the government recognizes the apotheosis of intolerance that the society has achieved and takes stringent remedial measures in order to restore an atmosphere of vibrant and level headed debate in the public sphere of the country where the power of brains instead of the power of lungs and numbers is recognized and heeded to.