Apologies, for the rather extended break. Among other things I was away to my home state, Bihar, for 10 days. Random fundaes and insights about that will follow soon. In the short time that I've been back, I've been drawn into a rather prolonged, and now boring, blog-debate here.
It is about the Baroda art controversy, and because of its inherent nature, the debate easily metamorphosised into one on freedom of speech and the validity of 'giving offence' as a yardstick of jurisprudence. There has been tremedous back and forth, and quite often the debate has descended into nothing more than name-calling, with me being guilty of the same. The basic positions are -
The Proposition : Freedom of speech cannot be absolute. Such derogatory portrayals with obvious malafide intent to offend cannot be left unprosecuted. Not everything is art - a judiciary guided by community standards should decide what is art and what isn't. Laws cannot be independent of the prevalent social mores - hence if something is offensive to most members of the community, it should be banned. There has to be deterrant, civil or criminal, against such abuses of freedom of expression.
The Opposition (represented in part by yours truly) : Offence is subjective, and hence cannot (should not) be a valid plank of jurisprudence. Wherever possible, laws should proceed from axiomatic definitions of morality - otherwise all we'll be left with is tyranny of the majority, which is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. It doesn't matter whether you or I think of something as art or not, or whethere we are offended by a particular portrayal - the artist in question cannot be jailed for this. The current social standards in India would mean that all nudes would have to be banned, something that even the proposition does not agree with. India's FoS laws are too vague - something like the First Amendment to the US constitution is required.
As an aside, I have now decided that whenever I wish to discover new things about my identity and personality, I should post a comment on something controversial on that blog. This time, among other things I have been told, or it has been insinuated, that I am -
1) A communist woman in her 30s.
2) A pseudo-secular IT professional with too much time to kill.
3) A 45 year old man who pretends to be a student about to start grad school and also likes posting under the pseudonym Spartacus.
4) Someone whose knowledge of Hinduism is extremely weak.
5) A pseudo-liberal who fears that opposing Muslim bigotry will lead to loss of life or limb.
If you feel you need to ponder over the freedom of expression deal a little more yourself, do think about a couple of questions that I posed over there which did not get consistent or satisfactory replies.
1) I often wear a T-shirt of a metal band called Venom (the band that gave the Black metal genre its name through a song of theirs, though in my opinion most of their music was proto-thrash metal, not black metal). This T-shirt has an upturned cross with the number 666 written across it, signifying the loss of sanctity of the cross and the overpowering of god by the devil. (As a digression, the art-work is quite cool and subtle, not the in your face 'hell yeah, motherf****** metal rulezzzz satan rulezzzz' kinds.) This depiction would be blasphemous by orthodox christian standards. Technically, under section 295 of the IPC, I can be arrested for wearing this T-shirt. To quote from Arun jaitley's article in the Indian Express
Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code penalises any person who destroys, damages or defiles any object held sacred by any class of persons, with the intention of thereby insulting the sentiments of such class, or with the intention of such defilement being regarded as an insult to religion.
Do you think that I should be arrested for wearing that T-shirt? Do you think a legal system should have provisions under which I could be prosecuted for wearing it?
2) Given that the average Indian is likley to find ANY nude offensive, should we ban all nudes?
If your answer to both questions is yes, you would be consistent, but clearly in your society there would be zero artistic freedom. If you answer yes to one and no to the other, your stand is rather inconsistent and you need to check if by 'offensive to the average person' you simply mean 'offensive to me'. If you answer no to both, welcome to my side of the divide.
Now, blogger no. 1 and I were on the same side of the divide, with our man Amit coming under considerable fire for his ostensible hypocrisy. Now, anyone who reads his blog would know that this isn't true. However, today Amit linked to what he called an 'excellent' piece by some dude called Salil Tripathi. That piece contained this one mind-numbing paragraph
Indeed, Husain has painted several goddesses from the Hindu pantheon in the nude, including Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Durga, a martial goddess who slays demons. These are bold works that reshape our thinking about Hindu myths, revealing them in new light; they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate. His nudes delineate the body in sharp lines, elevating it to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity
Excuse me, but what? This paragraph, ladies and gentlemen, defines the term pseudo-secular. Look, I believe in nearly absolute freedom of expression. In my legal system, Hussain's works will not be banned, he will not be legally prosecuted, and those who vandalized his works will be behind the bars. That does not however mean that Hussain is not a bigot. The man did not take down any of the nude paintings of the Hindu godesses, yet took down Meenaxi from theatres simply because some Muslim groups made some noise about how Allah being referred to as the-divine-light in some song or sequence of the movie was against Islamic beliefs. A friend recently informed me that when MFH was asked by Shekhar Gupta in Walk the Talk if he would ever be able to draw an offensive portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad, the old man had to nearly be physically restrained from reacting violently.
Also, Mr Tripathi, "they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate" is a subjective judgement, as subjective as the judgement of those who claim that the portrayal is malicious and offensive to Hindus. If Mr Tripathi was a true FoS believer, he would have said that EVEN if Mr hussain's paintings titilate or offend some pople, they should not be banned. In that piece, he(Salil Tripathi) comes out sounding like nothing but an apologist for M F Hussain who claims to understand Hindu culture better than anybody else. The deal is very simple - I have no doubt in my mind that Maqbool Fida Hussain, whtever his artistic merit may be, is a bigoted man. His works should still not be liable for criminal (or civil) prosecution.