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Why were religious sentiments not hurt when the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said at a conference, “We worship Lord Ganesha…There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery”? Is a new mythopoeia acceptable only when it is not in opposition to another?
Contrast this with Hindu extremists burning posters and vandalising movie halls screening a film that they assert insults their gods. Now, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, those protesting against the film PK find themselves on the same side as the Islamists, who also believe they are ‘protesting’ against caricatured depictions of their faith.
The sudden volte-face by the Hindu rightwing for freedom of expression is typically self-righteous. Its adherents use what they believe to be a trump card: Islamists murder; we don’t. This is not quite true, for they have even killed a rationalist for being a rationalist. Their enthusiastic liberalism regarding the caricatured portrayal of the Prophet of Islam while seeking to protect their own deities, who they themselves caricature, does not allow for an equitable empathy in the hurt stakes.
Us vs. Super Us
One of the cartoons that came up in the “Je suis Charlie” period had a plane flying into two pencils mimicking the Twin Towers. It uses the one act in contemporary history that has resulted in the peace-making colonisation of several countries. The drawing seems to suggest that the USA and all of the West as mighty upholders of free speech are threatened into silence. Such a theory will not brook a valid poser as to why a recent event like 9/11 needs to ‘barbarise’ the enemy, evident from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as well as the American audacity in assuming the role of lion tamer in an imagined circus.
Rupert Murdoch posted two tweets: “Maybe most Moslems (are) peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” and “Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy”. His contention is less consequential than his belief that political correctness whitewashes what is inherently a serious problem.
J.K. Rowling responded with, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.” She is implying that any sensible person who has to accept responsibility for people they do not like should auto ex-communicate themselves, which sounds a lot like the self-annihilation by martyrs. In that, she turns out to be a Murdoch clone. She later writes, “The Spanish Inquisition was my fault, as is all Christian fundamentalist violence. Oh, and Jim Bakker.” Don’t rub it in. Televangelists do contest presidential polls in the West.
Political correctness when combined with a sense of entitlement is deeply problematic for it constantly seeks affirmation of narrow versions of good. The Muslim who saves the Jew, the Christian, and the Hindu is the only one who can be trusted. Such acceptance that expects this sort of saving as penance for what bad Muslims do is not too different from evangelism.
FoE vs. FoE
A creative work that uses extremism as inspiration cannot exist in a vacuum. However, nobody can claim their creation to be a definitive statement on any religion, simply because there are just so many ways of interpreting. Yet, how many are willing to accept that their art (and poetic license) is, in the words of Roger Fry, “significant deformity”?
In the past, Charlie Hebdo used a guest editorial titled “halal aperitif”, where ‘Mahomet’ says, “Ennahda promises (Tunisians) that their personal freedoms will remain and it will not introduce Sharia law. Ha, ha, no kidding? Why should a religious party take power except to impose its ideas.” There were protests. In a 2011 CounterPunch piece, I had written:
The real editor Charb was, of course, shocked at the pre-release hostility: “Why do people only get angry when we attack religion? We are just commenting on a news story. We are not presenting Mohammed as an extremist.”
An attack on anything, including religion, should be clean and sharp, not with a blunted knife. This is not a news story because Tunisians died fighting.
When his film Viswaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu for its portrayal of Islamist terror, Kamal Haasan had said: “I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in…If I can’t find it within India, I will hopefully find another country, which is secular that might take me in. M F Husain had to do it, and now Hassan will do it.”
Artist M.F. Husain — who accepted Qatar citizenship – did not have a work banned. His museum was burned down; he was threatened. These were not fringe elements, but members of a political party. As regards leaving the state for a secular haven, that is what the fringe elements credo is. It questions secularism.
The onus on some as opposed to others in the free speech battle is against freedom. On Husain’s death his peer S.H. Raza, who had chosen to live abroad for 60 years, stated, “If I had been in his place where some of my ideas or paintings offended the Hindu community I would have apologized, explained myself and talked it over. I don’t know if that was done…one has to be very careful in these things.”
Raza left of his own accord; no one shunted him out. The peculiar problem with Husain was that his support group too accepted him because he was mainstream enough for using Hindu mythology. His liberty was conditional to their theist-political appeasement.
Verity vs. Veritable
In India members of parliament who wear saffron robes and are referred to by their religious titles of ‘swami’ and ‘sanyasi’, ironically, object to religious interference in matters of state in the form of political Islam. Almost anything in the public sphere can be seen as a threat to bolster this image. In the case of anti-PK protests, we must not see them in isolation, for the subplots expose intent.
They accused the male lead Aamir Khan, who happens to be Muslim, of a jihadi agenda and being sponsored by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI. As ridiculous as these accusations are, it becomes clear that nobody is protecting the gods. What bothers them is that the female lead is in love with a Pakistani. That this story has appeared against the repulsive anti love jihad backdrop makes their position most laughable, endorsed as the Pakistani is by an alien, the main character, a non-sectarian, non-denominational and therefore a balanced and presumably secular entity.
Curiously, even those applauding the movie are not commending it for cross-border love, revealing some amount of discomfort. The approbation is for exposing charlatans and questioning blind belief, a charade carried out almost every evening in the news programmes with their own charlatans sitting in outraged judgment.
Much of the debate has concentrated on “hurt Hindu sentiments”. This is shaky territory, for Hindus revel in the display of images of gods and goddesses, whose idiosyncrasies devotees worship according to their specific needs. For the ritualistic, it is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship. They have watched many performances of the Ramlila. Watching the human enactment of godly powers by actors wearing cardboard crowns and fighting with cardboard swords does not shake their faith; if anything, these depictions democratise the gods.
In many ways the alien in PK too is a quasi-mythical figure — unreal, from another planet but human in sentiment. He picks up clothes, language, and mannerisms on earth. This is akin to how deities are bedecked and acquire qualities to make them accessible, even believable, to the believers. But the alien and the deities both need to be from another world for them to be the moral voice.
Senior leader of the rightwing L.K. Advani, who had in 1992 taken out a rally riding a Toyota rath (a religious symbolic wagon) to protest against the Babri Masjid, and subsequently its demolition, endorsed the film. The cart-before-horse liberals lauded him for saying, “…all patriots (have) a duty to ensure that nothing weakens the unity of the country – neither caste nor community nor language nor region, and certainly not religion”. The emphasis on religion and the responsibility of patriots is precisely what Hindu extremists talk about.
As the film is about to reach a denouement when the alien would finally trace the lost key to his kingdom, there is a bomb blast at the train station. His messenger of glad tidings gets killed. Without any investigation, it is inferred that an Islamist group committed the act. Deviously, it does so without blaming anybody but speaking the “not all Muslims are like that” language.
Muslims did not object to this depiction. It only proves that social stereotypes are taken for granted and not considered offensive although they affect everybody much more than any mythology or religion ever can.
Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections