Mr.Arun Thiruvengadam has brought to our attention a fascinating issue being debated in the Indian media. The Vadadora case has brought to the fore the two extreme and conflicting views on to what extent we can let artistic freedom to flourish. Mr.Ravi Srinivas has pointed out that the Vadodara exhibition, in which the so-called offensive paintings were put on display, was meant for private view, not for public appreciation. Mr.Arun Jaitley does not go into this aspect of the controversy in his piece. But the real question would be whether the organizers of the exhibition strictly meant it for private consumption or peer review, whether members of the public – without any taste for art or appreciation of art or even without an interest in art – were welcome to view the exhibition. The answer to this is important. Today’s piece in Indian Express by Rashna Imhasly says Chandramohan’s paintings were not meant for public viewing, but were part of an internal examination by the Fine Arts Faculty. The author may well be right unless someone rebuts it with facts. Unless the complainants included any students or those who viewed it with some knowledge or interest in art or paintings, one does not see any force in the view that Chandramohan violated the legal limits to the freedom of expression, by dealing with religious symbols and sexual matters. I would join with Mr.Jaitley in condemning the journalists/columnists’ silence on the what these so-called offensive paintings were, but I would also not appreciate Mr.Jaitley’s reticence on the nature of this exhibition. Mr.Jaitley’s reference to the Visions of Esctasy case and the European Court of Human Rights verdict in the case is helpful to understand that Chandramohan’s paintings would indeed be hurtful to one’s religious sentiments if displayed publicly.
But we should also understand, as in Jaitley’s own admission, there is a world of difference between the response of Hindus and the members of other religions to such alleged insult to religious sentiments. The defining characteristic of Hinduism is tolerance, and despite the fringe elements making a strong case for assertion of rights against Chandramohan, not many were indeed moved by this plea. On the contrary, there were many who pleaded a lenient response, as the issue was one of artistic freedom and expression. This is as it should be, as it sets Hinduism apart from other religions. The issue is certainly not majority bashing, as Mr.Jaitley would have us believe.
Chandramohan can perhaps claim in his defence that he did not intend to hurt the sentiments, and therefore did not violate the provisions of the IPC sections, Sections 153 A and S.295, as his paintings were strictly meant for peer review. Just one instance would suffice to show that even if an alleged violation of these sections had taken place in the public realm, the test was to see whether the bulk of the population was hurt or considered it as an outrage – not necessarily because the complainants said so. I am giving below the brief judgment of Bombay High Court dismissing in limini a petition to ban printing of pictures of Hindu goddesses in fire crackers. (Bhau v. State of Maharashtra, 1999 Cr.LJ 1230 (Bom).
“It is a fact that photographs of God and Goddesses of Hindu religion are being pasted on the fire crackers. This is not happening for the first time, but this practice is going on since last many years and up-till-now nobody has raised any objection regarding this practice. That has happened only because nobody thought it objectionable, nobody's feeling were hurt on seeing the firecrackers bursting and the photographs destroying because the photographs on the fire crackers were not being looked at as photographs of God and Goddesses but just some prints to attract the attention of the customers. There was no intention that anybody's feeling should be hurt by selling such fire crackers or by bursting such fire crackers. Now altogether new dimension is being given to this matter. Nobody from Hindu community up-till-now has thought over on this issue in this way. It is just whim of the petitioners and for that they have come before the Court. This is nothing but wasting time, money and energy.
If anybody from the petitioners feels that by bursting the fire crackers on which there are photographs of God and Goddesses, he may stop himself using such fire crackers for his own purposes because only his feelings are being hurt, but he should not take the matter in his hands as if he is representing whole of the society when whole of the society is not looking to the matter from that point of view.”
Mr.Jaitley makes much about the ECHR’s decision in the Visions of Esctasy case. He would do well to read this article in Observer, which makes a strong case for the repeal of the Blasphemy law in England, and also refers to other cases, where the pleas for invoking Blasphemy law were ignored as they lacked any merit. The author of this article asks: “Has the time not arrived to repeal Britain's outdated blasphemy law? Only then will we have an even playing field in which freedom of speech is genuinely sacrosanct, and all religions (and their critics) are granted the same level of protection in the UK.” I am not suggesting that we should do away with our S.153 A or S.295 of Indian Penal Code, as they are useful to maintain communal peace in our plural society. But the tests for invoking these sections must be transparent and stringent, rather than be left to the fringe groups, who intend to ignite passions where there are none.
CLARIFICATION: Mr.Srinivasan's response in the Comments section suggests that I may be in favour of separate treatment for Hinduism, because of the higher degree of tolerance among Hindus, as compared to other religions. Far from it. I had referred to the tolerance aspect of Hinduism only to describe why as Jaitley observed, there has been no widespread agitation on the Vadodara issue. In the case of fire-crackers which I cited, the Bombay High Court rightly indicated what could probably a viable test in such matters: whether the perceived hurt is seen as an insult only by the complainant or a group of complainants ( claiming to speak on behalf of all the Hindus), or is it that the entire community by and large feels outraged or insulted by the alleged act. The Vadodara case clearly falls under the former category, wherein a group of hardliners, claiming to speak on behalf of all the Hindus, took the law into their hands, and secured the arrest of the student. That their act did not get the endorsement of the Hindus by and large is clear in terms of the absence of any widespread agitation either on the ground or in the media (in the form of opinions expressed). Mr. Jaitley too concedes this in his article, though he deplores it. It would be an understatement to consider the ongoing strife in Punjab as a case of armtwisting by a small group of clergy. No doubt, the clergy has channeled the outrage and sought to give expression to it. Otherwise, the state-wide agitation is a clear pointer that the Sikhs, by and large, are outraged by the alleged act, and consider it as a clear case of blasphemy.
P.S.: Thanks to Mr.Tarunabh for giving the link to the Telegraph article on the artistic appreciation of the Vadodara painting by Chandra Mohan. The article is here.