Wednesday, May 23, 2007

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A LIBERAL IN INDIA - II

I find Mr.Srinivasan’s arguments in the Comments section very compelling, insofar as it contends that might is not always right, and that to insist on might, that is, numbers, to assess whether the protest against an alleged insult is widely shared by the bulk of a religious population is putting a higher threshold limit, than what may be warranted. I see his point: that majority of Hindus are docile, and tolerant of insults to their religion, because it is not homogenous, or as organized as other religions, to register an effective protest. Therefore, absence of widespread protest should not be construed as a licence to an attempt to insult religious sentiments.
I think we need to look at in a different way. I did not suggest that the authorities should actually do a head-count of the protestors against an alleged act, or form a prima facie opinion whether the protest and the feeling of outrage is widespread cutting across all sections or limited to a group of hardliners. These are very difficult questions to be assessed in a given situation, even though they may be relevant inputs to a decision to ban.
The practical test would be to see whether if an alleged insulting act is allowed to continue, it would lead to breach of public peace, from the point of view of a reasonable and prudent citizen. In the fire-crackers case, the Bombay High Court rightly came to a conclusion that the printing of goddess pictures on fire-cracker wrappers was unlikely to lead to breach of public peace, because it had been done for a long time, and none had objected. The petitioner in this case contended that the labels carrying the divine pictures got mutilated, wasted, and thrown into the dust-bin, and subjected to all sorts of indignities. But the Court was unconvinced, suggesting that the petitioner could stop firing crackers if he felt outraged.
In the Vadodara case too, if Chandramohan’s exhibition was allowed to continue for restricted viewing by his peers, it was unlikely to have led to breach of public peace. It was only because the Bajrang Dal volunteers stormed into the exhibition on the basis of a probable tip-off, and sought his arrest amidst media glare, it came to public notice, and passions were aroused, leading to a threat to breach of public peace by a small group of hardliners, claiming to represent the majority of Hindus, backed by powerful State machinery.
Put in this context, I agree, the police mistakenly thought it had no option, but to arrest Chandra Mohan, aiming to prevent further breach of public peace by those who want to take law into their hands. Remember it was against this tendency, the Supreme Court ruled in the Ore Oru Gramathile case, when the Tamil Nadu Government sought to ban a film, because it feared it would lead to breach of public peace. The Court had held that maintenance of law and order was the State’s responsibility, and merely because there was a threat to the breach of public peace, rights cannot be curtailed.
In Punjab, if you look at the way the events unfolded, the clergy in the SGPC, first wanted to give 10 days ultimatum to the Dera chief to apologise and make amends for the perceived insult caused by him to the Sikh religion. But the agitation forced SGPC to reduce it to three days. Thus it was a case of the clergy succumbing to the general public outrage, rather than the clergy dictating the tone and tenor of the protest. I think Mr.Srinivasan’s point about lathi and sword wielding protesters forcing the submission of the majority of the Sikhs is misplaced. These are cultural symbols, and have been used to give vent to their sense of outrage. It is futile to look for a parallel between Vadodara and Punjab incidents, even though they appear to be similar in the sense, religious groups were in the forefront of the protests in both. It is true that in Punjab, the former terrorists have got a fresh issue to mobilize themselves, and fish in troubled waters. But that is no reason to underestimate the sense of outrage, caused by Dera chief’s public display of the alleged act of insult.
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