- The recent beheading and killing of three people in France by an 'Islamist terrorist' has elicited condemnation from the French and Indian governments, but for two very different reasons and intent.
The Hindu festival of Lakshmi puja and the Islamic festival of Eid Milad un Nabi coincided last week. But the people of the two faiths are a far cry from coexisting in harmony. The British appear to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in dividing the Subcontinent in perpetuity, not just by an actual Line of Control (LOC) dividing India and Pakistan, but by dividing its psyche.
Right now, the focus is on the chaos unleashed on France yet again, over the issue of freedom of speech, much as was the case with the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris of 2015. But interestingly, it is an issue that has divided people in South Asia, with people either justifying the draconian crackdown on the alleged terrorists or the barbaric beheadings. Why would something that occurred in a distant land in Europe be of such interest in South Asia, with huge demonstrations in the streets in Pakistan and arguments on the social media in India?
The reason is not too difficult to discern. The Hindu Right has seized the topic to support the French government in its stand against Islamic terrorism. What it fails to comprehend is that the French concept of secularism is not something that they would support, or indeed that they had supported in the past. For, if they support the right of artists and cartoonists in a democratic Western country to represent the prophet Mohammed in what many practicing Muslims believe to be a demeaning fashion, as in this case, then they should also be prepared to accept the representation of Hindu deities in a disrespectful manner.
This brings us to the controversy that the late great Indian artist, M.F Husain, represented by NPR as “the Indian Picasso,” had run into in the mid-1990s when he painted images of Hindu deities with the Hindu right wing demanding that he be exiled from his homeland for the “insults” to its deities.
I had interviewed Husain myself some years ago and learned that Husain considered himself a great admirer of the Hindu goddesses, having been born in the Hindu pilgrimage town of Pandharpur in Maharashtra and watched performances from the Hindu epics in his youth. But he ran into a controversy when he painted a nude image of the goddess as “Bharat Mata” (Mother India) with her flowing hair representing the Himalayas.
Another interesting aspect of that saga is that the painting which had aroused the ire of the Hindu right was actually done back in the 1970s but was being targeted 20 years later, at a time when the Hindu right was ascendant. They claimed in the famous Delhi High Court case of Maqbool Fida Husain vs Raj Kumar Pandey that the artist had not only hurt the feelings of Hindus who are the majority community in India but also “every patriotic Indian who loves his motherland.” They had stated in their petition against Husain that Bharat Mata is a symbol of pride, prestige, dignity and the soul of this country and “it was the case of the respondents that the petitioner cannot be given the right to hurt the sentiments and feelings of the society under the garb of freedom of expression.” How fascinating. This argument could very well be that of the Muslims against both the original cartoon and the French government which has supported the aforesaid cartoon.
Interestingly, the Indian courts took the stance of the artist’s freedom of speech. In his famous judgment, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul quoted Pablo Picasso in his defense of Art.
“Art is never chaste. Art, to every artist, is a vehicle for personal expression. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” The erudite judgement which runs into pages concludes, “Our culture breeds tolerance — both in thought and in actions. I have penned down this judgment with this fervent hope that it is a prologue to a broader thinking and greater tolerance for the creative field. A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home — painting his canvass.” Unfortunately, although the courts of his nation refused to kowtow to the Hindu right, the aged artist felt so endangered by the barrage of verbal attacks on him that he left his country and died in exile. It is seen by many Indian artists to this day as the failure of the nation to show adequate support to an embattled artist who had once been awarded one of the nation’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Bhushan.
This incident is important for us to examine today in the light of the Charlie Hebdo controversy. In the U.S the issue is seen from the lens of the First Amendment while in France it is seen as an extension of the concept of laicite, or the French version of secularism. The term is often bandied about in India of recent times, with the right wing considering the term “secular” an insult. That is strange indeed for secularism in India stands for respect towards all religions, not just the majority faith, or perhaps that is the point because those who oppose it think of it as the enemy within the nation. Indeed, much as is the case with the term “Liberal” in the U.S in the Trump era, it is seen as offensive to the right wing who believe it entails too much laxity towards non-mainstream faiths.
What they fail to comprehend is that secularism and liberalism both have more in common with the dictum of the renowned philosopher of the French enlightenment Voltaire, who is believed to have stated, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire was the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet who was one of the key writers who had inspired the French Revolution but passed away in 1778 before he saw it come to fruition.
The earliest evidence of the saying appeared two centuries later in a book in 1906 titled “The Friends of Voltaire” by S. G. Tallentyre which in its turn was the pseudonym of historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
Voltaire is believed to have summed up his credo regarding free speech with a pithy statement, over a book written by one of his contemporaries, the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius. The book had been condemned by the Collège de Sorbonne, and Voltaire was asked for his opinion on it. This is when he stated that he was not impressed by the book, but he considered the attacks on it unacceptable as he believed in free speech.
This needs to be the perspective of all who believe in free speech and the role of democracy as an institution today, or we might as well return to the days of monarchy when absolute power rested in the hands of the monarch. It is ironic that the world is in crisis with global catastrophic climate change destroying the planet as we know it, and yet all we focus on is hatred of each other and endless recriminations going back to some bygone era.
Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau touches the right note by expressing support for France and its concept of secularism but also reiterating that the murderer of the teacher does not represent all French Muslims by any means.
(Top photo: Some Muslims in India protest against French response to the beheading of a teacher after discussing caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class.)
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies, at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she works as Chair of the Dept of Ethnic & Gender Studies, and teaches courses on Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Prior to her arrival in the United States, she worked for seven years as a broadcast journalist for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-state. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers in the U.S and India.