Taking Offence: India’s New National Pastime

Written by  //  November 30, 2011  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  Comments Off on Taking Offence: India’s New National Pastime

A Pastime to Beat All Others

Move over waiting-for-Sachin-Tendulkar-to-get-his-100th-100, you’re getting boring now, India has a new national pastime. This new pastime is exciting, provocative, customisable and doesn’t require you to chew your nails only to chew them again in two weeks time: It’s called taking offence at what other people have to say. Everyday, someone or the other is offended by something or the other someone else has to say. Which would be perfectly natural in a democratic society if it stopped at the taking of offence or expressing disagreement. But not so in India. So pervasive is the culture of taking offence, that until and unless the offending party apologises or better still grovels, she will not be absolved of her heinous crime. If she is an author effigies, or worse still, her books themselves, will be burnt; if a director, then movie halls showing the film desecrated and movie-goers physically beaten, if an artist, then he may be forced to leave the country itself. Our politics too has legitimised this, with political parties falling over each other to defend the offended and their right to not have to put up with offensive speech and expression in the “world’s largest democracy.” Our courts, for long the bastion of free speech and expression, too are showing signs of following suit, the decision to direct appointment of an Expert Committee to look into Ramanujan’s essay on the many tellings of the Ramayana after the petitioners claimed to have been offended by its contents, signalling the beginnings of a worrying trend. In short, free speech, the Constitution and all your allies- take a hike. The new India is here.

Some Examples from Recent Memory

  1. Delhi University removes Ramanujan’s essay from its syllabus and Oxford University Press refuses to publish it as neither want to hurt any offended sentiments
  2. Karan Johar changes all references to Bombay in his production “Wake Up Sid” to Mumbai after the MNS threaten to take the law into their own hands, should he fail to.
  3. The Bhandarkar Institute torched in Pune as a protest against James Laine’s book on Shivaji and Shrikant Bahulkar, a historian thanked by Laine in his book assaulted and left with a blackened face. The charge against Laine: derogatory references to Shivaji.
  4. Women’s groups demonstrate and Hindu hardline groups ransack movie halls showing the film “Girlfriend” for allegedly containing lesbian scenes that are antithetical to Indian culture
  5. Rohinton Mistry’s “Such a Long Journey” removed from the English syllabus of Bombay University for portraying Maharashtrians and the Shiv Sena in poor light
  6. Joseph Leyveld’s book on Mahatma Gandhi banned in Gujarat and Maharashtra as it “purportedly” portrays Gandhi as a bisexual man especially focussing on his relationship with Herman Kallenbach, a German architect

And a few funny ones:

  1. Shahrukh Khan’s “Billu Barber” had an official name change to Billu after presumably the barbers of India raise a hue and cry
  2. An inconsequential line in the antara of an otherwise unspectacular song from Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film “Aaja Nachle” deleted since it uses the expression of “samjhe mochi bhi khud ko sonar”, references to caste terms that didn’t go down well with the cobblers of India.
  3. Gulzar’s lyrics in the smash hit “Dhan te nan” from Kaminey modified after release, since oil-sellers of India miffed about the use of the words “teli ka tel”. Oddly it becomes “dilli ka tel” in all subsequent records.

Not only do these instances show the extent to which people are offended by expressions, several of which are inconsequential trivialities, but equally the ease with which their demands are given to and consequently analogous future demands incentivised. It is no surprise then, that we are now firmly in a vicious cycle of taking offence- the more loudly you protest and the more offended you are, the higher are the chances that you will have your way. Why protest civilly and write a letter when creating a little more stench will guarantee instant results?

Where Do We Go from Here?

It is clear that there are no easy solutions to this issue. At the extremes, both the right to take offence as well as the fact of someone having taken offence having no role to play in a legal determination of the issue are fairly clear-cut provisions. My right to be offended flows from my fundamental freedom of thought and conscience just as your right to speak which may on occasion, offend. At the same time, whether I get offended or not should play no part in determining whether you should be allowed to speak or not. Certainly there may be restrictions on your right to speak but they cannot be contingent on what I feel as a consequence of your speech. Surely the terms must be different and at the same time adequately circumscribed.

Defining these terms may be a difficult matter. But in India today, the more crucial difficulty is not a free speech boundary dispute but rather a pure-form moral question as to how must we, as a population, react when a certain group claims to be offended by a certain expression of speech. It is our collective response to this issue that will determine our politicians’ response and give our country’s political culture its distinctive hue. Speak out and you ensure that India is safe for independent minds; fail to do so and give free thought and expression, an ironically silent burial.

Three Hundred Ramayanas: A Test Case

It is in this context that Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” has become a bellwether for the direction India will take as far as upholding free speech rights is concerned. Having just read the essay, it strikes me as surprising that anyone would take offence to any of its contents. As a Hindu brought up on Valmiki’s Ramayana, the versions Ramanujan refers to, struck me as neither odd nor strange, just different. And isn’t difference the norm when what is in question is a myth passed down from generation to generation in different parts of the Indian sub-continent? Is difference not testimony to the inherent creativity of ancient and medieval Indian raconteurs, often parents and grandparents narrating the stories to their children and grandchildren? I read the differences in the different tellings of the Ramayana as a natural adaptation of a wonderfully malleable story to particular cultures, societies and time periods. Clearly however, others saw it differently.

Even if one were to assume, that to a devout Hindu who worships Lord Rama as an avatar of Vishnu and Sita as the very epitome of Hindu womanhood, the thought of them as siblings or perhaps of Sita as Ravana’s daughter, as some of the tellings describe their relation, is not particularly tasteful and offensive, that feeling in and of itself does not entitle students of Delhi University to not know how the Ramayana story is told in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. (Of course whether the essay ought to be included in the first place is a different debate which I shall not go into here; see this). But the fact of the matter is, that Three Hundred Ramayanas is neither a slanderous expression of opinion nor an analytical text intended to defame; on the contrary it is a descriptive, factual account of the diverse tellings of a particular mythical tale. To even consider removing it from the syllabus, seemingly because it offends sentiments is an absurd and almost laughable proposition.

Such are the depths of absurdity that have been reached with this case, that in the coming months, I hope good sense will prevail and we will hear retractions from OUP and the Delhi University Academic Council, how they were misunderstood and the real reason was not the offense it caused to some group’s sentiments but some other compelling motive which was so significant that they forgot to disclose it while taking their decision. In fact OUP’s response to a student petition in Oxford University was just that: the essay and the book was retracted due to commercial reasons. In most other situations, this would have been a laughable excuse proffered as an attempted justification for an equally laughable decision. But such is the nadir of absurdity and the lack of common sense to which debates about free speech in India have reached today, that such a laughable excuse, when offered, must be celebrated, as evidence of a growing realisation disguised as a face-saving excuse, that causing offence is no longer kosher as a reason for curtailing the freedom of speech and expression in India.

[I think it’s only when that happens that Sachin will get his 100th 100]

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