The problems of pluralism

by Hartosh Singh Bal

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 07 09.48Two recent events, the removal of an essay on the many tellings of the Indian epic the Ramayana from the curriculum of Delhi University and the firebombing of a French newspaper for printing a cartoon of the Prophet in an edition devoted to a satirical look at the Shariat, share a surface resemblance. They have taken place in India and Western Europe, two diverse places but both places that take pride in a tradition of tolerance. While it is possible to read into the incidents the continuing religious intolerance for any examination of faith, it seems to make more sense to me to focus on the differences between the two events and what they say about the manner in which these two societies actually practice tolerance.

The essay removed from the curriculum at Delhi University was written by A.K. Ramanujan, at least in the Indian way of thinking a Hindu, drawing upon a long tradition in which the diversity within the faith is itself a source of tolerance. The opposition to this essay has come from the Hindu right, which is not a conservative but a radical force. It wants to historicize a tradition that is rooted in myth and storytelling. Uncomfortable with the elasticity of myth, they prefer the certainty they think history grants them. For them the figure of Rama, central to the epic, is not subject to the vagaries of storytelling and local lore, he is a historical figure with a kingdom and a birthplace.

This historicity is central to a version of Hinduism that goes by the name of hindutva and shores up the main opposition party in Indian, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Irrespective of its antecedents (it is a modern idea, born in the early twentieth century) it has come to command enough of a following to influence the norms that actually mediate tolerance in India. By tolerance, I do not just mean intellectual tolerance which however important is only a part of a wider idea. By tolerance I mean the wider idea that allows diverse ways of living to coexist in a society.

In India this wider idea is not constructed just through some absolute legal or Constitutional guarantees, it is a practical process that is mediated daily on the streets, but one that has always existed in some form or the other, because diversity has been the one constant in India society, well before the advent of Islam in the eighth century AD. Any description of this tolerance must be taken for what it is, a description of actual facts on the grounds that is not circumscribed by any order that such a description seeks to impose. The order is after the fact.

To me this tolerance is predicated on the recognition that diverse ways of living by their very nature will place importance on different ideas and attitudes, and often these ideas and attitudes can be in conflict. Any society that then allows coexistence must at this point make a decisive choice at this point. It can either set down a set of values that it thinks are fundamental and which any individual must subscribe to, or it can say each group is welcome to its values and overarching norms must come into play only when there is the possibility of overlap and conflict. Through the centuries the Indian approach has been to emphasize the latter even though the Constitution now is largely framed around the idea of individual rights.

In practice what this has meant is that various groups (in the Indian context this largely implies castes) have followed their own norms and it is inter-caste interaction that is mediated. Clearly, this also means that injustices of the worst sort were permitted within castes, say on grounds of gender, as well as between castes, where even untouchability was one way of mediating relationships. But, it also meant that when a new group entered India from the outside, say as was the case with the Parsis or developed within India, as was the case with the Sikhs, or both, as was the case with Islam, in practical terms the group in question could then be treated as just another caste (which did not preclude the existence of further diversity again largely mediated as caste within some of these groups). When people talk of the resilience of Indian society, this structure lies at the heart of it, it is created out of an organizing principle that is decentralized, and is still internalized by a vast majority of people. The change of rulers, the dismantling of empires in Delhi has had very little effect on how society conducted itself.

It is the Indian Constitution which marks a real change and departure from anything in the past. In many senses it is an uneasy compromise between ending much of the inequity that prevails as a result of this social structure and retaining the tolerance that was inbuilt. Caste discrimination was made illegal but a common civil code was not imposed. In India birth, marriage and death rituals vary greatly among religions, and the state permits this diversity. The Sikh wearing a turban is allowed exemption from several norms that apply to all other individuals. The examples can numerous and in terms of religion India has interpreted secularism in a peculiar way to mean that there is no state religion, but the public space is not barred to religion, it just does not discriminate among them.

Perhaps, an example would make the practice of this tolerance clear, and it would also point to the dangers of hindutva. The Muslim artist M.F. Hussain who died recently had often painted Hindu goddesses. In a traditional sense this would not have been problematic. The depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses in erotic poses has taken place time and again, and a Muslim has never been precluded from exercising the freedom the tradition allows. It would not occur to anyone, Hindu or Muslim, to paint or depict Muslim religious figures in the same way because tradition prohibits it.

Hussain had to spend the last years of his life in exile after proponents of hindutva attacked his exhibition on the grounds that if he cannot depict figures from his own religion in this way, how can he depict Hindu goddesses so. It was an alien way of thinking and while it was couched in terms of Hindu and Muslim, it actually indicates hindutva’s great problem with diversity. This new idea desires a society where even Hindus would not depict goddesses so. The proponents seek a casteless Hinduism with canonical religious figures common to all Hindus. These figures must not be subject to myths which can take many forms, which can involve them in the pursuit of the erotic, the comic or even what would be described in other traditions as evil. They must rather be idealized figures from history. Hussain was an enemy in their view, like all Muslims, but even more so he was an enemy in their view because he was an artist who exercised the freedom that myth allows. This is why they attack a Hindu writer’s freedom to examine the Ramayana, it takes away from their desire to historicize Rama, the hero of the epic, and the deity that lies at the heart of their reinvention of Hinduism.

This traditional version of tolerance as opposed to how hindutva sees things exercises a notion of morality or ethics that is contextual, as Ramanujan, the author of the essay on the many Ramayanas, pointed out in another key essay – `Is there an Indian way of thinking?’. The freedom of depiction of goddesses is not an absolute one, it depends on which and whose goddess you depict. In this way of thinking the self-imposed restriction on the depiction of the Prophet out of respect to Muslim sentiments would be much like the self-imposed restriction on the consumption of beef out of respect to Hindu sentiments in much of north India. Tolerance then is about give and take, of voluntarily renouncing certain freedoms out of a consideration for others who live with you.

In this way of thinking, the act of publishing cartoons in Denmark or the special edition by a French newspaper seems perplexing. It would never occur to anyone in India to attempt such feats. There, is of course, a European history of rejecting the imposition of indignities in the name of religion. But from an Indian context, it is because Islam and Christianity cherish different values that it is possible to argue for the mockery of Christian religious figures and argue against the same freedom when exercised against Islamic religious figures. Certainly, it is not as is freedom of expression is absolute anywhere in Western Europe. I imagine a cartoon or satire which was racist, anti-Semitic or sexist would not have been published by either newspaper.

This is not meant to even remotely justify the response to the cartoons or the satire. It is only to suggest that there are certain ideals which will be in contradiction. A tolerant plural society and an absolute freedom of expression cannot be simultaneously achieved. Even more problematically, the European way of thinking fails to understand the need to make distinctions based on differing group values that lie at the heart of any diverse society. To make rules that impose the same constraints and allow the same freedoms for various religious groups is to avoid facing up to the fact they are different to begin with.

It is also true that the same question gets far more complicated when we talk of a book such as the Satanic Verses. I would only suggest that a novelist’s freedom is of a different order than a journalist’s. The latter is already constrained by issues of libel or for that matter sexism, anti-Semitism and racism in ways no novelist can or should be.

But to return to where I started, it does seem to me that arguing from history, imagined or otherwise, can give rise to what may seem to be very differing demands, in France to defend the right to offend Muslims, in India to ask for a ban on the depiction of Hindu goddesses by Muslim artists. These demands though are not very different in their insistence on uniformity; for the proponents of hindutva either everyone should have the right to paint all religious figures in any way they choose or no one, and in particular a Muslim, should have the right to depict their goddesses, for the secular (as understood in France) fundamentalists of Western Europe, everyone should have the right to mock every religious figure. In each case the desire is for a certain uniformity that does not respect context or diversity. It seems even more problematic when both demands, however differently they may be espoused, seem to have the same target group. Perhaps, we must constantly examine the ease with which we use the word tolerance to defend what we hold dear, and intolerance for the defense of what others may hold dear.