Offense Mongering Again

Our freedoms are under threat again. The editor of the Statesman was arrested for reproducing an article by Jonathan Hari, "Why Should I Respect These Oppressive Religions?" They were arrested under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code which outlaws offenses against religion undertaken with "deliberate and malicious intent". This phrase has always been taken origin as a safeguard that legitimate criticism of religion will be allowed. But this arrest is a chilling sign of just how fragile our liberties are when it comes to speech involving religion.

There are two problems with this law. First, laws that are asked to judge intent are often inherently problematic. For instance the same difficulty lies in deciding whether someone is merely propagating their religion or propagating with an intent to convert. Second, there is an assumption that religion must be respected. Even as someone sympathetic to the claims of religion, I find this assumption strange for four reasons. As glorious as religious heritages might be, most organised religion comes with unsavory baggage. All kinds of oppression and violence have been licensed in their name. We can debate whether this constitutes the essence of a particular religion. But it is near impossible to debate historical religions without representing any in a way that does not offend some of its adherents. These representations should not be malicious or undertaken with impunity, but will be discomforting nonetheless.

Second, despite calls for respect, the blunt truth is that almost no religion can, from within its own theological premises, grant parity to other religions in some deep and meaningful sense. In this way, religious speech intrinsically creates hierarchies of one kind or the other.

Third, belief is not a matter of will. We cannot oblige other people to think about history or theology in a particular manner. All we can hope is that their conclusions about religion are made in good faith, not a product of willful misinterpretation. But the line between good-faith inquiry and demeaning conclusions is very thin in the eyes of most adherents.

Finally, the form that the demand for respect takes is inherently competitive in two ways. First, it constantly escalates. We have gone from a state where outrage used to be expressed against grossly malicious representations, to a state where ordinary historical discussion can occasion outrage. Religious groups are quick to defend against any offense, but are silent when others are offended. Muslim groups rarely protest appalling representations of the West or of Jews. In short, the politics of respect is not a universal ethic. It is instead a competitive game where different religious groups show how much power they have by demanding respect. Even in this case, as in every other, from Taslima Nasreen to Rushdie, from M.F. Hussain, to Naryanna, the politics of respect will get communalised. Some groups are already alleging that the editor was arrested because Muslims found the article offensive.

This law infantilises society. Article 295 was enacted in colonial times. The assumption was that we are so infantile that we will be easily driven to violence if there is the slightest slight of religious sentiments. Alas, the British were right. When it comes to religious exchange we demonstrate time and again that we are not self possessed: our reason will be disabled, or passions inflamed. So we need to curb our liberties. There is also something offensive from a religious point of view about people getting offended so easily. I thought true piety consisted in the fact that we have given over our lives to God; it is for HIM/HER to protect us, not for us to assume that God need's our protection. This was apparently the consolation the Devi at Khir Bhawani in Kashmir gave Swami Vivekanada, when he was momentarily distraught at learning about temple destruction in medieival India. The Devi is supposed to have asked, "Do you need my protection or do I need yours." God will survive criticism; unfortunately it is us humans who cannot take it. The arrest of the Statesman Editor is a scandal.

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