Wednesday, November 14, 2007

India and the Cartoon Controversy

India and the Cartoon Controversy
By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The Indian angle to the cartoon controversy had its resonance on a similar offense committed by ninety-year-old noted painter MF Hussain who portrayed the Hindu goddess of knowledge Saraswati in nude. The right wing Hindu organizations took up the issue criticizing the Muslims that while they protest the outrageous cartoons, none condemn the painter who shelter under the cloak of freedom of expression.

The liberals’ join the debate arguing that there is a conspiracy of silence on taking positions on the Muslim issues. They say that most are much more mindful of offending the Muslim sentiments than other religions for the simple reason that Muslims tend to protest more loudly than others.

The Indian liberals accuse Muslims of not daring to stand up to the extremists within their community. Seldom Muslim voices are heard when their community resort to extremism, whereas the liberal Hindus voices are heard loudest in condemnation of such acts by the Hindu extremism. It points that Muslims silence paints the negative image of the community and the Hindu zealots cash on these sentiments. It feels that, if the liberal Muslim voices remain silent, Hindu liberals may take up positions on the Muslims issues.

Within the liberal debate, some argue that those who think that their sense of offence gives them the right to curb the freedom of expression of others is a bit hyper. It's the case that equally applies to all those who are protesting against the cartoons and to those who are outraged with Hussain’s paintings. The solution is not to get angry but to ignore such things that they consider offensive.

The liberals do not want India to become a soft state and want the government to establish the liberal principles standing up to the rioters, arrest those who foment violence and never, ever give in to the blackmail.

Irrespective of the different murmurings over the cartoon controversy, the Indian government has its position clearly stated by sympathizing with the inflamed Muslim sentiments.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave public statement expressing "deep concern" over the publication of the offensive cartoons. He said; “The Government of India is deeply concerned about the growing controversy over the publication of cartoons on Prophet Mohammad that offend the Muslim community worldwide and any such attempt that hurt the religious sentiments of the people should be avoided.”

Prime Minister's statement came in the wake of Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari's letter to him and to the Congress President Sonia Gandhi urging the Centre to express its resentment to the Denmark Government and to strongly condemn such acts.

Manmohan Singh in his reply to the Shahi Imam reiterated that "India's commitment to religious harmony and tolerance is unshakeable and the Government is determined to preserve this."

He further added that the Government remained convinced that diversity and plurality must be nurtured and it is essential for this that every segment of society be sensitive to beliefs and sentiments of other members of the society.

The Prime Minster clarified that India had conveyed its sense of outrage both in New Delhi and in Copenhagen when the cartoons were first published in October last. "We had suggested that apologies should be sought and the Danish Government should obtain assurances that the concerned newspapers would prevent recurrence of such incidents," the Prime Minister said.

Prime Minister appealing to the Muslim community to show restrain said; “any action that cause hurt to the sentiments of any group of our people is not acceptable to the government".

The government allowed demonstrations to be held across the country and Muslims came out in large numbers to protest the offensive publication. The protestors gave vent to their pent up anger by burning the Danish flags and denouncing western imperialism. Even though lot of anger was spilled on the streets the demonstrations by and large remained peaceful.

The only bizarre thing in the whole episode was the announcement by a Muslim minister from the province of Uttar Pradesh of a booty of 51 crore rupees on the head of the Danish cartoonist who drew the offensive cartoons. This provocative outburst received all round condemnations that included Muslims as well.

Surprisingly, the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray did not throw his hat in this controversy and till now have not made a counter offer of higher booty to get the head of the UP minister. If one may recall, it was the Sena chief who had announced booty on Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeni for pronouncing fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic verses. Perhaps Sena patriarch is too busy sorting out the inner rumblings of his party or might be chary of Indian law that could be the cause of his restrain.

As the debate goes on, no final judgment can be pronounced on a sensitive issue like this. It should be imperative that the duty of respecting the religious beliefs of others overrides the privilege of freedom of expression. This is simply because human dignity and respect should be the rationale for all our actions.

The liberal yet insensitive and inconsiderate passion of an artist to produce a work that will inflict deep wounds in the hearts and souls of millions of people across the globe can never be justified in the innocent name of freedom of expression. The above position does not stand true for the religion of Islam alone but undisputedly for all other religions and traditions.

Such issues are above and beyond freedom of expression because in the name of artistic expression they denigrate, dehumanize and deny the historical reality of such traditions and beliefs.

Let us hope that, as a civilized society, our conscience will allow us to recognize the fine line of demarcation and keep the balance between expressing ourselves freely and at the same time avoid hurting and belittling people for what they believe.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. His email address is:

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