The politics of victimhood

by Ramesh Thakur

When a group of gay activists engaged in an angry confrontation with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who was having dinner with a major columnist in a Melbourne restaurant, the journalist noted how those demanding tolerance of diversity had shown an ugly face of extreme intolerance uncharacteristic of civil discourse in Australia.

The paradox, of a country with a rich tradition and heritage of tolerance of multiple identities becoming increasingly intolerant in the very name of reclaiming its cultural heritage, is being manifested with worrying acuteness in India.

Most of us who are of Indian origin have taken immense pride in the legacy and practice of pluralism and tolerance. I have written previously in these pages about the exemplary power-sharing arrangements and deeply entrenched culture of secularism in Indian society and politics. It is therefore painful to record the growing strains of intolerance.

In “The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity” (2006), Nobel laureate Amartya Sen traced India’s intellectual and political heritage and affirmed that its argumentative tradition is vital for the success of its democracy and secular politics.

In “The Intolerant Indian: Why We Must Rediscover a Liberal Space” (2011), Gautam Adhikari, former editor of The Times of India, returned to the issue of India’s national identity with a completely different take. Adhikari contends that extremist religious ideologies and violent politics of forces on the right and left alike have overshadowed the idea of a liberal, tolerant society that India’s founding fathers set out to fashion. The vision of tolerant pluralism and secularism is being replaced by narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities.

Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, hounded out of her mother country by Islamist fundamentalists, was forced to flee Kolkata because some local Muslims objected to her presence. The great Indian artist M. F. Husain was forced to live overseas because Hindu fundamentalists took violent objection to some of his art depicting Hindu deities.

Criminalizing “hate” speech is offensive to liberal sensibility, especially when offense is established by hurt sensibilities of a complainant. This merely empowers those who claim to be hurt to prescribe and determine what constitutes hate speech. This is the ground on which Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” was banned in India when first published. Four people who read passages from it at the Jaipur Literary Festival last year were threatened with prosecution. Recalling Monica Ali’s metaphor of a “marketplace for outrage,” where a high political price will be fetched if feelings are seen to run high enough, Mukund Padmanabhan describes India as “The Republic of Hurt Sentiments.”

“Hurt Sentiments” has become an alibi for aggressive moral vigilantism that inflicts violence against the offender in the name of emotional victimhood. Instead, to constitute “hate”, speech must be intentionally malicious and pose a clear and present danger.

In the name of combating caste violence and dowry deaths, laws take away the presumption of innocence and inflict legal harassment on the accused pending trial in a judicial system notorious for decades-long delays. Under Section 498A (against dowry harassment) of the Indian Penal Code, on the basis of a complaint filed by a woman or designated relative, the alleged offender must be arrested by the police and may not be granted bail by the courts, even if there is no supporting evidence and before any investigation has been carried out.

Two perverse consequences ensue. The laws are misused by some to intimidate political or social rivals and opponents. Others use them as instruments of blackmail and extortion.

India’s astonishingly thin-skinned politicians are frog-marching the country into intolerance. The best political cartoons are those that prick pomposity, ridicule hypocrisy and deflate sanctimony. In April, the head of West Bengal’s government sent the cops after a professor who had the temerity to circulate — not draw and publish, just forward — an unflattering but relatively tame cartoon about her. More recently she stormed out of a live TV interview because some university students dared to question her about it.

A government textbook since 2006 had used a cartoon from 1949 that highlighted the slow pace of progress in drafting independent India’s new constitution (finally adopted in 1950). The chief architects of the constitution, B.R. Ambedkar and founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, were shown trying to whip a snail labeled “constitution” into faster pace. Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi failed to see any offense and had fond respect for the cartoonist. Yet on May 10, some members of Parliament took offense at the 50-year-old cartoon and the education minister promised to recall the book, excise the cartoon, then reissue the book. Several scholars resigned from the textbook council in protest at the government’s craven capitulation, describing it as shocking and atrocious. Some have been attacked by vigilantes.

In February, faced with stiff opposition to the construction of a new reactor by anti-nuclear activists newly energized after the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, the Indian government insisted that the agitation was primarily led by overseas- funded nongovernmental organizations promoting foreign and thus antinational agendas. The heavy hand of the state came down on them rather clumsily. The “foreign hand” has long played a rather more visible role in Indian affairs than Adam Smith’s invisible hand plays in the market.

In some ways the apotheosis of the logic of framing public policy based on the whims of those who profess to be offended came in March in Mumbai. Drops of water began to drip from the feet of a statue of Jesus in the church of Our Lady of Velankanni. Hundreds of believers flocked to the site to collect the miracle water in the belief that the “tears of the son of god” must have healing and sanctifying properties.

A self-proclaimed rationalist came, investigated and established that a blocked drain was producing a dirty puddle, which through capillary action was propelling the water to drip on the statue.

Three police stations received complaints against him for inciting religious hatred and he has been arrested and charged. If the case proceeds, it is unlikely he will be convicted — India’s courts have shown commendable common sense in these matters — but he could spend years trapped in the courts and burdened with legal fees.

The intensifying intolerance, if not checked, will soon pose a grave threat to India’s diversity and democracy.

Ramesh Thakur is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.