The shrill demand for the ban on the movie The Da Vinci Code based on the novel by the same name by Dan Brown has again brought into focus the smudgy dividing line between freedom of creative expression and the responsibility to respect others? feelings. The response of the state, the media and the vocal intelligentsia has been guided by who is raising the storm. It is not our case that Christians have no grouse. The Da Vinci Code is blasphemous, they say. If they feel hurt, they have a case to protest. Hurting religious sentiments is not in our tradition. Every faith in India has a right to be heard and they should get justice. But it also raises a few questions, not very comforting.
This time round, we missed the celebrity presence of the likes of Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Nafisa Ali and Brinda Karat who forever want to protect ?their? right to expression. Whenever any Hindu group raised an objection about a painting, film or a book, involuntarily they came to the defence of the offender. Reports say that despite prodding, the Sahamat refused to be drawn into the Code controversy. They are the ones who celebrated the freedom of expression by depicting Ram and Sita brother and sister.
We have witnessed riots and bloodbath over the name of a donkey in a short story, not very long ago, in Karnataka. Salman Rushdie'sSatanic Verses was banned not because it offended the minority community, but because a price had been declared for his head by the Muslim country, Iran. The ruckus the Muslims made on the Danish cartoon is fresh in memory. So one cannot really fault the Catholics in wanting a ban on the movie because it hurts their sentiments.
But the reaction of the government had not been the same when it came to hurting Hindu sentiments?whether it'sthe movies Water, Fire, the widows of Vrindavan, M.F. Husain'sunending series of paintings willfully denigrating the Hindu gods, goddesses and Mother India or even the commonplace Hindi films where the Hindus are portrayed bad, as police officer, temple priest or politician. Recently the film Mangal Pandey came under attack for its portrayal of the great freedom fighter. But the movie was not banned.
Swedish foreign minister Laila Freivalds, had to resign because she attempted to close an ultra right wing website when it solicited cartoons on the topic of the Danish cartoons. She resigned because she was found guilty of trying to stifle the voice of free expression. We will never go that far in protecting the right to expression.
India has a well-structured Censor Board. It should decide if a movie is worth screening or not. The Catholic nuns and bishops cannot decide on the viewability of a movie. This will set a dangerous precedent. Tomorrow another group can claim the same right.
In the case of Da Vinci Code, the reaction by the Christians in India is sharper than that in the west. The Vatican has not banned the movie. It has at best given a call to the faithful to shun it. India is not a Christian country like America and Britain, where it is the state religion. Moreover, the book has been sold world over.
When the Rajasthan government banned a highly blasphemous book authored by a Christian priest on the Hindu faith and system, the Church in India did not show the magnanimity to chasten the writer and tender an unqualified apology. The book had abused the Hindu deities in an undignified language, casting aspersions on their character, ridiculing the many facts associated with them. Instead of condemning the book and helping the government in withdrawing the book, the Church launched a tirade, accusing the state government of witch-hunting Christians.
In the name of history, children across the country are being fed on half-truth about India'spast. No child growing up reading those history texts would feel proud of his country.
India needs to decide and draw a line where freedom ends and responsibility begins. And this line has to be drawn evenly for all faiths. M.F. Husain and Salman Rushdie hurt. But in India Husain continues to paint and is sold and holds exhibitions whereas Rushdie is not to be seen, officially at least, in the book stalls. The double standards must end. The Da Vinci Code has in a way helped in bringing the debate to the basics.