The trouble with India is that it is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation and it has been so for centuries?unlike any other nation in the world. In that sense it is unique. But that creates a problem for both state governments and the government at the centre. Take the instance of exhibiting the film based on the Da Vinci Code. There is no ban on the book anywhere in the world?including the world of Christians. The book has sold 40 million copies in 44 languages which must be something of a record. A film based on it was recently shown at an international film festival and, according to reports, critics had a good laugh. India claims to be a secular country, does that mean that it should ban both the book and the film based on it? The Times of India (May 15) reminds us in an editorial that ?the Vatican hasn'tcalled for a ban on the film? and that ?Christian groups in India have crossed the boundaries of civil protest?. The Times editorial is worthy of reproduction. It said, in conclusion: ?A ban on any work of art, particularly one that doesn'tpurport to stoke animosities between different religious or ethnic groups, is untenable in a democracy such as ours. Christian groups, of course, are free to peacefully protest against the film and even boycott it if they so wish. But they must not demand a ban, let alone call for punitive actions against Dan Brown. The state, too, must not give in to these protests. Far too many times fundamentalists belonging to different persuasions have held the state to ransom and succeeded in enforcing a ban on controversial books and films. Every time that happens it represents a step back for freedom of speech and artistic expression. At the same time it deals a body blow to religious pluralism and tolerance.?
The Hindustan Times (May16) reported that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had cleared the film without any cuts and awarded it an ?A? certificate once Sony Pictures inserts a disclaimer stating that the film is ?based on a work of fiction and does not intend to hurt the religious sentiments of any religious community?.
Prominent Catholics like former Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro, Director of Xavier Institute of Communication, Father Periera and ex-Censor Board member Father Richard Laynesmith were apparently called to watch a pre-screening of the film at the request of Information & Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi. The Information Minister'seffort to view the film before release has been described by The Indian Express (May 18) as ?a plot to assert his responsibility to check whether The Da Vinci Code is safe for public viewing?. Was Shri Dasmunshi arrogating to himself the role of the autonomous and independent Censor Board? If Shri Dasmunshi is to interfere with the working of the CBFC, then what is the meaning of autonomy? An angry Indian Express wrote: ?For one, it indicates that for Sansad Bhavan, India is still a nanny state.
The Da Vinci Code has already been through the established certification process and cleared by the Censor Board…. Dasmunshi is only highlighting the totalitarian powers of his office…. Is it the Minister'scase that he is authorised to decide whether this assertion, in a work of fiction, would hurt the sensitivities of a person of faith? This is dangerous terrain for a secular government to be dragged into: ?The Minister and the Government, would be best advised to extricate themselves from this certification mess.? That is, perhaps, being a little too harsh on Shri Dasmunshi. The Government can'tthoroughly wash its hands off any situation that is likely to create civil disturbances.
One doesn'texpect Christians to start a riot but the least that a government can do is to know what the situation really is like. As far as possible one should not hurt religious sensibilities but considering that the film has not been banned in predominantly Christian Europe and not even, to the best of one'sknowledge, in Catholic Italy, but even then wisdom lies in multi-religious India to be wary. We don'thave to seem supportive of any statement made in The Da Vinci Code on the grounds that we are a secular state.
What is strange is that the President of the Congress has said not a word about either the book or the film. Silence, one suspects, is the better part of discretion. But Sonia Gandhi has come under attack for a different reason. Deccan Herald has strongly condemned the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha which provides for inclusion of 56 more posts in the list of offices that are to be exempted from the Office of Profit category. ?This? commented Deccan Herald ?is a mockery of the principle on which the original law was based.? The paper said that ?by exempting 56 more posts from disqualification, the government has diluted the original objective of the law (and) has undermined the spirit of democratic constitutionalism which is based on a strict separation of legislature and executive.? Deccan Herald'sposition in this regard is clear. It said: ?In skirting the basic issue by avoiding a clear definition of ?Office of Profit?, Parliament has left the door wide open for the controversy to re-emerge at a future date…. It is clear from the contents of the Bill that it was the question of protecting its leaders, especially Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi…. . The Government has put survival of its leaders above principles that form the core of our Constitution.? The Da Vinci Code apart, not a day passes without communal issues raising their ugly heads. Remember the recent violence in Vadodara over the demolition of a dargah on grounds that it was impeding traffic? A Vadodara?based architect, Jaimini Mehta in an article in the The Times of India (May 18) wonders whether ?Development? has to be ?so uncompromisingly brutal? even when he admits that the dargah was not architecturally and aesthetically significant and does not represent ?an event of significance in our history.?
In Saudi Arabia, mosques which are old are routinely demolished and according to press reports, even the residences of the Prophet, his wife and children have not been spared. That is their business. But shouldn'twe, a predominantly Hindu state whether one accepts the fact or not, not deliberately go out of our way to be considerate, not out of fear of minorities but because it is gracious to be considerate? But one suspects that even this will turn out to be controversial. But to this writer to be gracious is the greatest thing in life. It makes living that much more beautiful.