What is freedom of expression? How much of this freedom is admissible in public life? Can one draw a picture of the Prophet Mohammad and put it on show claiming freedom of expression? Can one make adverse remarks about any religious leader, just for the heck of it? Where does one draw the Laxman rekha?
It was that great American judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr who said freedom of expression does not give one the right to shout ?Fire!? in a crowded theatre. Take the case of M.F.Husain who drew some very vulgar pictures of certain Hindu goddesses. These were even printed by a well-known industrial house for their annual calender. Word went round and provoked certain people to raid Husain'sstudio. Yes, Husain is now 91. Yes, he is a very distinguished artist whose painting sell at crores of rupees. But does that give him the right to hurt Hindu sensibilities? If our secularists feel so strongly, they must reprint those offending paintings and distribute them widely, so we can evaluate the nature of public feelings. Why don'tthey do so?
If a man is considered guilty, shouldn'tthe public have the right to know what it is that Husain has done to hurt peoples? feelings? Let the public decide, instead of the government exercising ?moral policing?.
Then there is the case of one Chandramohan, a graduate student of M.S.University in Vadodara who too has been charged with ?hurting religious sentiments?. No one has yet published a picture of the painting he had drawn. The Hindu (May 15) devoted practically an entire page in defence of Chandramohan. The problem would have been solved if The Hindu along with other secular newspapers published the offending pictures under the right of freedom of expression. What prevents it from doing so? Surely, if Chandramohan has the right to draw a painting, The Hindu (and other secular papers) have equal rights to publish it? Why can'tthe public decide?
Moral policing is bad enough. The public has no idea what is being defended and our super-moral media won'tlet the world know the nature of the offending work. If our secular media has courage, it must publish the works of M.F.Husain and Chandramohan, so readers can decide whether their works are offensive or not. Taking a high moral stand is very praiseworthy but it is unconvincing. Let the public?and not just a small coterie of artistes and writes?decide what is insulting and what is not. Of course, nobody has the right to vandalise a studio and those guilty of it should be severely published. At the same time, artists must learn to respect the sensibilities of people.
Many years ago, artist D? Souza won fame for certain vulgar paintings which he put on exhibit. They were just vulgar paintings but paintings not of goddesses. Whether, in the end, D?Souza made a good living in Mumbai or not is irrelevant. He left India'sshores and went to New York where he certainly made good.
We are living in tense times. People get easily offended. The question is often raised that if Hindus could tolerate?even respect?Khajuraho and Konark, they have no right to question Husain. Times change. What was once acceptable?we do not know under what circumstances?becomes unacceptable in another era and vice versa.
The Victorian era had its own moral parameters. Every age has. But in the end the vast public must be allowed to have the last word. In his column on the media in The New Sunday Express (May 13) Sunil Saxena draws attention to a remark made by Union Minister of Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar about the media, unconcern about the job he is holding. At a meeting of Confederation of Indian Industry held in New Delhi last month he is quoted as saying: ?There is nobody so marginal in a government as the Minister of Panchayati Raj. I count for nothing. Nothing. When I was the Minister of Petroleum, I used to walk surrounded by the media.? Aiyar'sgrouse was that it is impossible to ask Indian media to write two words about the poor.
Saxena'sown reading of the situation is that as Petroleum Minister Aiyar administered the price of petrol, a commodity that is the lifeline of India's300-million strong middle class. But as Minister of Panchayati Raj, Aiyar is not important to the Indian media because his Ministry looks after the interests of 700 million Indians who live outside cities in rural surroundings. And who cares for those 700 million, even if they happen to be twice as large as the middle class? There is, of course, some truth in Mani Shankar Aiyar'sdistress.
Development journalism is a good subject to teach in journalism schools, but how is it relevant to a media read mostly in the cities and large towns? There are more readers to a story on the Bachchan-Rai marriage than in an account of farmers? suicides which can add to depression. As Saxena very correctly put it: ?Today the political and government content has been replaced with people and lifestyle stories, much of which border on trivia and is of interest to a limited number of people living in cities. The larger issues, especially those of poverty and development have been forgotten or consciously ignored.? Which, of course, is part for the course.
Poor Mani Shankar. It must be disheartening not to be constantly surrounded by the media and to feel important. Perhaps he should arrange for ?Fashion Week? for the beautiful girls from among the poor to prove that beauty does not flourish only among the upper and middle classes but can also be found among the women workers toiling in the fields and scrubbing the floors of the homes of the rich. That may give Mani Shankar some praise for novelty and who knows he might then have made history for standing by the poor and oppressed.
What we have today is a sophisticated media. It defends vulgarity, cheapness, the doings of the rich and the powerful. It revels in defending the undefensible under the sacred but much prostituted word secularism. Mr Saxena must have a sense of the ridiculous. He writes: ?One wonders what has happened to development journalism.? Nothing has happened. It is a subject for study in journalism schools, a subject promptly to be forgotten once the student gets a job in the media. We are a nation of great self-deceptionists. ?We?, of course, does not consist of the poor but only of our secularists and intellectuals. Aren'tthey the ones who teach us about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Notably the front page?