Offensive narratives of diversion

A case has been registered against Manimekalai under Section 153A and 295A of the IPC.
Leena Manimekalai and her Kaali documentary poster
Leena Manimekalai and her Kaali documentary poster Twitter

India has elevated the art of taking offence to a competitive sport. The most recent episode of perceived indignation involves the poster of a documentary that has depicted a goddess in a ‘disrespectful’ manner. Leena Manimekalai, a Tamil filmmaker based out of Toronto had showcased Kaali, as smoking a cigarette while brandishing an LGBTQ flag. It prompted the Delhi and UP police to file FIRs against the director, while the Indian government has requested Canadian authorities to take down all provocative material pertaining to the film.

Leena Manimekalai and her Kaali documentary poster
Explained: Controversial Kaali poster and Leena's clear stand

A case has been registered against Manimekalai under Section 153A and 295A of the IPC. TMC MP Mahua Moitra defended the director saying Kaali was a goddess who consumed meat and alcohol and people have a right to worship her in a manner they choose. Just a few weeks ago, the founder of a fact-checking website had been arrested on account of a tweet he had posted in 2018. Officials said his tweet had inspired hate speeches detrimental to communal harmony.

It is essential to understand how little it takes to strike a discordant note in India’s religious sensibilities. In 1996, acclaimed artist late MF Husain was dragged into a controversy involving a 20 year old portrait of the deity Saraswati, who was painted in the nude in 1976. The Mumbai police had registered cases against Husain under the aforementioned sections of the IPC, relating to outraging religious feelings and promoting enmity between religions groups. The cases are laughable at best considering Hindu deities have been portrayed in the nude for aeons together in temples and the artworks of classical artistes.

Similarly in 2006, a Hollywood film called The Da Vinci Code came under fire after Christian bodies in India filed petitions that the film hurt the sentiments of the community. The Supreme Court rejected a plea to ban the film containing a reference to a fictitious story of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and a child born to them. The apex court shot back at the petitioners asking them as to how many Christian-majority countries sought a ban on the film.

The notion of offending religious sensibilities has hounded writers, artistes and creators for decades together. In the case of Booker Prize winning author Salman Rushdie, a fatwa was issued in 1989 by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khoemeini, calling for the writer’s death for his ‘blasphemous’ writings on Islam in The Satanic Verses. While Rushdie survived the threats, the team working at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine wasn’t as lucky. In an attack carried out at its office in Paris, 17 people, including cartoonists and journalists paid with their lives for having published cartoons about the Prophet.

Such attacks on freedom of expression are perpetrated with selective amnesia and an agenda to silence voices critical of religious fanaticism. If religious groups are looking for trouble, then the whole expanse of cyberspace and OTT platforms are rife with works of art that employ sharp rhetoric against blind faith. The Monty Python films, now available on demand, have faced bans in nations that lasted decades. Recently, agent provocateurs like director Paul Verhoeven have released films like Benedetta, centred on the forbidden love affair of a lesbian nun in 17th century Italy.

It is hard for fanatics to run after every published work of art with a hatchet, which explains why they go after low hanging fruit. It’s shameful that in India where there are real problems like unemployment, poverty, caste discrimination, and law and order concerns, fundamentalists dig out skeletons to create narratives of diversion digressing from actual issues at hand. The government must stop entertaining requests for cracking down on artistes and authors and train its focus on its key responsibility – governance.

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