In 1942, India’s Jews felt betrayed when Gandhi launched his Quit India Movement. The Jewish community felt that asking the British to quit India at a time when they, along with the Americans, had come to the rescue of Jews who had been persecuted by the Nazis in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Europe, was insensitive on Gandhi’s part. They regretted the fact that anti-Semitism, which had wreaked havoc in the lives of Jews, meant little to the people of India.
As the Bene Israel poet Nissim Ezekiel said to me while I was writing his biography, Gandhi’s call alienated India’s Jews, comprising the Bene Israel, Cochin and Baghdadi Jews. They ceased to feel that they were a part of the nationalist movement and the freedom struggle, although the Bene Israel community had earlier supported the Congress’s call for swadeshi and the boycott of foreign goods. But they now began to see Indian nationalism as predominantly Hindu nationalism that did not address their concerns.
Poets like Nissim Ezekiel and political thinkers like MN Roy never recovered from the sense of disillusionment that they suffered in the years between 1942 and 1947, when the British finally left India.
Cut to October 2020. A French schoolteacher is beheaded near Paris by an 18-year-old Chechnian schoolboy for showing his students a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad drawn by Charlie Hebdo in order to demonstrate what freedom of speech means. This is followed by other killings. The assassin is the son of a refugee and is believed to be a radical fundamentalist Islamist. While Muslim countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan laud the killers, India says it stands with President Emmanuel Macron in condemning the violence.
In doing so, rather than opting for its avowed policy of non-alignment, India risks alienating its Muslim population exactly the way the Jews felt betrayed by the Congress in 1942.
The Muslims in India have steadily felt like second class citizens ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, if not earlier. In 2002, innocent Muslims were butchered in the Gujarat riots. Last year, the Muslims felt excluded when the Citizenship Amendment Act singled them out. Assurances from the government that the law did not apply to Indian Muslims came with simultaneous threats by the home minister that the National Register of Citizenship would be drawn up to identify “infiltrators” – a dog whistle for Muslims.
Early this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the Tabligh Jamaatis who had gathered in Delhi, who included both Indians and foreigners, were made to feel responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. But later a High Court judgement showed that this was untrue. These are only the most obvious examples that one can provide.
I am by no means suggesting that Islamic violence or any violence should be condoned. As a writer I believe in figurative violence, not literal violence marked by the shedding of blood. A writer’s weapon is metaphor. A writer’s ammunition is imagery and symbolism. This is nothing but a reinvention of the old adage: the pen is mightier than the sword.
In today’s world, the sword may be replaced by the gun, although in the case of the Paris attack the assassin seems to have returned to the sword, more conducive to the act of beheading than the gun. But nothing can replace the pen.
My critics have pointed out that my own work, like Dalit literature, is marked by a linguistic violence that seeks to subvert genteel, middle class, bourgeoisie respectability. Like so many other writers, I often use swear words in my writing. Even so, the pen here performs a creative function whereas weapons, whether swords or guns, destroy.
Caricaturing a sacred or holy figure, as Charlie Hebbdo did, is doubtless a violent act, but it is creative violence, which, unfortunately in this case, was answered by destructive violence. Besides language, howsoever violent, can seek refuge in the free speech principle guaranteed by the Constitution.
But the point of this article is not to give lessons in literary aesthetics. It is to expose the selective outrage of successive Indian governments. Public memory is short. Have we forgotten that in September 2012, when the Congress was still in power, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition for drawing a series of political cartoons, one of which showed a minister seated on the shitpot? Have we forgotten that we banished painter MF Hussain from India and forced him to go into exile where he died for painting portraits of Indian goddesses in the nude?
Today, we have the temerity to say that we stand with French President Emmanuel Macron when he declares that they will continue to draw cartoons of holy men and lampoon them. The difference is simply this: when President Macron says what he does, he means it; when we say what we do, we don’t.
Going by the examples of Trivedi and Husain, the Muslim community in India has a right to conclude that the government stands with President Macron only because the cartoon in question was of their Prophet. Had it been of a Hindu deity, or of an Indian politician, the government’s response might have been otherwise.
In response to the French killings, the government of India issues a statement saying it is opposed to violence. Then how come it did not issue similar statements when Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were killed by right-wing Hindu extremists?
In fact, in Kalburgi’s case, the raison d’être for the murder was similar to that in France. A former student of Kalburgi shot him dead at point blank range in his own house, only because Kalburgi quoted the writer UR Ananthamurthy in a lecture, who had said that it was alright to urinate on portraits of gods and goddesses painted on public walls in a bid to prevent men from “committing nuisance.”
How come the government of India does not issue statements when Muslims are murdered on the suspicion of cow slaughter, even when, after forensic analysis, the meat in question turns out not to be beef?
In France, there is a clear separation between the Church and the State. In other words, the French are truly secular. But can we say the same about ourselves when the Prime Minister himself lays the foundation stone of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and that too in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?
It seems to me that President Macron’s remarks have been read out of context. In saying that France will continue to draw cartoons, Macron was really endorsing the idea of freedom of speech and expression. But do we really uphold this in India?
Let’s not forget that India was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses, which also caricatures the Prophet. Let’s not forget that a few years ago, the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan declared that he would not write any more – it was his way of saying that there was no point in writing when he did not have the freedom to write what he wanted.
R Raj Rao is a writer and former professor of English at Pune University.