HOW THINGS WORK: Tolerating Intolerance
Three incidents in quick succession - the temporary ban on actor-producer Kamal Haasan's film Vishwaroopam by the Tamil Nadu government, the uproar over social anthropologist Ashish Nandy's remark about corruption among Dalits at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and the refusal to allow author Salman Rushdie to visit the Kolkata Literary Meet - have once again highlighted the growing intolerance in the country. A look at the issues involved:
Threats to free expression in India usually come not from the state, but from groups purporting to speak on behalf of particular communities. Thus, Vishwaroopam's ban was sought by 24 Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu, Nandy's arrest demanded by Dalit politicians of Rajasthan, while Rushdie's 'hate affair' with Muslims is a two decade old saga. Filing of cases against those who purportedly "offend the sentiments" of particular communities is also frequent.
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but at the same time permits the government to impose "reasonable restrictions" on this right for all kinds of reasons - national security, maintenance of public order, etc. It can be done even "in the interests of the general public". Again, Section 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) makes any statement "promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes" a punishable offence. There is also Section 295A of the IPC making "deliberate or malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings" a crime.
State governments, moved by political considerations, have always been quick to respond positively to groups demanding bans on books, films, art exhibitions, etc.