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Mall Road

Bus Addey, Maal Rode, Camp, Madal Toun, Ajadpur, Shalimaar...

Free speech, hate speech and HinduHumanRights.org

I got to this site while image-googling for "Hindu gods". I was looking for a whacky mughsot which I could possibly use as my pix on MSN IM. And look what I found!

The photo was there on the homepage of a website called Hindu Human Rights. My image search had actually taken me to the internal page, Hindu Focus, and the first thing I could see was this:

I instantly knew what the site was about; I didn't need to see 'About us'. I've grown up seeing such images in the 'international' page of daily english papers in India, with text occupying 1/10th the space of the image, saying how Hindu protestors in some white city gathered outside Maharaja Restaurant or some such place, demanding that bikinis or some such thing with images of Hindu gods be withdrawn by a certain company, as these were offensive to the Hindu community. Such protests would be predictably followed by the requested withdrawl of goods, and a defensive, civilised-sounding public apology. It is only predictable that now such a campaign is sought to be globalised and available in the form of a website.

But what about that image of Shiva above? It's from the Times of India, they say, and provide you with the link of an irreverent article by the (Parsi) editor of The Times of India's Delhi edition, Bachi Karkaria. Till now only firangs were offending us, but now even desis back home have started using Adobe Photoshop to hurt Hindu sentiments. Interesting!

Ms. Karkaria's article is called He's hot, he is Indian Idol No 1. In three hundred words full of bad pun, she tries to fuse religion with contemporary popular culture, and justifies it like this:

Hinduism's original persona of “rinam kritva ghritam pivet” - loosely translated as 'Njoy!' - had for long been suppressed by our pretensions of being an otherworldly, spiritual people who abjured the materialist high rise for the moral high ground.

It cost us dearly on several counts, from delaying the economic miracle to delaying AIDS control. But we've woken up and not only smelled the coffee, but learnt to make a Frappuccino.
Trivial? May be. Offensive? You must be joking. But I am an atheist, how would I know? A religious Hindu may find it offensive.

In that case, should we care?

If Bachi really feels that way, why should she not write it?

May be it doesn't work that way. Since people tend to kill and get killed over religion, must we provoke them?

The issue of free speech intersecting with "religious sentiments" is a really complex one. The day I resolve it in my head, I will have achieved salvation.

By the way, I don't find the Shiva image offensive at all. Hindu Human Rights regards it as desecration but it's purely an aesthetic problem. The icons ('idols' is a politically incorrect term) of Hindu gods have been changing with the times. Hindu Human Rights and their ilk would be surprised that the icons we see and worship today are a legacy of the ninteenth century painter Raja Ravi Verma:
Raja Ravi Varma is perhaps responsible for single-handedly giving modern form and colour to Hindu Gods and Goddesses. He painted them all in vivid colours, with an European tinge in his brush. Popularity of his paintings gave him such authenticity that later versions of Gods were referred to the "original" and either accepted or rejected depending on the level of similarities.
So if The Times of India wants to experiment further with Hindu iconography, as part of its 'materialist' quest of making its paper appealing to urban India's neo-rich youth, who's Hindu Human Rights to stop them? Such pictures are a must for a newspaper that must pretend as though life is a music video which never ends. Your average ponga pandit may not agree.

Here's another problem. Bachi's article online doesn't have that image of Shiva. It must have appeared in the newspaper, though, along with the article. But Hindu Human Rights has also put up the 'objectionable' image online. And I accessed it, liked it, and put it on my MSN IM as well as this blog, thus defeating the very purpose of the Hindu Human Rights website! Similarly, someone who cares a fig about your "religious sentiments" may get ideas by seeing that piece of human clothing above, conveniently made available along with other such 'objectionable' artefacts in the Hindu Human Rights website.

This is a peculiar problem when dealing with what one considers hate speech. Example: if I am writing an essay about how the Sikh community is the butt of all jokes in India and how such stereotyping is objectionable, how can I effectively convey my point without quoting some such joke? But if I quote it, some google searcher will extract the quote, circulate it on sms, without even caring to read that I object to it! Or even if he reads it, he may think I'm just a stupid spoilsport, and would thus have no qualms about cracking Sardarji jokes.

How do you deal with this? Any ideas?

I have a lot more to say about the Hindu Human Rights website. Watch this page.

-- Blogger shaun, 5/03/2005 07:43:00 pm

lakshmi kutty said in an email:

earlier today i read ur 'hate speech/freedom of expression' blog entry and quite liked the shiva image and ur take on this issue! it is quite tricky isnt it, when something enters the 'public sphere/domain'... because then it matters less what intentions were behind it and more what dynamics it creates from that point of entry onwards. but even with all its dangers it's a constant lesson in communication, and it serves to temper one's delusions about the sanctity/seriousness of one's own ideas/feelings, so i'm all for it!


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