In search of liberals

By Quamar Ashraf,

Vir Sanghvi’s article, ‘The Curious Case of Indian Liberals’ in his Sunday’s Counterpoint column needs to be analyzed objectively. He has unjustifiably criticized liberals for their approach on issues that do not directly concern the subject—freedom of expression.

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To put it precisely, the issue of women reservation bill or BJP’ love with Varun Gandhi is purely of political nature and should be viewed accordingly. Indeed, BJP’s love with Varun Gandhi does not bar the party to oppose Emergency. A son may not necessarily buy the views of his father or vice versa.

Sanghvi’s condemnations of liberals for duality in view of Nepali and Bangladeshi migration workers too are equally ill-assessed. For, there are intrinsic differences between Bangladeshi migrants and Nepali migrants in the face of spate of terrorist strikes in the eastern region and other parts of India. Liberalism without logic and reason does not have any place in modern society. Individual freedom mustn’t make one insensitive towards other individuals or groups. His idea of liberalism explicitly seeks complete freedom, to put it in another word, wilderness, at the cost of illogically hurting the sentiments of millions. Not possible in civilized world.

He has, however, rightly questioned the purpose of women reservation bill. For, if the purpose of the Bill is to provide adequate representation of women, then the focus should be laid on them only, and not on their castes. A woman from either backward caste or disadvantaged section is after all a woman which will only help the cause of women’s empowerment. Rather, it would be beneficial for disadvantage groups as well as the women simultaneously. For, purpose of an action is judged by the intention.

But, unfortunately he ignored the same measure while dealing with M F Hussain’s nude painting of a Hindu deity or visual depiction of the last Prophet of Islam. Mixing these issues are not factually justified and should be viewed altogether differently. As far as nude depiction of a Hindu deity by Hussain is concerned, much of identity-politics is mixed. A ‘Muslim’ painting a ‘Hindu’ deity is one reason of the outburst. If the protest against the painting is really based on religious belief, then it must be substantiated with scriptures or sayings. But, I believe, even if the scriptures are silent, there has to be some decency in depiction of a woman, leave a deity alone. And the decency is decided by the collective conscience of a society. Hundreds of nude portrayals of Hindu deities are scattered, but they are the asset of history and should be perceived in the then socio-religious context. By and large in our social setting, nude depiction of any woman, for that matter, is perceived as bad. Indian constitution also approves of this, of course, with some ifs and buts. His suggestion that those hurt by Hussain’s painting should not watch is naïve. After all, an art is not made to keep within the confinement of any boundary. This is greater damage to the art itself. And the painting of a Hindu deity was, I suppose, primarily made to communicate those who identify or linked themselves with it. However, as far as Islam is concerned, it is totally opposed to paintings of any living being. Thus, Hussain’s painting has nothing to do with Islam.

Further, Sanghvi goes on to raise a hypothetical situation about the visual depiction of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). The prophet’s ideology, or say Islam, is well-defined and documented. Without doubt, Islam is strictly opposed to Prophet’s visual depiction in any form and the Muslim world over adhered to it. Despite knowing the fact, if somebody does it, it is bound to hurt Muslims’ sentiment. First of all, visual representation of the Prophet is not possible. For, there are set of images of known personalities in people’s mind based on the imagination of the artists who paint them first. Nobody in recorded memory has ever seen Ram, but Hindus worship his idol perceiving Ram. In fact, it is an imagination of the first artist who made the sculptor/idol of Ram perceiving him like that.

Then, human being’s innate desire to worship an image paved the way for idolatry which Islam strictly prohibits. So Muslims never felt the need for any picture as worshipping even the Prophet is not permitted. If one really wants to paint prophet’s picture, he can do it simply by inscribing prophet’s name on any picture sporting beard and turban. But this is not enough, I suppose.

There is certainly possibility of differences in human existence. But how the differences should be criticized and communicated has to be guarded by utter civility. The Danish cartoon missed it. No society, in modern times, can afford to close the door of criticism. But, equally, there is a set of language and manner to express differences. The modern civilized society approves of it, with a few aberrations. The case of Hindu-Muslim in the country going along for centuries with their quite separate religious identities is a unique example of mutual regard. One is totally opposed to idolatry, called as (butshikan, idol breaker) the other is idolater, called as (butparast, idol worshipper). Both are sensitive to each other’s feeling. The degree of sensitivity, however, determines the values of a society.

The cliché ‘freedom of expression’ is too obscure to define. It can be plainly maintained that it must be guaranteed but not at the cost of questioning and obliterating the very existence of an individual’s identity and his moral, social and political lineage. Even in modern world, every individual or group has his national heroes and symbols. Any criticism, let alone indecent one, of these symbolic icons can evoke unrest and mar relations.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)