'Yuganta: The End of an Epoch' by Irawati Karve (1905-70) was published in the late 1960s, first in Marathi and later in English translated by the author herself. A distinguished sociologist and professor, Dr Karve was a prominent intellectual of her time. In keeping with her training and temperament, Yuganta was an interpretation of the Mahabharata, minus the veneration.
It dove deep into the epic using a rational framework without for a moment forgetting that its characters were in the end, human beings, making decisions in a certain context. It interrogated the doings of some of its main characters and did not shy away from pointing out their errors of judgment, their selfishness at times and thereby shone a very different light on them.
Fast forward to the present day.
Does a book that critically interrogates the Indian epics, passes judgment on some of its main characters, questions their motivations and puts the many hallowed ideas that they contain under the scanner, stand a chance of publication today? More importantly, even if one were to assume that it would somehow be published, would it stand a chance of an objective read? Or would it be lacerated in all sorts of forums, its author trolled on social media and cases slapped on her by all sorts of ‘hurt’ folks from Assam to Gujarat?
The reality that stares us in the face is not a pretty picture.
Is it the case that our great republic has descended into the Dark Ages with folks outraging at will and going hammer and tongs at writers, filmmakers, poets, comedians … indeed anyone who chooses to look at things through a ‘different’ and unconventional lens? Are the media and judiciary in response to what they perceive is the mood of society at large aiding this sort of behaviour?
Let us dive deeper.
Not only religion
It is not merely a religion that elicits this sort of emotion. True, heightened religiosity has resulted in a profusion of cases that revolve around religion. But hurt extends itself into other societal spheres as well.
Consider what a woman who recently went against the grain was subject to. Rajini Chandy, a 69-year-old woman from Kochi, Kerala, featured in an unconventional photo shoot wearing western clothing, seemingly defying her age and the kind of behaviour ‘expected’ of those society terms ‘senior citizens’. Denunciation was swift. She was quickly branded with the ‘s word’ besides being told to ‘act her age’ by staying at home and reading the Bible.
Society’s moral guardians could not brook this sort of ambush. Their sentiments were ‘hurt’. Their conception of society’s ordering had been challenged. A single such spark could set off a bush fire that would bring the whole societal edifice crashing down. Hence, the use of a variety of weapons to target the offender – gender, age and religion were all invoked to crush the dissident.
The individual at the centre of the controversy might perhaps emerge unscathed, but the larger goal of sending a message to those who were considering such behaviour had been adequately accomplished. ‘Cease and desist’ decreed the High Priests!
Being ‘hurt’ has become the go-to expression to censor thinking, forcing people to toe the line and thereby, in the telling of the ‘injured’ parties, ensuring that societal equilibrium (if such a thing even exists) is maintained. Hence, the profusion of actions that while claiming hurt are, in effect, acting against unconventional thinking so as to maintain the status quo.
A rationalist who carries out a crusade against superstition and pseudo-science is shot dead. Women who question a temple’s practice of prohibiting them are labelled ‘sluts’ and subjected to other indignities. Dalits who question their exclusion from public spaces are beaten up. A TV show ‘Tandav’ is hauled up for being disrespectful. A textbook change is initiated since it portrayed a certain caste in a bad light. While all of these instances are connected to religion, equally they are connected to the desire to keep gender and caste roles static since those in power fear being displaced. This is as much a power game as it is a religious one.
In the minds of the powerful, clear demarcated roles for castes, genders and all sorts of other people have been ordained. Everyone is expected to stick to these paths and not wander off them. The price for straying could be a court case, a public beating and in extreme cases, even death.
The climbing numbers of ‘hurt sentiments’ incidents is paralysing free speech and action. Creative work of all sorts – writing, satire, film-making, poetry, painting – are in mortal danger of being targeted for the mildest perceived slight. That creativity is intrinsically linked with challenging societal conventions is something that is being left unsaid.
The way ahead
How then can a society resolve this dilemma?
One way of attempting to resolve this existential crisis is to foreground our identity as citizens in preference to other identities. This is not a plea to do away with these other identities, but more to examine incidents that are perceived to be ‘hurtful’ through the lens of citizenship duties first. As citizens and participants in the democratic process, should we adopt this shotgun method of slapping cases on our fellow citizens or judging them harshly when our sentiments are supposedly ‘hurt’? As citizens, those who are dissenting are exercising their right to speech and action, a right that is ours too. Just as those who favour the status quo draw their legitimacy from unwritten societal mores or religious texts written in another era, those who dissent draw theirs from the Constitution, a living, a contemporary document that favours science and encourages doubt and questioning.
If tradition is to be upheld in the views of some, they must speak up for it and make its case through legitimate ways. How does harassing another citizen who chooses to disregard tradition make the case for tradition?
Free speech and action are perhaps the only holy cows in a modern republic. Religion, societal conventions and other such codes are not unimportant, but one cannot ride on them and use them as vehicles of harassment.
(Karthik Venkatesh is a Bengaluru-based editor and writer)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.