Reports of a now failed attempt to get a court in the Siberian town of Tomsk to ban an annotated version of an ancient Indian text used by the Hare Krishna cult led to an almighty furore in India, whose media and politicians vociferously denounced the move.
Top diplomats and senior cabinet ministers of India and Russia had been exercised over the matter. India’s Hindu nationalist groups including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, ever ready to seize upon issues to whip up Hindu wrath against the Congress Party-led government, demanded stern action as well as the declaration of the main text in question, the Bhagavad Gita, as a “national book”.
The Gita recounts a crucial episode in the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, in which Krishna, regarded as a divinity by Hindus, imparts advice to a warrior named Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. That long expose on the nature of the soul and the way in which society has to function, is deemed a vital text by Hindus and by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). The Russian Orthodox Church establishment views the cult, which claims tens of thousands of adherents in the country, with suspicion and wants curbs on Hare Krishna activities, including its Gita text and commentary.
Following these reports from far away Tomsk, India’s parliament came to a standstill with senior ministers heard shouting: “We will not tolerate an insult to Lord Krishna.” The sensation-dependant Indian media was only too pleased to ride the controversy.
On 28 December, the Tomsk court rejected the appeal for a ban.
What few Indian commentators bothered to reflect on amid the unholy din is India’s own penchant for bans and prohibitions. A large number of books, films, theatre productions, paintings and other art works have been prohibited by governments at the central level in New Delhi or in the states or been subjected to violent attacks by fanatical mobs and groups linked to major political parties, with governments looking the other way.
India’s arguably most famous painter, M.F. Husain, and his art works, some depicting Hindu goddesses, were the target of wrath from extremist groups and even leading politicians who failed to protect his freedom of expression. In 2006 he went into exile in Qatar, took up Qatari citizenship and died in London in June 2011. Husain was attacked for depicting goddesses in the nude, although other Indian artists and sculptors too have done so times without number. Many Hindu temples in India and elsewhere feature voluptuous goddesses in all sorts of poses. The entire temple complex of Khajuraho in northern India is devoted to a celebration of Eros. Such arguments fall on the deaf ears of Hindu fanatics whose anti-Muslim or anti-Christian agenda precludes reason.
Some months ago, Gujarat, the home state of India’s father of the nation, banned Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, based on ill-founded reports that it alleged a homosexual relationship. The neighbouring Maharashtra state, of which Bombay is the capital, seriously considered a ban as did the national government. India’s Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, said in March: “The book denigrates the national pride and leadership. We will not tolerate this. We will consider prohibiting the book.” Better sense seems to have prevailed among other leaders in New Delhi, however.
Meanwhile, one of India’s prestigious academic institutions, the Delhi University, controversially removed an essay entitled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations by one of India’s great literary scholars, the late A.K. Ramanujan, from its undergraduate syllabus. The Ramayana is a mythological work popular in various versions throughout India and parts of East Asia, especially Indonesia and Thailand. One patently spurious reason cited was that college lecturers, especially non-Hindus, might find it difficult to teach it with sufficient context. Never mind that one of the foremost scholars of the Ramayana today is the Muslim-born Arshia Sattar, who has translated it from a celebrated Sanskrit version and written a critically hailed commentary, Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish. Leaders of political parties professing secularism kept mum on this move in the capital, presumably fearing the wrath of the fanatical fringe among the nation’s majority Hindu voters.
Some years ago Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by American scholar James Laine was forced to be withdrawn from circulation because the17th century warrior is a hero to Hindus especially in parts of western India.
Acclaimed documentary filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma have had run-ins with India’s film censor board and have had difficulty getting their works shown because they have been critical of Hindu fanaticism, jingoism and war-mongering. Feature filmmaker Deepa Mehta, renowned for her “elements trilogy” — Fire, Earth and Water — faced major trouble at the hands of a Hindu fringe for showing conservative households in poor light. In fact, she was forced to film Water in Sri Lanka.
It is not only the Hindu right that demands and often gets bans imposed. Muslim fundamentalist groups too wield similar influence. India was among the first countries to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, who sought refuge in India, has been kept away from Calcutta, a city whose language and culture are dear to her, as the former Communist government of West Bengal state wanted to appease a group of Muslims who had threatened her.
Sometimes authors, publishers and filmmakers accept censure without a fight, as happened recently when the Central Board of Film Certification asked for the Tibetan flag and Free Tibet slogan to be blurred in a song sequence in the film Rockstar presumably for fear of displeasing powerful neighbour, China. This was complied with even though the censor board’s directive could have been appealed or challenged.
It is this culture of bans and prohibitions that Indians need to introspect upon, instead of indulging in breast-beating over some misguided move in a minor town in a foreign land. As a matter of fact, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is wary of evangelical groups, so too self-styled defenders of Hinduism in India periodically call for a total ban on conversions, a demand that goes against the fundamental right to freedom of belief guaranteed in the constitution and in international human rights treaties the country has ratified.
Indians need to re-read that poem by Rabindranath Tagore, which goes:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;