The debate on the poster of Leena Manimekalai’s new documentary film Kaali, depicting the Hindu goddess Kali smoking a cigarette, underlines an India-specific ‘politics of hurt sentiments’. This version of politics relies heavily on the collective victimhood of a religious community and creates an impression that faith does not permit any kind of artistic expression.
It is asserted that artistic expressions intentionally disregard religious sentiments to hurt the feelings of believers. Precisely for this reason, the politics of hurt sentiments always operates in the ‘freedom of speech versus religious sentiments’ framework.
In my view, this faith-art binary is highly misleading. And the outrage is also carefully orchestrated to sharpen religious divide and accentuate community victimhood. To understand the nuanced functioning of this politics, there is a need to ask a few basic questions: What is the mechanism by which a book, painting, poster, film, or even an old useless newspaper, is transformed into an object of religious concern? How is a discourse of ‘hurt sentiments’ produced and sustained? And finally, who are the actors that claim to represent the sentiments of a particular group?
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Three political forms of hurt sentiments
Broadly speaking, there are at least three different kinds of issues that determine the contours of the politics of hurt sentiments in India.
The discovery of any art object as a ‘threat’ to religious feelings is the first and perhaps the most dominant expression of the politics of hurt sentiments. In this case, a conscious attempt is made to identify a work of art or a particular aspect of it that could be highlighted as a direct attack on the religious beliefs of a particular community.
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja, M. F. Hussain’s Saraswati paintings, and now, Manimekalai’s Kaali poster are deliberately ‘discovered’ to make them controversial public objects. In such instances, the ‘intention’ of an artist/intellectual is problematised to claim that the particular work of art is created primely to offend a specific group of believers.
Transforming everyday life into conflicts of civilisations is another version of hurt politics. In this case, the mundane, usual, and ordinary aspects of our social existence are reinterpreted to discover potential political conflicts. The heated debates on azaan, namaz, and animal sacrifice on Eid al-Adha are good examples. This version of hurt politics emphasises and projects a seemingly inherent contradiction between Islam and Hinduism to justify the argument that a conflict between Hindus and Muslims is always natural and inevitable. It is made to appear as if the mere existence of Muslims in India is sufficient enough to offend Hindu sentiments.
Finally, there is a violent expression of the politics of hurt sentiments. The lynching of Muslims in the name of cow worship in recent years and the beheading of an innocent Hindu tailor in Udaipur to supposedly protect the honour of Prophet Muhammad demonstrate that such politics may take a brutal form as well.
The Udaipur killing follows a specific pattern. The murderers singled out a particular individual and attacked him in an organised manner. Interestingly, they did not merely kill him to express their hurt sentiments. They also filmed the entire episode and publicised it on social media. This brutal demonstration of violence is used rather instrumentally to create an impression that Hinduism and Islam represent two different and conflicting civilisations.
It is worth noting that there is a remarkable similarity between the Udaipur incident and the killing of a 50-year-old Muslim labourer, Mohammed Bhatta Sheikh, in 2017. Sheikh was hacked to death and burnt alive in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district. Shambhu Nath Raigar, the accused, also recorded the killing and circulated it widely on social media. He too evoked the hurt sentiments of Hindus to justify this gruesome act.
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Let us look at the ways in which these three versions of the politics of hurt sentiments are played out. Although each case has its own specific performance trajectory, one can certainly detect a broad three-layered apparatus that provides a background for the smooth dramatisation and execution of such politics.
The first level of this apparatus is the site where an ‘idea of hurt’ is turned into an event. The attack on art galleries, seminars, conferences, film screenings, and the lynching of innocent individuals show how an imagined idea of hurt is expressed in concrete terms. This event-centric performance empowers the stakeholders to legitimise their existence as representatives of a group/community.
The appropriation of such events by the breaking news-oriented media is the second level where a highly localised event is further changed into a national concern for a public debate. At this crucial level of intervention, the sphere of stakeholders expands enormously. It opens up new possibilities for the national-level elites to offer larger political perspectives to these random and virtually insignificant events. Finally, at the third level, the political parties come into the picture. They redefine media-driven debates to articulate electorally convenient positions.
The Ram Mandir issue in Ayodhya is a classic example that explains the working of this informal apparatus. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) rediscovered the political potential in the Ayodhya dispute in the early 1980s. The 1984 Ratha Yatra and the reopening of the Babri Masjid in 1986 were the key events that gave legitimacy to the notion of Hindus’ hurt sentiments. The media, including the state-run Doordarshan, played a significant role in creating a discourse of conflict. And finally, the political parties appropriated it to initiate a new narrative of electoral politics: Communalism versus secularism.
A very similar trajectory can be observed in the Rushdie controversy. The Rajiv Gandhi government banned Satanic Verses to appease Muslim religious elites. For common Muslims in India, Rushdie and Ruhollah Khomeini were rather unknown names at that time. However, within a span of two years, they were being mobilised by the religious elite to protect the dignity of the Prophet.
The politics of hurt sentiments is certainly going to survive. We can be sure of it by seeing how hurt is being weaponised on all sides. It empowers the Hindutva groups to reproduce what Suhas PaIshikar calls the ‘Hindutva hegemony’. At the same time, it gives ample space to non-Hindutva groups to produce, create and appropriate newer forms of Hindu sentiments.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)