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Wounded religious sentiments and the law in India

We live in world suffused with offended religious sentiments: depictions of Muhammad in newspaper cartoons and hackneyed films spark violent global protests; courthouse officials in the US South refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of the Supreme Court; and in India, authors threatened by thugs on the Hindu Right  “die” publicly in order to avoid a less metaphorical demise.

Although our natural tendency might be to see religious offence as welling up from some interior core of personal conviction, in each of these cases we could point to factors such as politics, socialization, or the media environment that contribute to, even manufacture, the religious emotions on display. That insight calls into question the idea that these feelings of outrage are natural reactions to a prior offence or insult. Because we truly feel our feelings, we believe strongly in their authenticity, and even when we disagree with someone else’s beliefs, we can understand when they are “offended” by an insult to the things they hold sacred.

The Hindu Right in India has proven masterful at the production and subsequent exploitation of wounded religious sentiments. Political scientist Paul R. Brass has documented the mechanisms of “institutionalized riot systems” in India that systematically incite offended Hindu emotion, trigger large-scale violence against Muslims, and then manipulate the narrative of the riot in the aftermath to depict it as the spontaneous and natural reaction of offended Hindus. The persistent backdrop to these kinds of outbursts is the politics of the Hindu Right–including India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–which portray India as a Hindu nation that must always be vigilant about the “anti-national” activities of its Muslim and Christian residents. Although together they make up 16.5% of the population, Muslims, Christians, and also Dalits (India’s lowest castes) are routinely accused of transgressing Hindu norms, and those accusations lead to real violence. “Love jihad” and eating beef are among the more recent fantasies strategically deployed to stir feelings of outrage among Hindu nationalists.

For writers, the legal force of wounded religious feelings in India came prominently into view in February 2014 when Penguin India announced that, in response to a suit by Dina Nath Batra, an activist on the Hindu Right, it was ceasing production of The Hindus: An Alternative History by University of Chicago historian of religion Wendy Doniger. Calling Doniger “a woman hungry of sex” and accusing her (despite the fact that she is a non-observant Jew) of a “Christian missionary zeal,” Batra charged that Doniger’s book “hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus” through its fixation on erotic elements in Hindu literature. (The Hindus has since been republished in India and it always remained widely available). Among the reasons Penguin cited for what many regarded as a capitulation to bullying by fanatics was the specter of violence against its employees.

Penguin had good reason for its concerns. In a series of highly publicized cases, beginning in the 1990s, “offended” Hindus protested the work of a stream of scholars. They initially focused on non-Indian and non-Hindu ones, although that would eventually change.

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Image by Amy L. Allocco. Used with permission.

First it was Jeffrey J. Kripal for imputing homoerotic impulses to the 19th-century saint Ramakrishna, then Paul B. Courtright for a psychoanalytic interpretation of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, James W. Laine for a critical study of the mythologized medieval king, Shivaji, and A. K. Ramanujan for arguing merely that there was no single, authoritative version of the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana. Death threats were issued, professors were beaten up, libraries were ransacked, precious manuscripts destroyed, and Doniger herself dodged an egg during a protest that broke out at a public lecture. All because of so-called “wounded religious sentiments.”

As is the case with many of India’s 21st-century ills, a healthy measure of the blame for an environment that encourages the production of hurt religious sentiments lies squarely with British colonialism. On the one hand, the very categories that divide communities into “religions” are products of colonial governmentality by foreign rulers with hardly a clue about the degree to which Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others in India shared overlapping identities and religious practices. On the other, always anxious to avoid any domestic conflict that might disrupt their centuries-long transfer of India’s wealth to Europe, the British devised a peculiar statute to curb religious offence that remains on the books today, a favorite tool of the Hindu Right for attacking their opponents, whether they are Muslim butchers or college professors.

Statute 295-A of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” The law was enacted in 1927 to restrain the public insults to Islam that were stock tools in the preaching of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu organization dedicated to an India purified of what they deemed to be foreign influence and religious superstition. Rather than curbing violent confrontation between opposing religious groups, however, the law fueled it by creating an environment in which violent displays of wounded sentiments served as evidence of an opponent’s criminal speech. A statute to protect against hurt feelings actually produced them; wounded religious sentiment, we have discovered, emerges from the very legal framework that seeks to stamp it out.

Despite a worldwide outcry by scholars, activists, and journalists following Penguin’s withdrawal of The Hindus, the colonial law remains in place, now protecting the world’s oldest religion from the grave threat posed by television comedians. Its existence ensures the continued production of hurt sentiments and the violence they engender and guarantees that the exploration of India’s rich and complex religious fabric will continue to be, for the moment, a risky business.

Featured image credit: Rishikesh Temple India by Devanath. Public domain via Pixabay.

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