The needless controversy surrounding the Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed Padmavati is just an episode in the Indian saga of appeasement of the sanctimonious, the mischievous and the tetchy. For too long the enemies of liberty have been dealt with kid gloves. Filmmakers, authors, journalists and, most shamelessly, politicians have humoured the self-appointed guardians of morality, public order, decency, etc.
Therefore, the anti-freedom villains need to be confronted. This can be done by exposing the fallacy of the concept of ‘hurting sentiments’ and comprehending its baleful effects on a liberal democracy.
In our country, wrong questions are asked when somebody cries that their sentiments or feelings have been hurt because of some movie, song, book, etc. Public debate revolves around such questions as: Whether there is any merit in the protests? Did the artist or author actually do something offensive? Were sentiments really hurt? Were the demands made for a ban just? Why should a movie be banned when it has been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification?
But the fundamental question is: How valid are the demands for proscription based on the principle of hurt sentiments or feelings? The Indian Constitution imposes “reasonable restrictions” on the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The restrictions can be imposed for the maintenance of “the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
But the restrictions ought to be reasonable; nowhere in the Constitution is it mentioned that hurting somebody’s sentiments can be a ground for curtailment of the freedom of expression.
The grounds restricting the freedom of expression have to be reasonable and not sentimental, not only because it is the constitutional position but also because reasons can be objectively debated, while sentiments and feelings can’t be. Merriam Webster describes ‘sentiment’ as ‘an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling’, ‘predilection’, ‘a specific view or notion’, ‘opinion’, ‘an idea colored by emotion’, etc. Similarly, ‘feeling’ is defined as, among other things, ‘an emotional state or reaction’ and ‘often unreasoned opinion or belief’.
It is crystal clear that the defining feature of sentiments and feelings is subjectivity. This is the reason that while many Hindus say that some of MF Husain’s paintings hurt their feelings and thus should be banned, many of their co-religionists don’t feel offended by the paintings concerned. There is no objective standard that can lead to the decision that the feelings of the tetchy can be privileged over those of the tolerant.
It is true that there are legal provisions, for example Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, that criminalise anything deliberately and maliciously “outraging the religious feelings of any class”. But, as argued above, these sections militate against the spirit as well as letter of the Constitution.
The law and public administration are moulded, or should be moulded, by objective realities. Poetry is to sentiments and subjectivity what political philosophy is to statecraft, jurisprudence, and objectivity. In India, however, the founding principles of polity have grown poetic in nature since Independence.
It is not surprising that sentimentality and sanctimoniousness, those illegitimate children of poetry, figure highly in the manifestos, speeches, statements, and announcements of political parties. The upshot is that reason and informed arguments have taken a back seat in public discourse. It is sentimentalism all the way.
Without the ballasts of rationality, poise and gravity, sentiments behave like malfunctioning robots; fortuitous combinations of circuits make their working arbitrary and often dangerous. Unbridled sentimentalism occasions the basest human instincts, grossest emotions, and stupidest ideas; it promotes the proclivity to capitulate to the cantankerous and the intractable; and it inevitably results in politicians’ covenants with self-righteous charlatans and pious goons.
All in the name of not hurting sentiments. The biggest casualty, of course, is the freedom of expression. Sentimentalism also pollutes the public discourse; some stark facts are lost sight of.
For instance, millions of Indians have travelled to Western countries where they get exposed to writings and audio-visual depictions slamming, ridiculing and blaspheming all religions, often in the crudest manner. But there is hardly any report of any Indian Hindu, Muslim or Sikh vandalising a cinema hall, exhibition, or literary festival. Why is it that their sentiments – which overwhelm them to the extent of provoking them to beat artists in India – don’t get hurt in the US, UK, or France?
The answer is simple: They know that there would be very unpleasant consequences. For the rule of law is a reality in Western countries – not a slogan as in India. It is as it ought to be in a liberal democracy: anybody can say or do anything so long as they don’t harm others.
In our country, on the other hand, democracy stands on its head: professional protesters can hurt a filmmaker or any other creative person physically and financially so long as they can convince the powers that be that the action was the result of ‘hurt sentiments’. It’s worse than that: often, the enemies of freedom also get immunity and patronage from those who matter.
It’s time democracy, as it exists, was turned upside down or more precisely right side up; it’s time the concept of hurt sentiments and offended feelings was discarded.