OF SENTIMENT AND CENSORSHIP
THE STATE OF HURT
Edited by Rina Ramdev, Sandhya Devesan Nambiar and Debaditya Bhattacharya
Price: Rs 895
The easiest thing to do, perhaps in our part of the world, is to hurt someone’s sentiment. It requires almost no effort at all. All one needs is to either write or speak or paint. And remarkably, it has huge potential to become a national issue overnight, leading to violence and legal action. Ironically, most of the laws that are used in these cases are ideally designed to protect the marginalized and powerless. However if one feels that it is only the sentiments of the overtly religious that get hurt, then one stands to be mistaken. One can but take the latest case of Tanmay Bhat, who won the ire of many on social media for making fun of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. The kind of attention that it received in the media and the society at large made one doubt if there were any real issues before the nation. Or for that matter, the discussions around the film ‘Udta Punjab’ were equally dreary. But this wasn’t the first or the last case to have achieved such a reaction. And this is what makes the issue of hurt sentiment important enough to be discussed properly, looking into the different theoretical aspects as well as practical dimensions.
Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurtis a timely compilation of 16 painstakingly researched papers written by academics, artists, lawyers and activists. It covers the entire gamut of issues related to hurt sentiment and censorship. Divided into six parts, it critically examines the politics, sociology, economy as well lawfulness across region, religion and ideologies. “The claim to hurt has become most easily recognizable as the face of, and force behind all forms of fundamentalism, regulating the public sphere and its now excessive mediatization. To put it rather simply, the prolonged history of censorship and legal-legislative curbs on free speech has made it the most predictable experience of print-modernity now,” note the editors in their comprehensive introduction. The editors are of the view that it is not only important to articulate and discuss it within disconnected and closed groups of academia but also dialogue with the civil society at large. The chapters included in this volume raise fundamental questions and try to address them systematically in a very dispassionate manner.
Siddharth Narrain in the chapter titled, The Harm in Hate Speech Laws through his research traces the history of debates around hate speech in India and demonstrates the fact that these have been part of court proceedings and legislatures since 1920. However, what he finds new is that, “the government adapting, and sometimes expanding these laws gradually, at the expense of any genuine freedom to criticize or debate.” And in this regard, he notes “the internet has brought with it deep suspicion and laws that are even broader than what existed, wide in their sweep, attempting to encompass any situation of religious, ethnic, or other tension.” According to Narrain, the problem with hate speech laws in India is multiple. It not just the way it is (mis)used but also the manner in which the law is it itself implicated in the incitement of hatred. And this makes the problem even more complex.
Anup Dhar, poses very basic yet crucial questions in his paper aptly titled, “What, If The Hurt is ‘Real’? Psyche, Neighbor, and Intimate Violence”. It tries to examine both the experience as well as the response to hurt. He is quite right in suggesting that the ‘nature of response—however problematic, however non-Left, not-so-Left-like—cannot drown altogether or render redundant the ‘truth’ of the experience of hurt or the need to attend, even if painstakingly, to the sometimes longstanding nature of the experience of hurt.” To explain his arguments, he cites examples from real life such as, the experience of domestic violence, of being untouchable, the of being poor, and the experience of being minoritized and branded ‘terrorist’. However, he is quick to add that, this is not to suggest that responses can’t be examined.
Discussing the question of free speech and censorship, Krirsha Menon, in her chapter she deals with the nuances of hate and hurt. The author points out towards the perils of deflecting every concern raised by the ‘hurt group’ or voices of discomfort in to the issue of free speech and censorship. In order to illustrate this, she draws our attention towards Ambedkar cartoon controversy, in which it was presented as if “Dalits do not have reasoned arguments against the cartoon but only an emotional and passionate response to it”. While the author recognizes the need to have free speech governance, she is of view that, “in an equal society (like ours)… the state need not to be the sovereign body in charge of this, it is for the citizens to decide the appropriate code and norms in response to specific issues and context arrived at not by banning, burning, or censoring but by listening to multiple voices and debating.” This is one of the most sensible and pragmatic suggestions advanced in the volume. And it should be further discussed so that a new jurisprudence around hate and hurt, sense and sensibility and free speech and censorship can be developed.
(The reviewer is an activist and writer.
He tweets @MahtabNama; views personal)