Perils of obsession with politics

Rohit Dhankar

[There have been many controversies regarding curbing freedom of speech recently. Four of them are used here as examples: Aamir Khan’s statement on intolerance, Professor Vohra’s quotations from a European scholar, cartoon in Lokmat in which “Muhammad is messenger of Allah” written on a piggy-bank, and Kamalesh Tiwari’s calling Muhammad a homosexual and rapist. And a question is raised: why have we responded to them differently? How far that differential response is justified? The blame is placed at the door of a mistaken theory of relationship between politics on one side and knowledge and morality on the other.]

Knowledge and morality are socio-politically determined, goes the theory. The term is “determined” and not constructed or influenced. If it were only “constructed” it would mean formulated in interaction with others and in a given political environment. If it were “influenced” it would mean shaped up to a certain extent by social and political consideration. Both would leave some space and hope for some more objective criteria for calling something ‘knowledge’ and accepting a moral principle. But it is “determined”, that means there is nothing beyond political considerations and there is no hope for objectivity.

Politics, as we all know, is concerned with power and self-interest of individuals and groups. Power is, to put as mildly as possible, capability to influence others’ against their will and against their own interests. And interest, in this theory, as we all know are determined by our material conditions; again ‘determined’ not only shaped and influenced.

Of course, this is a simplification of a particular theory about human ways of thinking and behaving. But I hope this captures the core. Let’s see how we Indians use this theory with regard to freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution. I will consider four cases to understand how this theory operates in the Indian intellectual mind.

Legal position on freedom of speech

Before we get to our examples, a cursory understanding of the legal position on freedom of speech would be necessary. I am saying “cursory understanding” because I am not a lawyer, just an ordinary citizen making sense of some articles in the Constitution of India and Indian Penal Code.

The constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech. In Article 19(1) it states: “All citizens shall have the right—(a) to freedom of speech and expression; …”. And then by the way of clarification defines limits to this freedom in clause 19(2): “Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, 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.”

So the right to freedom of speech has limits. The state can impose those limits through making laws to safeguard certain things, “public order” included in them. And existing laws, including Indian Penal Code (IPC), can also put limits to this freedom.

Paraphrased for the current purpose Article 153 of IPC reads “153. Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot—if rioting be committed—if not committed — Whoever malignantly, or wantonly, by doing anything which is illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offence of rioting to be committed, shall, if the offence of rioting be committed in consequence of such provocation, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both; and if the offence of rioting be not committed, with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.”

This is regarding provocation for rioting “malignantly” and “wantonly” by doing something “illegal”, whether the riot is actually caused or not, such provocation remains an offence punishable by the law. The terms “malignantly”, “wantonly”, “with intent” and “provocation” are not difficult to understand; but may not be easy to establish. With the judicial and law-enforcing machinery like ours this difficulty in establishing is more likely to go against the accused than being used in his/her favour.

“Provocation” has a very serious added difficulty, it places the citizen legitimately exercising her freedom of speech in at the mercy of an unknown citizen who may get ‘provoked’ unduly, which seems to be the case in many instances in the current mood of the country.

The Article 153A creates further difficulties for someone who wants a free-spirited public debate. Here I am focusing on freedom of speech in concern with religious matters, therefore am quilting only the relevant part of the article. “153A. Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, … and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony —(1) Whoever—(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, … or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, … groups …, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, …, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity, … shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

Now I will not argue that this leaves very little of the right of freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution in Article 19, because it is quite obvious. I would rather examine how we Indians (particularly the ‘intellectual’ variety) react to attacks on freedom of speech; be the attack from the state or the politicians or the common public. In this I will take four recent incidents and public response to them. The incidents I am using are (1) Aamir Kha’s views on intolerance, (2) Professor Vohra’s speech in a seminar, (3) the piggy-bank cartoon, and (3) Kamalesh Tiwari’s pamphlet (?) on Muhammad.

The Aamir Khan episode

Aamir Khan in a very balanced and sane interview highlighted certain things which worry him. The most repeated part of what Aamir Khan said is: “I do feel there is a sense of insecurity. When I sit at home and talk to Kiran. (Wife) Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet… growing sense of despondency. You feel depressed, you feel low.. why is it happening? This feeling exists in me too.”

Let’s note a few things in this:

  • He said nothing about any particular community, religious or otherwise. He was talking about general atmosphere in the country.
  • In the given atmosphere and recent controversies it was easy to come to the conclusion that the intolerance referred to was from a section of Hindu community (usually called ‘Hindutva’ section) and the BJP.
  • He might be wrong in his assessment of the situation, he might even be pretending, but he was well within his right of freedom of speech.

Let’s also note the reaction against his statements:

  • There was no reaction or threat of prosecution from any government.
  • There was some condemnation from the official spokesperson f BJP, but well within the sane limits of expressing one’s views, be they right or wrong.
  • There were usual rubble rousing and highly provocative statement from some minor BJP politicians. Within the limits of law (as far as I could see) but morally depraved.
  • There was a strong and sometimes offensive attack and trolling on social media.

The response from the vocal, intelligent and liberal India:

  • Strong counter attack on social media, sometimes almost as offensive as the opponent group. With equal kind of trolling.
  • Many articles in the media written by intellectuals which came in defence of Aamir Khan and condemned the people attacking him. Rightly so.
  • Accusations on the government despite of the government doing nothing against Aamir Khan.

The strange case of Professor Vohra

Professor Vohra, a well-respected academic and retired professor of philosophy from a highly regarded university was speaking in a seminar held by another university on inter-faith dialogue. In an academic paper he was trying to explore how to interpret faith from in-side and out-side which can be objective and more conducive dialogue. In this process within the well-respected Indian (actually world over) tradition of debate he quoted some foreign scholars as examples of how NOT to interpret Hinduism and defended Hinduism against their, in his view, unreasonable interpretation.

Professor Vohra quoted some interpretations of Hindu gods and rituals by outsiders at length. I am taking one of them, though at length, to my mind most erroneous: “Let me now take up the specific cases of those of our contemporary ‘others’ who have used ‘particularly Eurocentric categories to analyse Hindu religion and folklore’. The first that comes to mind is the description of Lord Ganesha by Paul Courtright. In his book Ganesha Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings[i]  he begins with the elephant’s head of Ganesha for his analysis. He says, “from a psychoanalytical perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Shiva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purpose.  . . . The elephant’s head is also a mask, and, as it is a mask’s purpose simultaneously to reveal and to conceal, it both disguises and expresses aggression inherent in the story. So Ganesha takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated phallus – ascetic and benign – whereas Shiva’s is ‘hard’ (urdhavalinga), erotic and destructive”[ii].

The cause of Ganesha’s celibacy is traced for opposite reasons to both his father and mother. He cannot “compete with his father, a notorious womaniser, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter”[iii]. That Ganesha is an incestuous son is traced to the following anecdote: “Once Parvati asked Ganesha whom he would like to marry; he replied, ‘Someone exactly like you, Mummy’. And Mummy got outraged by such an openly incestuous wish and cursed him with everlasting celibacy”[iv].

Let me remind that these are not Professor Vohra’s views, he is quoting others with references from published and available books. His own views are as follows: Such a partial, biased, superficial approach can be called nothing else but unethical, misleading and highly irresponsible. It is because of such uninformed explanations by the others, the outsiders that the insider is hurt. Such explanations cannot be said to be either objective or scientific as they are based on a one sided vision of the observer and do not take into account the totality of the concerned lived life.”

The reaction against Professor Vohra:

  • ABVP started a strong protest.
  • Some academics including two VCs considered this very objectionable.
  • The Rajasthan Government (through one of it’s Ministers) ordered an FIR against Professor Vohra, which I underside duly filed.
  • There seems to be a talk of presentations in seminars organised by universities in Rajasthan to be submitted in written beforehand.

The response from the vocal, intelligent and liberal India:

  • So far have seen only a few articles written in favour of Professor Vohra’s academic freedom and his right to freedom of speech.
  • Social media revolutionaries completely ignored it.
  • National press took some note, but then forgot it.

The piggy bank

There was an article in Marathi paper Lokmat on ISIS funding. In which the declaration that “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” is written on the nose of piggy-bank in Arabic. This same claim figures on the flag of ISIS and that is why the artist used it to indicate ISIS funding in the cartoon.

As a result there were protests from Muslims in several cities of Maharashtra and some vandalism as well. The Lokmat has to render an unconditional apology. And perhaps some action against the artist is also taken, but I am not sure of this.

The social media and intellectual variety of Indians completely ignored the episode. It did not concern them much.

The unknown case of Kamalesh Tiwari

Dianik Bhaskar on 30th November 2015 published a news item, some parts of it are as follows (my translation): “In response to Azam Khan Hindu Mahasabha has declared Pagambar Muhammad as gay. They have claimed that Muhammad sahab was the first homosexual in the world.”


“Hindu Mahasabha has issues a statement through a press note. They have said that Muhammad sahab was not only homosexual he was also a rapist. He was also a terrorist. The karyakari adhyaksha of Hindu Mahasabha Kamalesh Tiwari has said that Muhammad sahab had intimate relations with his friend Abu Bakr, because of that Abu Bakr’s 9 year old daughter became a rape victim.”

This statement from Tiwari came after Azam Khan said that RSS leaders are gay, that is why they do not marry. Some say that Tiwari is working president of local unit of Hindu Mahasabha. The national vice-president of Hindu Mahasabha denies this claim.

It seems from the Hindi press that Kamalesh Tiwari is arrested for this statement. There are several protests from Muslim community that demand capital punishment to Tiwari for blasphemy. There are also protest marches from some Hindus demanding release of him.

The social media and intellectuals have largely ignored the issue.

Politics as determining criteria

I have no intention of communicating that Aamir Khan, Professor Vohra, Piggy-bank and Kamalesh Tiwari cases are at the same level in their claims, their social implications and their intellectual content. Aamir is expressing his concerns on an issue of national importance in a very balanced manner. Professor Vohra is analysing in the best academic tradition how religious dialogue should be conducted and how not. The Lokmat was perfectly within its rights in publication of the article and the cartoon. Kamalesh Tiwari is trading insult for insult, with intention of communicating tit-for-tat. But as far as state of freedom of speech in the country goes all four cases merit attention and comment.

So why have the intellections responded differently in these cases? The legal provision leave no doubt that all but Tiwari were clearly within the bounds of the law. There could be some doubt about Tiwari but if we want to protect freedom of speech then we also have to recognise that response to what Tiwari said should have been in the form of counter argument, and not arrest.

It seems that politics as the ultimate measure of truth and acceptable behaviours is the only explanation.

Supporting Aamir Khan against the so-called Hindutva forced fits with the narrative of resisting intolerance; therefore, full support to him and a lot of noise. That noise provides opportunity to push the political agenda.

Professor Vohra’s case actually deserves support more than Aamir’s if one looks at the attack on academic freedom and its possible disastrous results. But professor Vohra may not be on the right side of the politics and then he is defending Hinduism; which is politically incorrect. Therefore, very little reaction to his harassment by the government.

In the case of piggy-bank cartoon the matter is even more serious: a newspaper had to tender apology for doing what it ought to be doing. There was intolerant reaction from the mobs, and vandalism. But no reaction from the intellectual India. Why? The politics of the moment cannot accept fair principles; application of the right to free speech has to be calibrated to suit the politics. If the right is exercised in a manner that Muslim sentiment is heart, it is incorrect use of the right; because the best democracy is that which safe-guard the rights of its minority. But if it is exercised in a manner where the majority Hindu community objects then they are being intolerant; and the right needs to be protected; because if one does not resist that there is a grave danger of majoritarianism.

The Tiwari case is as intentional and deliberate as organising public beef (cow meet, not buffalo variety) festivals. The supposed to be Hindu hurt feelings because of such festivals can be as genuine or fake as hurt feeling to Muslims due to calling Muhammad a homosexual and rapist. However, in India we will allow beef festivals but not a derogatory statement about Muhammad. Again the political determination of truth and acceptable behaviour in play.

The problem I want to raise through these examples is: can we do away with subjective biases and double standards if we accept the theory roughly articulate in the beginning of this article? I don’t think so. To stem intolerance and to protect freedom of speech we need a better and more objective set of criteria than politics can provide us with. I have a suspicion (though am not sure) that the real reason behind the seeming double standards in our intellectual world is neither hypocrisy nor dishonesty as some unfairly accuse. The real reason is the theory of political determination of knowledge and morality. We need to examine it more closely. This theory obliterates difference between knowledge and belief, and undermines independent critical thinking. In the absence of some reasonably defendable criteria the authority of some people becomes all important; and that encourages bhed-chaal, mindless following of the flock. That is precisely what we seem to be doing.


[i] Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.

[ii] Ibid., p. 121.

[iii] Ibid., p. 110.

[iv] Ibid.

2 Responses to Perils of obsession with politics

  1. Anonymous says:

    Rohitji, what you say above seems to be a confirmation of the theory you are arguing against. People (in this case Indian intellectuals) are taking standpoints according to their politics. A seeming validation of the theory. Whereas you are saying it SHOULD NOT BE so, and there SHOULD BE some other objective criteria for deciding public morality. So, you seem to be saying, because the theory seems to be correct, we must FIND other ways such that it doesn’t do harm to justice. So, you seem to be saying, justice and morality must come from philosophical arguments, not political ones. (I don’t understand how knowledge appears in your argument, when it seems to me, you are only speaking about defending morality).



    • rdhankar says:

      Yes, Ashumala ji, I have tried to illustrate how this kind of theory may operate. Though it is no proof, just illustrations.

      You are right, the article is mostly about moral/legal decision making and action. But such decisions also depend on what supposed to be ‘facts’ one accepts and what are rejected. That also is determined by the same political considerations.

      I do want to say that politics cannot be a good guide in either knowledge or morality. But I am not saying it has no influence. Also, philosophy is not the only source for finding objective criteria; but philosophy may contribute.


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