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Intolerance of tolerance

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

In a democracy, you can’t threaten to kill people who hurt your feelings.

In an unfortunate confluence of events, last week’s anti-American violence across the Muslim world over a purportedly ‘blasphemous’ Youtube video coincided with the death threat by extremists in Nepal against an artist for paintings deemed sacrilegious.

By now, it is clear that the rage that first swept the streets of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and Jakarta was not so much about insults to the Prophet in some obscure voice-over of an internet video soundtrack, but an organised campaign to exploit religious sensitivities for political ends. It is a clash of the civilised versus the uncivilized, between secularism and fundamentalism, between open society and tyranny, between freedom and control.

In Kathmandu last week activists of the World Hindu Federation manhandled and threatened to kill artist Manish Harijan for works displayed in the exhibition, ‘Rise of the Collateral’, at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. But instead of protecting the artist’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression, the Kathmandu district administration summoned Harijan and gallery owner, Sangita Thapa, forced them to agree to remove the paintings. Instead of shielding the gallery, they sealed it.

Harijan’s paintings are graphic and playful depictions of members of the Hindu pantheon as super heroes. The artist’s main intention seems to be to lampoon globalisation and its intersection with institutionalised religion. At most, one can fault Harijan for a lack of good taste in some of his paintings, but there is nothing there that doesn’t already exist in some of the more explicit examples of tantric religious objets d’art in this country. If Harijan’s paintings are offensive to the WHF, it should also go around demolishing the intricately carved struts and eaves of Kathmandu Valley temples.

We have seen time and time again in this country proof of the convergence of leftwing and rightwing forces to constrict the democratic middle space. During the Panchayat, the monarchy colluded with the communists to suppress democracy. During the conflict, the army-backed monarchy was negotiating behind-the-scenes with the Maoist rebels to sideline parliamentary parties. In fact, there is growing evidence that the so-called Maoist ‘revolution’ was originally a project of the extreme left and right to pull the rug from under the democratic parties.

Even after the ceasefire, and after they became the largest party in the 2008 elections, the Maoists have harassed, intimidated, extorted, infiltrated and physically assaulted the media and other democratic institutions. Every day one gets more proof that all splinters of the Maoist ideology still see pluralism, press freedom and democracy as obstacles on their path to totalitarian control. The terrorist tag may have been lifted, but the Maoists still rule by fear, and have never formally abandoned the ideology of violence.

The Maoist communists in government have found common cause with the monarchist Hindu right. By threatening the Siddhartha Art Gallery the administration has sided with extremists not just to violate universal covenants, but to stain Hinduism’s time-honoured spirit of tolerance and acceptance.

To be sure, international conventions on freedom of expression come with a statute of limitations. The freedom of one individual cannot infringe on the freedom of another. Various countries and
cultures have different thresholds for this boundary, and there is inevitable tension when accepted norms of freedom in one culture clashes with norms in another. Examples are the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the violent protests over Kurt Westergaard’s cartoon in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, or even the case last week of Aseem Trivedi, the Mumbai cartoonist who was jailed for desecrating India’s national emblem. But as the drafters of the First Amendment to the US constitution realised 200 years ago, censorship is a slippery slope. If you start selecting what is not acceptable, where do you draw the line?

Various governments use the protection of state security, social harmony, defamation or pornography to enforce controls on free expression. But freedom doesn’t come with any warranty, it must be protected by its maximum application. One cannot be half-free.

And the very freedom that allowed Manish Harijan to paint also provide those who feel offended by them to protest non-violently. You can’t in a democracy threaten to kill someone who hurts your feelings. The state should be protecting the artist, not the would-be assassin.

(This blog also appeared as an editorial in Nepali Times)

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5 Responses to “Intolerance of tolerance”

  1. Ujjwal Acharya on Says:

    Agreeing with what you have powerfully expressed, I just want to add that Freedom of Artistic Expression is generally considered more liberal in reasonable restrictions partly because art do not reach a big mass and that artists have lead the philosophical revolution by their eccentric ideas. The DOA acted cowardly encouraging poisonous vomiting in the name of religion. Incidents like this only leads to violence and our dehumanization.

    If we can’t agree to something, we should ignore it or protest it or challenge it lawfully!

  2. dhargombez on Says:

    freedom of expression should not humiliate others faith and that’s the limit of the freedom of expression

  3. Ram on Says:

    It seems that Nepal government gives in easily to criminals, hooligans and anyone protesting for anything at the cost of human rights and freedom of speech. No wonder there is more bands now than ever before despite all them knowing that bands are actually abhorred by the society. But the band organizers actually succeed in making government listen. Unbelievable!

  4. Hilary on Says:

    Great blog.
    Here in the US there is constant pressure from the religious (Christian) right to censor artistic expression. This has resulted in less Federal funding for the arts in general and the disappearance the teaching of music and visual arts in public schools. Public funding for Public Radio and TV has all but disappeared, while the most-watched TV station in the US is is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a British citizen. We do live in strange times.

  5. Maureen Drdak on Says:

    An excellent article eloquently worded. “Humiliation” of one’s religious beliefs is a contradiction in terms; “belief” cannot, by its very nature, be “humiliated”.
    Practitioners of ant faith know that murder–or the threat of it–is an anathema to religious and spiritual “virtue”. It is clear in all these incidents that the issue or complaint of religious humiliation and grievance is the result of either the highly imperfect understanding of their religious precepts by the offended believers, or worse, cynical and vicious appropriation of this situation by political opportunists. While is can be legitimately argued that different societies in different stages of political and social development have variable levels of tolerance that can be safely “digested”, murder–and physical violence is never to be tolerated and always indicates the basest of motives. The very value of freedom of expression is illuminated by the exercise verbal and written response to perceived affronts, which compels the responders to organize and defend their positions in a non-violent, cogent and intellectually powerful manner, thus benefitting ALL actors in these events. Without this fundamental societal fail-safe mechanism, no nation can ever hope to develop its full potential–in any respect.

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