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 uncivilised, between secularism and fundamentalism, between open society and tyranny, between freedom and control.
In Kathmandu, last week activists of the World Hindu Federation (WHF) 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, and 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 clash 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 justification 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 provides those who feel offended by them to protest non-violently. In a democracy, you cannot threaten to kill someone who hurts your feelings. The state should be protecting the artist, not the would-be assassin.