Nepali Times
Intolerance of tolerance

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.

1. Ganesh Thapa


You wrote:

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.


Am I the only one who thinks this would be a better story?  Please show the evidence you speak of.

2. K. K. Sharma

So was or is India, that had sheltered and supported the Maoists, extreme rightist or extreme leftist. ?

If you were not brainwashed by the Western world, you would have remained  with the Eastern notion, that extrems are alwasy bad..... "Sugar taken in extrem tastes bitter". It is the consequence that should matter, not the deed.

3. who cares
the media- nepalitimes- who dont respect freedom of speech of commentators is supporting freedom of speech.

i have heard, meet, seen many people- and i have found only I to be the real support of freedom of speech.

and by the way, west do not respect freedom of speech or human right or democracy ... so dont spread propaganda that they support, believe in all those. cause those who do not fully understand them might take your propaganda seriously.

west is worse, in countries like china, russia, india, n korea- their cracking on freedom of speech to protect the rulers... but in west, they prevent people from speaking freely to protect some unknown individuals, groups- must be some puppet masters..

a few months ago, US cracked wikileak citing that they risked the lives of many, but they did not crack on the anti islam movie which actually is the reason behind the death of dozens (at least what is seen on the outside).... HYPOCRITES!

4. Bob
Very sharp, and well-agued editorial. Takes a refreshingly straight line on the absolute nature of press freedom, which I support. However, with the speed and reach of the Internet and its anonymity there may be an argument to be made in favour of protecting social harmony by instituting some form of control. I don't know how these controls can be implemented without a repressive state using it for a blanket URL ban, but there must be a middle way. Otherwise, I'm afraid there will be more of the outrage that followed the Youtube video about the Prophet. The violence of the last two weeks that swept the Islamic countries showed just how easy it is to whip up outrage for political ends.

5. Nirmal
When any country lives with many taboos there appears so many saviors in name of protecting identity -religious or national- or social harmony and consequently freedom of expression is curtailed and/or people are murdered. To be felt offended is a human nature but to react violently is purely subjective because human beings are such civilised animals which regard the act of violence as criminal one.

6. Dev Batsya

Although there is no justification for violence in a civilized society,one would have to be blind not to see that violence occurs all the time in countries where the rule of law is weak,and where might is right.

The rioting and killings in the Middle-East,Pakistan,Africa  over the documentary " Innocence of Muslims" is proof of what happens when one forgoes common-sense in favor of demagoguery.

Arguing that one cannot be half-free is good rhetoric,but the reality is that the average  person in the country is not even secure regarding  his/her life and property. When the government cannot even guarantee the right to life and property to its citizen.when murders are committed in open daylight (just recently of a Supreme Court justice)and the culprits not only walk free but are rewarded,how realistic is it to expect that stoking peoples  deep-held religious (or communal)beliefs  may not  eventually lead to uncontainable  violence  like in the Middle-East?

Is it also not hypocritical  of people advocating unlimited 100% freedom of expression,that no one among them has actually come out to support the rights of the maker  of "Innocence of Muslims"? Even this editorial while mentioning other cases pointedly omits the most prominent case in the world today.

It just goes to prove that freedom of expression is never 100%,but  it is dynamic and does change with time in each society.

One's right to free expression should not impinge  on the rights of others to live their lives in peace and harmony with their neighbors.Even in the West,the concept of freedom of expression has been changing with time over the last 200 years.It must continuously evolve with the society as a whole, and cannot simply be borrowed from others.  The recent events in the Middle-East and elsewhere is proof of this.

7. rs
harijan's paintings are not tried to ban that they are insulting ( in your word tantricising?) the hindu pantheons, but because they are helping other religions ( namely the christians) to spread their very bad influence to the extent of  extincting  nepali tradition. it appears that  you have not gone through  the " harvesting the soul" .

beside in the book maile deKheko darbar it's been undauntedly told that th e sso called modern  humanist  and pro democracy people had also applied to king Gyanendra for the post of information minter. why now so much black feeling against the Hundu monarch ?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)