Freedom is not that Free

From time immemorial incidents of artistic expressions clashing with religious sentiments of sects have invited a lot of rabble rouse and protests. The arrest of a Baroda university student on grounds of public obscenity for depicting Hindu gods in a sacrilegious manner led to nation wide outrage. Even the renowned artist M.F Hussain has borne the brunt of various fatwas being issued against him for apparently drawing offending pictures of Goddess Saraswati and Bharat Mata.


Some more recent cases saw accomplished writers like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie being targeted for writing about certain religious matters in a deplorable way. Dan Brown faced similar hostility for his book The Da Vinci Code as the Church accused him of offending the Christian faith. All these inflammatory incidents lead us to one question whether art should be freed from religious and social constraints, whether artistic expressions have the privilege of being absolute under the guise of right to freedom of expression or not?


Liberals are of the view that we should be tolerant in our approach and not confuse art with religion and faith. Every time a debate about art and religion sparks off, experts from different fields quote examples of Indian heritage being replete with nude representations of gods and goddesses in the form of deities, idols or erotic engravings and statuary in Khujraho, Konark and Modhera.


But does that mean there should be no limits on artistic or creative expressions and even distasteful and ruthless expressions should be accepted in the name of art. Religion is definitely too great a concept to be blemished by any expression or writing but does that mean we can put the sanctity of religion at stake by unrestrained freedom of expression.


Many minds are of the view that creativity shouldn’t be obstructed by any restrictions and should be unbridled and free flowing. This point of view is true if seen from the political perspective as often the badgering of artists for their works is to gain political mileage by a few lunatic fringes of the society. The protests by some self proclaimed protectors of religion to a particular piece of art can’t be assumed to be a generalized representation of the masses.


But the fact of the matter is that we all live in a society where opportunists look for every second instance to create social disharmony amongst already divided sects and instigate masses on basis of religion. The present day conditions are extremely volatile waiting to burst like a volcano at the slightest provocation. And in the bargain it is the innocent sections of the society who suffer the most as was evident in the recent clashes in Punjab between Dera Saccha Sauda and Akal Takhat.


It will be rhetorical to say that people should be absorbing and not react if they dislike certain forms of creative expressions. One can’t have idealistic expectations and expect people to remain nonchalant. Even the idea of absolute freedom of expression is very Utopian in nature. Unfettered freedom does not exist at all not even in the constitutional privileges. The Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees one and all with the right to freedom of expression but immediately Section 19(A) imposes reasonable restrictions on this freedom. So there bound to be some restrictions on the imaginary world of artists. They can’t enjoy this freedom unbridled.


More importantly there’s a difference between private and public exhibition and paintings, books etc are all means of public communication. There’s a difference in painting or writing something within the realms of one’s personal space and displaying or publishing something for public display. So if we expect communication means like mass media or cinema to practice self regulation and censorship so should art and writings.


Even if a liberal approach has to be taken, we need to make liberality consistent in its ideology and extend to all kinds of creative representations. If creativity has to be freed from curbs, all censorship laws on films as well as constitutional restrictions should be eliminated. Standardized guidelines should be laid and yardsticks should be demarcated. The problem in our country is that we never settle for a consensus between freedom of artistic expression and religion. As a result of which we keep oscillating from one extreme to another without any solutions.


Different societies have decided on what is acceptable and what is objectionable. For instance nations like Britain and Denmark treat religion and art as separate spheres with no kind of expression being considered as an offence to their religion. Similarly, Islam has made clear that any kind of expression whether laudatory or blasphemous will be seen as an offence to their faith. So in that case the Islamic people were justified in protesting the caricature of Prophet Mohammad carried by a Danish newspaper. However, in India we have no such norms or guidelines.


In a multi-ethnic society like India which is a melting pot of varied customs, faiths and religions, one can never tell what expression hurts whose sentiments. Thus, it becomes all the more important for a diverse country like ours to set clear cut principles for freedom of artistic expression and religion. On a more rational note, guidelines would help especially in today’s profit driven world, where artists are often not just motivated by purely creative intentions but try to garner cheap publicity by the contentious nature of their work.


A balance has to be struck to ensure social peace and organization as extremities often prove to be fatal. If in the name of freedom of expression and democracy, we remove all constraints from our acts and behaviour we will end up in a social anarchy. Whether one likes it or not, our freedom ends when it impinges upon somebody else’s rights. And even democracy has a simple rule – You have the freedom to move your hand around but only so much so that it does not come and slap my face.


Akshuna Bakshi

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