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God in God’s Own Country
The Indian Express, India Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Recently, some fanatics chopped off the hands of Prof T. J. Joseph of Newman College for a controversial reference to Prophet Mohammad.The problem is that we have legitimised too much the idea that speech offensive to religion should be an actionable offence, so that those wanting to police offences against religion feel empowered. Collective ideologies will try to compensate for a sense of individual failure and inadequacy. To preserve liberal values, we need more clarity and consistency, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express.

The macabre story that unfolded in Kerala over the last few weeks is a harbinger of how complicated and threatening currents of religious politics are likely to remain. Some fanatics, allegedly associated with the Popular Front of India (PFI), chopped off the hand of Prof T.J. Joseph of Newman College for setting an exam question that was seen as containing a controversial reference to Prophet Mohammad. The college then terminated the services of the professor. Mahatma Gandhi University, the affiliating institution, has correctly served a notice to the college questioning the professor’s dismissal, but the Archdiocese has supported action against the professor.

It is always difficult to gauge the significance of any incident in the context of wider politics. But this story encapsulates many challenges of religious politics in our time. First, it provides more evidence, if any was needed, that a prolonged exposure of a state to left of centre and so-called progressive politics does not necessarily diminish religious sensibilities or fundamentalist sensitivities; it merely redirects and sometimes enhances them.


While reinforcing communal identities, progressive discourse does not address a challenge. Since the object of religious reflection, namely some form of transcendence, has been delegitimised, religion can no longer be understood in any way other than a form of ethnic identity. It has become a will to difference. Believers now measure the strength of their belief by “protecting” community, not be seeking God or Truth. This is a crisis afflicting all organised religions. Fanaticism is a species of communal blasphemy. It assumes that it is our job to protect our gods, since the gods can no longer protect us, or themselves.

Second, competitive offence-mongering has been the currency of religious assertion for some time now. This politics is now truly global; every organised religious community is policing the boundaries of offensive speech or representation with a vengeance. This politics is also very competitive; patterns in one religion are seen as a license for other religions to mobilise. Unfortunately, the response of liberal states has been exactly backwards. While giving gratuitous offence to any religion usually reveals the small-mindedness of those who engage in it, there is no way that in a modern society, religion can be protected against offensive speech. But by promising to exorcise speech offensive to religion through various laws and political interventions, all we have done is simply given more groups incitement to mobilise. We have also legitimised the thought that “community sentiment” is a valid argument for trampling individual rights. The problem is that we have legitimised too much the idea that speech offensive to religion should be an actionable offence, so that those wanting to police offences against religion feel empowered.


Third, we now genuinely have a problem of managing what might be called the politics of dissociation. After every incident like this, there is a predictable set of responses. Such acts are “un-Islamic.” There is condemnation from within the community, as there was in this case. There is a plea not to see the perpetrators as representatives of the community. But the paradox of our times is that the more we are trying the politics of dissociation, the more a community comes to be identified with the worst elements in it. It is as if these acts have a far greater symbolic power in shaping the views of those outside the community than any “mainstream” denunciation.


In an ironic way, many religious communities are struggling with a version of this problem, and this has produced a certain equipoise. It is perhaps not an accident that the RSS has not jumped over this incident as vehemently as it might, because it too is now trying hard to engage in a politics of dissociation, it does not want any equation of isolated acts of terror with the sensibilities of Hindus as a whole. We are living in a world where the power of isolated bad acts to incite fear seems to be greater than broader political attempts to assuage sensitivities. This will require a very vigilant politics.


Indian society and Indian universities are producing masses of young people all across whose sense of identity is very fragile. They will often express their frustrations by turning to radicalism. The advantage of any collective ideology is that it has the potential for compensating for a sense of individual failure and inadequacy. The power of genuinely liberal values in the face of these assorted anxieties is more fragile than we think. To preserve them will require a clarity and consistency, not the equivocation and double standards our political parties are used to. Kerala is a stark reminder of how even well developed states can regress.

This article was published in the The Indian Express on Tuesday, September 14, 2010. Please read the original article here.
Author : Dr Mehta is the president of Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Tags- Find more articles on - Kerala | politics | Prophet Mohammad | terror

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