The mere articulation of a belief is often construed as offensive to someone’s sensibilities because he happens to hold a diametrically opposite view.
Back in the days when off-peak hours really meant something, trains connecting the Chennai harbour to its far-flung southern suburbs would host not only vendors of peanut candies and jasmine flowers but also those preaching the word of God.
There was one particular gentleman who was a regular in the late evening hours when yours truly would be returning home after a hard day’s work at training to be a chartered accountant.
For some reason, he would address commuters only in English which seemed a curious choice of language to harvest wayward souls to the path of Christ.
I mean, while commuters in second-class compartments of suburban trains are a versatile lot in many ways, a mastery over the English language is not something that you would readily associate with them. But I remember a line from his talk even to this day.
As the train eased into a station he would rest his case with the assertion, “Jesus Christ is a historical fact, not a myth”.
Air of hypersensitivity
The culture of evangelism on the go has, perhaps, become a casualty of the over-crowded nature of suburban trains in modern times. But even if it hadn’t, I fear for its future, for an altogether different reason.
What if someone takes offence at the gentleman’s advocacy on the ground that extolling the virtues of one religion effectively amounts to putting the claims of other religions in a poorer light and, by extension, is offensive to his sensibilities?
What if someone else argues that the preacher’s reference to Christ not being a mythical figure is a sly attempt at putting down the Hindu Gods as mere mythological depictions?
After all, unlike Christianity or Islam, which are ‘revealed’ religions with a messiah claiming such revelation from God, Hinduism can lay no claim to a spiritual preceptor.
The public space has become so suffused with an air of hypersensitivity that we are just a heart beat away from a situation where even the mere articulation of a belief could be construed by a handful of the general public as offensive to their sensibilities because they just happen to hold a completely different view. Sounds far-fetched? Not really.
Ashis Nandy, who speculated that at least sections of the bureaucracy belonging to the Dalit community may be tainted by the miasma of corruption sparked off such vociferous protests that he might not have heard the last of it.
Matters of the heart
How has this come about? The basic mistake that our legislators have committed is in assuming that the principles of common law applicable for injuries inflicted on the corporeal body are somehow valid in the realm of the spirit.
You can’t take cognisance of murder unless there is a dead body in the first place. In other words, for a crime to be recognised as a basic prerequisite, it should be capable of being measured.
Thus, it is perfectly in order for a common law principle to be invoked to recognise an offence when you swing an arm in front of the nose of a passer by. Whether the effect is one of a jarring sensation or a broken bone, the act itself is eminently capable of being observed or recorded by one and all.
A broken nose can be objectively measured as a crack in the bone, running into so many millimetres and would remain so, no matter who measures it.
You can’t say the same thing about hurt sentiment or, more specifically, matters of the heart. Historically, only breaches of promise of love have been recognised as fit cases for seeking judicial remedy.
You promise eternal love to the girl next door and suddenly realise that she reeks of bad breadth and want to break it off. The poor girl is deeply hurt. The hurt sentiments can be healed with a generous cash settlement if your purse would permit it.
But feelings are, by their very nature, incapable of being neither objectively recognised nor measured in the way a cracked bone in the nose can be. Who is to say whether the sentiment was actually hurt?
If we are talking of the sentiment of a lone individual, we can at least take his claim at face value.
But if someone claims to speak on behalf of a cohort of individuals who are presumed to be similarly hurt because all of them share an attribute of bearing allegiance to a particular religion, it becomes all the more untenable. The situation is tailor-made for judicial nightmare for a person so accused.
Some 80 years ago, Ms Radclyffe Hall’s book on lesbianism The Well of Loneliness was banned by an English judge because it was deemed to be offensive to the moral sensibilities of the reading public in that country.
Why? The book had, in the course of describing the relationship between two women, a sentence that read, ‘‘That night they were not divided.’’
The US Customs authorities too thought it was offensive to the US public’s moral sensibilities and impounded copies of the book awaiting entry into that country.
Subject of veto
But the situation today is that more than one State of the US has passed laws recognising as legally valid, marriage between two members of the same sex.
Can anybody be really sure what the public feel and when they will change their minds about it? We could be wrong about the hurt sentiment ab initio, leave alone the larger question whether somebody is entitled to impose a veto as a consequence.
India is fast reaching a stage where everything will be a subject of a veto because it offends some section or the other and the State is too petrified to do justice to its basic duty of guaranteeing free speech and maintenance of law and order in the face of opposition from a small coterie of determined citizenry.
My suggestion to Kamal Haasan is just this. Stick to making films involving the hero and the heroine romancing around trees and singing duets under the rain.
Maybe for an extra creative effect, he can shoot a film about how a 60-year-old wins the hand of a 55-year-old woman in the teeth of opposition from her 85-year-old father determined to uphold family honour.
And Ashis Nandy, for his part, should stop attending literature festivals and start writing screenplays for such films.