Creative and academic freedom under threat from religious intolerance in India

A politically charged 2011 work called ‘Do not urinate’ by photographer Vivek Vilasini, part of the exhibition ‘Docu Tour’ at BMB gallery in Mumbai. Courtesy of artist: Vivek Vilasini

When asked what made him such a prolific painter, even at the age of 91, MF Hussain, known as the Indian Picasso, said it was three things: “not worrying about critics and fundamentalists, working every day, and never wearing shoes”. The great painter went into self-imposed exile after threats from Hindu fundamentalists angry at his paintings of nude gods. He died in 2011 with an unfulfilled wish to come back to his home country, even if it was just for one afternoon.

From the publication of books, paintings and cartoons to ideas expressed on Facebook, public life for artists in India is tied up with censorship and threats of legal action. There was a time as Indians when we were proud of our values of pluralism and tolerance; now that is under attack along with academic freedom of expression.

“For a country that takes great pride in its democracy and history of free speech, the present situation is troubling,” Nilanjana Roy, a columnist and literary critic, said. “Especially in the creative sphere, the last two decades have been progressively intolerant.”

Religion and communal sentiments are often invoked in today’s censorship battles, although many of the underlying reasons for the attacks seem selfish, rather than stemming from a genuine interest for society.

In December 2014, Anand Patwardhan’s 1992 documentary film Ram Ke Naam was supposed to screen at the Indian Law Society college in Pune. The film, about the politics of religion that drove the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, is one of India’s most significant socio-political documentaries.

However, the screening was called off after the college received threats. Another documentary maker, Sanjay Kak, whose 2007 film Jashn-e-Azadi is critical of the army’s role Kashmir, has also seen attacks on venues that planned to show his film.

Curricula under pressure

In academia, one of the biggest controversies in recent years centred around an essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations, by well-known historian A K Ramanujan about different versions of the Ramayana, a religious text.

The essay was included in the University of Delhi’s BA History syllabus in 2006 to highlight the fact that there are Dalit, feminist, and other popular versions of the text in other Asian countries. One of the students made a complaint and a right-wing political party took up the issue, which led to a petition filed at the Delhi Supreme Court to drop the essay.

Even though three of the four members of the committee established by the court recommended the continuation of the essay as part of the syllabus, the university’s academic council decided to abandon it.

Some artists have made the decision to bow out of public life because of the attacks on their work. In January, Perumal Murugan, a well-known novelist in the Tamil language, announced on Facebook that he was giving up writing:

Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.

This came after virulent protests by Hindu and local caste-based groups over his novel, Madhorubhagan. They complained the novel denigrated Hindu deities and women. The protests started four years after it was published in Tamil, but Murugan has said he believes it was the English translation, One Part Woman, published at the end of 2014 that started the uproar.

Perumal Murugan’s book, Madhorubhagan, in translation.

The right to freedom is one of the fundamental rights in the Indian constitution that also includes the freedom of speech and expression. This means, in principle, there is creative freedom. But the lines are blurred as to whether Indians have the privilege to use religion as a context, resource or reference point in their creative outputs.

Creative practitioners – writers, artists or the filmmakers – are typically not interested in exploring the faith, philosophy or the devotion attached to religion. They use the stories, rituals, customs and history. For example, in his novel, Murugan used folklore, which had originated as part of the Hindu chariot festival, about a mating ritual where one day a year there can be consensual sex between any man and woman.

The author has explained there is no historical evidence for the ritual, which was part of the oral stories that had been passed down through the generations. He had used this aspect in his novel not to create religious tensions, but to highlight the discriminatory powers of the caste system and the situation for women.

No logical thinking

Personally, I believe that being Indian means being confident in our roots. This is not just about what language you speak or religion you practice, but the entire social and cultural set-up. My family comes from Kerala, so my mother tongue is Malayalam, but I was born in Uttar Pradesh, so the first language I spoke is Hindi and English became my working language. I was born into a Catholic family and married a Hindu. I always thought when I grew up things would be very different. Yet it is quite paradoxical that in this age and era, we stop to think logically when it comes to religion.

Indians are happy to borrow, buy or develop progressive ideas in order to grow the economy faster. Wider roads, new shopping malls and buildings are coming up every day; the old cities are being torn down to make way for new ones. Modernity is slowly moving in; but when it comes to freedom to speak about religion, reason has taken a back seat.


A section of this article appeared in the summer 2015 special report of the Index on Censorship magazine, focusing on academic freedom.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.