Cultural Fanaticism

Cultural fanaticism

Roopen Roy

(Views are personal)

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl of Pushtun ethnicity. She is barely 15 years old. She is the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history. I hope she has the distinction of being the youngest recipient of the Prize as well.

Malala authored a blog under a nom de plume for the BBC describing life under the Taliban rule, their game plan to take control of the Swat valley and her own views on promoting education for girls. She has been an evangelist for education of girls in tribal Pakistan.

On 9 October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus. She remained unconscious for a few days. Thereafter, she was transferred from Pakistan to a hospital in Birmingham, UK for treatment.

On Friday, February 8, 2013 she was released from the hospital and she said, "Today you can see that I am alive. It's just because of the prayers of people. Because all people – men, women, children – all of them have prayed for me. And because of all these prayers, God has given me this new life, a second life. And I want to serve. I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated.” What a brave girl!

Meanwhile, Ehsanullah Ehsan, chief spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack, said that Yousafzai "is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity," adding that if she survived, they would target her again.

Winston Churchill had famously said, “A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.” Cultural intolerance is turning fanatical, violent and blind. In a democracy like ours we must have tolerance, pluralism, argumentation and discord. There can be no democracy if debates are settled with guns, discord lands you in prison and dissent ruins your career or even destroys your life.

Although there is some debate on whether Voltaire actually uttered these words (or it was the work of his biographer), they nevertheless capture the essence of democratic discourse, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

Far too often, fanatics of all hues and colors are combining forces to stifle discourse and the expression of artists, authors and philosophers. Kamal Hasaan the veteran Tamil actor has written, directed and co-produced a film called Viswaroopam. The film's Tamil version was given a U/A (Parental Guidance) certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification with minor cuts, while the Hindi version Vishwaroop, got an "A" (Adults Only) certificate with no cuts. It is spy thriller film.

Despite the censor board certificates, Hasaan faced all kinds of objections from diverse groups. The Hindu Makkal Katchi party demanded the change from its current Sanskrit title to a purely Tamil one. Some Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu raised their objections that the film would hurt Muslim sentiments. Kamal Hasaan said in anguish that he would leave Tamil Nadu and India for good if the “cultural terrorism” went unabated. Hasaan finally agreed to mute five scenes and film was released in his home state to full houses.

M F Hussain, one of the finest Indian painters, left India in 2006. He was awarded a Padma Bhushan (1973) and a Padma Vibhushan (1991). In 1998 Husain's house was attacked by fanatic groups like the Bajrang Dal and his art works were vandalized.

He became the target of cultural fanatics and finally left India and lived in self-exile. He became a Qatari citizen in 2010 and died and was buried in London. No terrorist or fanatic actually killed him. But many of them enjoyed reading his obituary. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray said, "He only slipped up on the depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses. Otherwise, he was happy and content in his field. If his demise is a loss for modern art, then so be it. May his Allah give him peace!"

Professor Ashish Nandy ,who has always been a little eccentric, propounded a bizarre theory on corruption as a route for upward social mobility at a seminar. Wrong choice of words and inappropriate examples as the Supreme Court judges pointed out. But he was going to be arrested for that? Did he not have a right to be wrong? Can he not express a different opinion? The Supreme Court made a good call and stayed his arrest.

Salman Rushdie has outlived his Iranian fatwa alright. But he is having trouble with the country of his birth. The scared authorities are worried about a run on their vote banks if Rushdie comes calling. He was unable to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival and the International Kolkata Book Fair because the authorities would not allow him entry to the cities. Amartya Sen raised his voice against not allowing Rushdie to come to Kolkata and said, “Anything that makes the Indian constructive argumentative tradition more militant — (so) that people have the right (to be offended) and therefore you cannot say some things — becomes a limitation because it restricts the conversation.”

Fanaticism cannot alter facts nor can it turn the clock back. When Galileo was being forced by the Church at an Inquisition to recant his belief that the earth revolved around the sun he uttered those immortal words “ Eppur si muove” (Yet it moves). And indeed it moves and revolves even today. The fanatic may have stifled Galileo’s voice. But Galileo is having the last laugh.