When Bigotry rules: Religiosity and censorship in Goa

BY Frederick Noronha| IN Media Practice | 15/08/2010
The attack on the paintings of Dr Jose Pereira by the Hindu Janjagrut Sanghatana was appalling, but what of the response of the State, intellectuals and the media?
FREDERICK NORONHA questions the silence and complicity of these agencies.

For some years now, the supposedly secular state of Goa, with its heterogeneous religious mix, has been beleaguered by attempts by the religious right to censor both views and art and cinema. These attempts have been causing some concern, more so due to the knee-jerk response of the state and the silence of intellectuals and the media.

In July this year, the Goa-based Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) and its affiliate, the Sanatan Sanstha (SS), took umbrage at a painting exhibition by Dr José Pereira, a 79-year-old US-based Goan Sanskrit scholar and artist which it said, "hurt its sentiments".


Pereira, born in 1931, is Professor Emeritus of Theology of Fordham University, New York, where he lectured on History of Religions. He has taught and done research in various academic institutions in Lisbon, London and Varanasi, and has published 24 books and 145 articles on theology, history of art and architecture, and on Goan anand has published 24 books and 145 articles on theology, history of art and architecture, and on Goan and Konkani culture, language, literature and music.


Pereira's exhibition, titled the 'Epiphanies of the Hindu Gods' had been exhibited at the India International Centre in Delhi a few weeks earlier. Art critics called it an "endeavour to interpret some classical themes of Hindu art in a realistic idiom, an idiom that frees the drama in the themes from the constriction of iconographic formulas."


But the HJS -- running campaigns with screaming banner headlines on Page 1 in its 'Sanatan Prabat' newspaper, first demanded the removal of three paintings, that it deemed offensive. It subsequently sought the removal of five more, on the basis that it "hurt their sentiments", and finally demanded that the entire exhibition be shut down.


See headlines here:


Sanatan saw the work by a "Christian artist ... (involving) nude and derogatory pictures of Hindu deities... which hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus and are being condemned by the Hindu community."


It called on the host institute to withdraw the exhibition, and said it "filed a complaint with the Porvorim Police Station and a copy of the same has been forwarded to the CM, Home Minister, DGP and the SP (North Goa)" besides against the artist personally. In its newspaper, it claimed it had sought the support from the Opposition in the Goa assembly too.


The police claimed the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, the centre at Alto Porvorim exhibiting the work, decided to withdraw it to avoid a "communal" controversy. The XCHR itself said that the police advice was to "temporarily withdraw" the paintings that the Sanatan demanded! The police were also prompt in filing a complaint against the artist, a scholar known for long years for his work on Goa and the rest of India.


Growing intolerance and religious right


When the HJS and SS said that Pereira’s paintings hurt the group's sentiments, it may have seemed like a campaign of a fringe group. This could have been dismissed as not being representative of wider public opinion. However, the agenda-setting impact of such actions is significant.


Unfortunately, the mainstream media is all too eager to take such fringe campaigns seriously. Nothing is more attractive than conflict in the news-defining process. Regardless of the logic, or lack of it, an issue of this kind is just what it takes to make it to the headlines.


Groups like the Sanatan and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti have properly understood the -- warped, if you wish -- logic of the media. Nudity, nakedness, even the hint of sex... these are issues which can easily been used to stoke up people's emotions.


In Congress-I ruled Goa, Chief Minister Digambar Kamat's team is quick to take cognisance of complaints of religious sentiments being "hurt" or "offended" by art or movies. In a supposedly-secular State, with the attempts by the Religious Right -- of all kinds -- to censor views and art is causing quite some concern here.


In 2008, the Goa government earned some dubious credit by blocking the screening of the fictional film 'The Da Vinci Code' in this State. Politician Churchill Alemao, a contentious leader known to play on people's sentiments, had warned to "forcibly" stop screenings of it.


In January 2009, the Shiv Sena, which has long attempted to build its based in Goa, attacked a Panjim multiplex cinema for screening the award-winning "Slumdog Millionaire."


The film which got 10 Oscar nominations was seen as having "hurt Hindu sentiments". Police arrested 12 activists, booked for tearing down posters and breaking the glass facade.


The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti also demanded a ban on the film, saying its portrayal of Lord Ram in the movie was objectionable.


The HJS, once a grouping that promoted religiosity, now allegedly stoking some forms of communalism. Some 11 of its members have been named in a National Investigation Agency (NIA) chargesheet over a blasts case in October 2009, which killed two. The two were also Sanatan members, and were allegedly engineering a blast during a Hindu 'narkasur' festivities celebration. If the blasts were successful during the celebrations, it could have even lead to major Hindu-Muslim violence here.


Earlier, the HJS and its Sanatan affiliate also played a key role in the campaign against the art of nonagenarian M. F. Hussein.


Elsewhere in the State, the use of a cartoon by the 'Times of India', depicting current-day Indian politics in a "Last Supper" setting, drew some ire from a section of Catholic public opinion. The Times of India quickly apologised!


This interpretation of a Last Supper scenario was the target of some protests. If the protests didn't grow, it's only because the groups behind them didn't have access to their own mouthpieces, as groups like the Sanatan do, ready to rake up instant controversies, telephone campaigns -- leading to all kinds of threats -- and what not.


(The HJS-Sanatan combine has the strategy of widely publishing the phone numbers and email IDs of any "offending artist" and getting its supporters to phone in. In the Pereira case, even death-threats were allegedly received.)


Offence and freedom of expression


In a religiosity-prone culture like India, one needs to be cautious about the stands taken. But, having said that, who empowers (mostly ultra-conservative, if not outright chauvinistic) self-appointed groups and individuals to decide what "offends sensibilities"?


There are many appalling aspects of episodes like this.


The media role definitely needs to be questioned. An intellectual of the calibre of Dr Jose Pereira can hope to reach the front-page in his home State -- a region he has done so much work on, despite being away from here for decades -- only after his art is "noticed" by the Sanatan.


Is this the fate of our intellectuals, that they have to await to be noticed by the fringe, before society starts noticing their contribution, and the media front-pages them?


But it doesn't stop there.


Such protests are of questionable value in today's India. As Tehelka has shown, even a group like Muthalik's Rama Sene in coastal Karnataka, is allegedly not above negotiating to stage a protest, to make an artist's work "famous" in this manner!


Some persons -- cutting across the religious divides that extremists would like to perpetuate -- were blunt in their critique of such intolerance towards art. But others were not so forthcoming.


"An artist has various [forms of] expression, and these members of the HJS are fighting without even understanding these expressions. They don't even represent Hindus as such; they're extremists," commented film-maker Dyanesh Moghe.


More interesting is the response of the State and the entire drama showed how various arms of government act under a supposedly "secular" State.


The political class -- leave aside the mainstream "Opposition" -- largely maintained a ominous silence. There were no assurances against bullying of this sort. Sources of the threatening calls were not tracked or penalised.


At the end of the day, the Sanatan and HJS did itself a huge disfavour by choosing someone like Dr Jose Pereira as their target.


Here is a man, who while Catholic, has a deep respect for his Indian Hindu roots. As he put it in an recent interview with Gerard D'Souza in Gomantak Times, "I see myself as a product of two traditions: one is the Latin-Christian tradition and the other is the Indian Hindu tradition."


But the headlines and the temporary sensation apart, such issues also throw up wider issues. What is the role of the State in coping with such threats and pressures? How do the media respond to a logic which places religious strife and censorship at the centre of everything?


But if the goal is to polarise people on grounds of religion, then any excuse is good enough. (Ironically, Dr Pereira answers the critics of Hussein, who say that "only" Hindu gods are shown in the nude. He has not shown Jesus Christ un-clad, but done a self-portrait of himself too. Any why this obsession with Victorian prudery, anyway? Does one have to think of sexuality or offensiveness when one sees an un-clad body?)


Dealing with such fringe responses, is unfortunately more like looking into a mirror. It tells us about how ugly our own society is, how the many responses betray true feelings. At the end of the day, we just get the bigots we deserve.


(Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based journalist)

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