Of undeserved respect

Thin-skinned Indians

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes:

A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts — the non-religious included — is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made at Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:

“Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.

Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe … no, that’s holy? … We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore (Richard Dawkins) creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you are not allowed to say such things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.” [The God Delusion, pp 20-21]

Dawkins was at least intentionally provocative. But this post is not about Dawkins or Adams. It is about Rashmi Bansal. She didn’t even intend to provoke the religious. And intention is very important. But the “abnormally thick wall of respect” protected by abnormally thick laws only encourage competitive intolerance in contemporary India.

Rashmi is not a criminal. Rather, she is a victim of intolerance. Mumbai police and law enforcement authorities would do well to drop the absurd charges and let her get on with the business of running her magazine. They can then use their energies on tackling the sorts that are really out to hurt communal harmony.

10 thoughts on “Of undeserved respect”

  1. JAM Mag is irreverent and funny and sometimes in our country where some ppl have the knack of taking everything seriously, a joke can go too far.

    Rashmi and JAM have apologised already and the matter should end here.I agree with many others who have said that the laws under which she has been charged actually belong in the ‘Ancient History Museum’.

  2. Can nobody get the issue and find out what exactly were those “captions”? I’m very curious….And how did our overzealous Mumbai police get to know about them? — I mean, who complained first?

  3. I’m sorry to say, and I don’t think I’m being arrogant when I say this, but a great number of Indians tacitly or overtly endorse action against what can be considered ‘blasphemy’ or ‘obscenity’ and other such vague things. I mean, if they are not speaking out against it, isn’t that endorsement enough? Dawkins is right, but I’m sure even Dawkins will be shocked at the extent of perversity prevailing in India.

    Intention is irrelevant in my opinion. If some people’s ‘sentiments’ are hurt, well, they can shove it. Too many people in India want to impose their world view and values on others. Till the day individual freedoms are value above anything else, we will be enslaved to manipulators of all kinds.

    PS: So you’ve got your hands on The God Delusion? I have been waiting for it to make an appearance in bookstores my neck of the woods.

  4. “A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts — the non-religious included — is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.”

    Really? This is news to me. Religion is abused all the time, even Christianity, which is the point of reference in this book.

    I guess atheism is the new vogue in our urban elites – one more transplanted idea. God help our country.

    Sure Ms. Bansal should be able say what she wants – an original Hindu ethos. But Mumbai police (or Bengalooru or Hyderabad police) have giving hell to people for committing a lesser crimes – like talking on the cell phone while walking in front of police at 10 at night.

    But turning this into a case for societal intolerance of atheists is absurd.

  5. Chandra,

    It’s not about intolerance of atheists, but about legal sanctions against offending religious feelings. Like Douglas Adams asks, why should we single out religious feelings for protection against offence?

    Nanda Kishore,

    Yes, I read the UK/international edition a few weeks ago. It’s a must read.

  6. Like Douglas Adams asks, why should we single out religious feelings for protection against offence?

    Rationalists in particular and atheists in general cannot understand how deeply and widely certain insults on religions can hurt people.

    I hope you won’t say that there ever was a God who descended down and said that individual freedom is the first and foremost principle. Then why respect it so much? If something pisses most people off and doesn’t add any significant value to the lives of the rest, why clamour for freedom on that issue?

    And just because the magazine says they didn’t intend to hurt religious feelings, why would anyone ( in particular you ) take that at face value? Could anyone who approved such an ad have overlooked that issue, as gaurav points out? And your statement about rashmi is at odds with what you say in your comment to gaurav’s post?

  7. froginthewell,

    I’m posting that entire comment here:

    Gaurav (the Doubting one)

    There is obviously no question that the ad is offensive, to the religious Hindu, and for that matter, to conservative people in general.

    There are thousands of other things that cause offense to people. I, for example, hate the stereotyping of Tamilians, Bhaiyyas, Sardarjis, Sindhis and Parsis in Hindi movies. I am offended when religious types go around preaching the exclusive eternal correctness of their religion to young children. I am offended when people publish a map of India with Jammu & Kashmir marked in a different colour. I am offended when people make spelling mistakes on roadsigns and railway timetables. And I am greatly offended when government forms ask me for my caste and religion.

    But not for a moment do I think that those who give me offense should be considered criminals. Just as someone is free to offend me, I should have the freedom to point out that it has offended me.

    It is quite possible that Rashmi Bansal has committed a crime (and until courts decide, she is innocent). We have several such arcane laws on our books (eg those relating to sexual intercourse). Law enforcement authorities must use their discretion in deciding which cases they want to accord priority. It’s not as if our police and courts have lots of free time on their hands.

    There’s no contradiction. The argument is that the thick law criminalises the act, and in this particular case, there was not even an intent to give offence.

    You ask:

    And just because the magazine says they didn’t intend to hurt religious feelings, why would anyone (in particular you) take that at face value?

    And just because the magazine said something that sounds offensive, why would anyone take that at face value? Indeed, there are more grounds to take the apology at face value rather than the original article, because the apology came after people complained of being offended.

  8. I guess you mean that someone “who has possibly committed a crime” is “not a criminal until proven guilty”. That was not how I interpreted it when you just said she “is not a criminal rather a victim of intolerance“. My bad,may be.

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