Je debate on the poster of the new documentary film by Leena Manimekalai Kali, depicting the Hindu goddess Kali smoking a cigarette, underlines a “politics of hurt feelings” specific to India. This version of politics relies heavily on the collective victimization of a religious community and gives the impression that faith does not allow for any form of artistic expression.
It is claimed that artistic expressions intentionally ignore religious feelings to hurt the feelings of believers. It is precisely for this reason that the politics of hurt feelings always operates within the framework of “freedom of expression against religious feelings”.
In my opinion, this faith-art binary is very misleading. And the outrage is also carefully orchestrated to sharpen the religious divide and accentuate community victimization. To understand the nuanced workings of this policy, one must ask a few fundamental questions: What is the mechanism by which a book, a painting, a poster, a film, even a useless old newspaper, becomes an object of religious concern? ? How is a discourse of “hurt feelings” produced and maintained? And finally, who are the actors who claim to represent the feelings of a particular group?
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Three Political Forms of Hurt Feelings
Broadly speaking, there are at least three different types of issues that shape the contours of the politics of hurt feelings in India.
The discovery of any art object as a “threat” to religious feelings is the first and perhaps the most dominant expression of the politics of hurt feelings. In this case, a conscious attempt is made to identify a work of art or a particular aspect of it that could be highlighted as a direct attack on the religious beliefs of a particular community.
by Salman Rushdie satanic versesby Taslima Nasrin LajjaMF Hussain’s Saraswati paintings, and now, Manimekalai’s paintings Kali displays are deliberately “discovered” to make them controversial public objects. In such cases, the “intent” of an artist/intellectual is problematized to claim that the particular artwork is created primarily to offend a specific group of believers.
Turning everyday life into clashes of civilizations is another version of wounded politics. In this case, the mundane, usual and ordinary aspects of our social existence are reinterpreted to uncover potential political conflicts. The heated debates over azaan, namaz and animal sacrifice at Eid al-Adha are good examples. This version of wounded politics underscores and projects a seemingly inherent contradiction between Islam and Hinduism to justify the argument that conflict between Hindus and Muslims is always natural and inevitable. It is made to believe that the mere existence of Muslims in India is enough to offend Hindu sentiments.
Finally, there is a violent expression of the politics of hurt feelings. The lynching of Muslims in the name of cow worship in recent years and the beheading of an innocent Hindu tailor in Udaipur for allegedly protecting the honor of the Prophet Muhammad demonstrates that such politics can also take a brutal form.
The Udaipur murder follows a specific pattern. The murderers chose a particular individual and attacked him in an organized fashion. Interestingly, they didn’t just kill him to express their hurt feelings. They also filmed the entire episode and released it on social media. This brutal display of violence is rather instrumentalized to give the impression that Hinduism and Islam represent two different and conflicting civilizations.
It should be noted that there is a remarkable similarity between the Udaipur incident and the murder of a 50-year-old Muslim laborer, Mohammed Bhatta Sheikh, in 2017. Sheikh was axed to death and burned alive in the Rajsamand district in Rajasthan. Shambhu Nath Raigar, the accused, also recorded the murder and shared it widely on social media. He too invoked the hurt feelings of Hindus to justify this horrific act.
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Let’s see how these three versions of the politics of hurt feelings play out. Although each case has its own specific performance trajectory, one can certainly detect a broad three-level apparatus that provides a background for the dramatization and smooth execution of such a policy.
The first level of this apparatus is where an “idea of injury” is transformed into an event. Attacks on art galleries, seminars, conferences, film screenings and the lynching of innocent people show how an imaginary idea of suffering is expressed in concrete terms. This event-centered performance allows stakeholders to legitimize their existence as representatives of a group/community.
The appropriation of such events by the breaking news media is the second level where a highly localized event is further transformed into a national concern for public debate. At this crucial level of intervention, the sphere of stakeholders widens enormously. This opens up new possibilities for national elites to offer broader political perspectives to these random and practically insignificant events. Finally, at the third level, political parties come into play. They redefine media debates to articulate electorally advantageous positions.
The Ram Mandir show in Ayodhya is a classic example that explains the workings of this informal device. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) rediscovered the political potential in the Ayodhya conflict in the early 1980s. The Ratha Yatra of 1984 and the reopening of the Babri Masjid in 1986 were the key events that gave legitimacy to the concept of hurt feelings of Hindus. The media, including the state-run Doordarshan, played an important role in creating a discourse of conflict. And finally, political parties appropriate it to initiate a new narrative of electoral politics: communalism versus secularism.
A very similar trajectory can be seen in the Rushdie controversy. Rajiv Gandhi’s government banned satanic verses to appease Muslim religious elites. For ordinary Muslims in India, Rushdie and Ruhollah Khomeini were rather unknown names at that time. However, within two years they were mobilized by the religious elite to protect the dignity of the Prophet.
The politics of hurt feelings will certainly survive. We can be sure of this by seeing how pain is weaponized on all sides. It empowers Hindutva groups to reproduce what Suhas PaIshikar calls “Hindu hegemony”. At the same time, it gives ample space to non-Hindu groups to produce, create and appropriate new forms of Hindu feelings.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)