Why the Hindu Right, Not Usually a Champion of Free Speech, Is Supporting Charlie Hebdo

The French magazine's decision to republish the controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammad has given Hindutva groups a fresh opportunity to push its agenda.

New Delhi: The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the controversial cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad has been criticised for being offensive and supported as a freedom of expression issue in equal measure. Among those it has clearly enthused are Hindu right groups in India, not particularly known for being great votaries of free speech. But the magazine’s somewhat radical stance has provided these groups yet another opportunity to further their hate campaign against the Muslim community. Additionally, it is another chance to take a dig at Indian secularism.

The republishing of the cartoons have yet again sparked off global discussions on free speech and blasphemy. Charlie Hebdo, known for its provocative and irreverent content, decided to republish the controversial cartoons on Tuesday, a day ahead of the first trial for the 2015 terrorist attacks against the magazine which had come in the wake of the original publication.

Five years ago, on January 7, 2015, Said and Cherif Kouachi, French nationals of Algerian origin stormed its Paris offices with Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades and pistols, killed 12 people and injured at least 11. Among those killed were many celebrated cartoonists of France, including the then-editor Stéphane Charbonnier, the satirical caricaturist widely known as ‘Charb’. Later, the Yemen-based Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Ansar al-Sharia, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The cartoon even then had sparked off an intense debate about the publication.

The trial, which will continue for the next few months at a Paris court, will hear the case of 14 people who have been accused of providing logistical support to the Kouachi brothers who carried out the attacks but were later killed in a police encounter in the outskirts of French capital city.

Also Read: Five Years on From the Charlie Hebdo Attack, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Rings Hollow

The controversial cartoons have divided the world multiple times

While the magazine itself said that its decision to republish the provocative cartoons was an act of defiance, many political commentators also believe its action may reignite old wounds and spark yet another political row.

While republishing the cartoons, Laurent ‘Riss’ Sourisseau, the publishing director who was also injured in the 2015 attack, wrote, “We will never give up. The hatred that struck us is still there and, since 2015, it has taken the time to mutate, to change its appearance, to go unnoticed and to quietly continue its ruthless crusade.”

He further said that if the magazine does not republish the cartoons, it would only be because of “political or journalistic cowardice”.

However, many commentators feel that the cartoons, 12 of which were originally published in 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, and later reprinted by Charlie Hebdo the following year, were poor in taste. They showed Prophet Mohammad as an accomplice in terrorism. Even in 2005, the cartoons had set off large-scale protests in many Muslim-majority countries. While Jyllands-Posten claimed that it had published the cartoons to take a dig on the culture of fear and self-censorship within the Danish media, political commentators felt that the cartoons perpetuate a particular militant stereotype about Muslims, especially when many innocent Muslims were bearing the brunt of global Islamophobia.

The matter only blew out of proportion when the Danish newspaper boastfully contended that the cartoons depicted the superiority of western culture over other “barbaric” societies.

Although protests and condemnations by many groups forced Jyllands-Posten to apologise later (the editor-in-chief of the Danish magazine said the cartoons had caused “serious misunderstandings”), every time the cartoons were re-published from 2005 to 2015, it sparked off global debates that invariably pitched advocates of free speech against their peers who were also equally critical of Islamophobia and ‘blasphemous’ depiction of Islamic symbols in media.

The massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo five years ago further aggravated these fault lines, especially against the backdrop of majoritarian political forces continuously asserting themselves in many countries.

Police secure an entrance at the courthouse for the opening of the trial of the January 2015 Paris attacks against Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly, a policewoman in Montrouge and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, in Paris, France, Steptember 2, 2020. The trial will take place from September 2 to November 10. Photo: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

The Hindu right’s push

The Hindu right, which has consolidated itself on anti-Muslim propaganda in India, has latched on to the republishing as a cause to further their own agenda. While right-wing commentators on social media supported Charlie Hebdo wholeheartedly, pro-Hindutva websites also made it a point to highlight the development as a matter of freedom of expression. The RSS’s mouthpiece Organiser which hardly reports on international issues carried an extensive report on Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the provocative cartoons, and focussed on the terrorist attack on it in 2015 in an attempt to vilify Indian Muslims.

However, the Hindu right wing’s own prominent and less than edifying role over the last two decades in suppressing free expression in the fields of art and literature in India has invited universal criticism.

A few significant instances in which Hindutva groups have resorted to violence and vandalism in trying to silence artists and authors can be cited in this regard, which will illustrate the double-standards of this sudden, new love for freedom of expression, especially in matters concerning religion.

In 2014, Hindu nationalists built pressure on Penguin publishers through violence protests to withdraw internationally-acclaimed author Wendi Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History from circulation in India. The Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) went a step ahead to accuse the University of Chicago professor of “hurting the religious feelings of millions of Hindus” in a lawsuit that claimed that Donger’s book was “a deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings by insulting Hindus and their religious beliefs”. Penguin eventually removed the book from circulation in India and decided to pulp its unsold copies in an out-of-court settlement with the Hindutva group.

A protest against Wendy Doniger’s book. Photo: hindujagruti.org

Similarly, persistent lawsuits by the SBAS and violent protests by the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) since 2008 finally forced Delhi University to drop the eminent literary scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation from the reading list of an undergraduate course in history in 2011. In this case, the Sangh parivar thought that the essay sought to transcend not merely geographical but also religious boundaries. For the Hindutva forces, which like to believe that epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata could be read only as standardised texts within an uniform Hindu faith and tradition, the essay became a natural ideological issue to be contested.

The ABVP first launched a violent protest against the essay in 2008 when it vandalised the office of S.Z.H Jafri, the then head of history department at the Delhi University, when its representatives came to submit a memorandum against what it believed was a blashphemous essay.

ABVP activists at a protest. Photo: PTI

Speaking to Organiser, petitioner and SBAS functionary Dina Nath Batra had said soon after the university purged the essay, “It was a conspiracy hatched on the part of Christian Missionaries and their fellow travellers to demean our gods and goddesses. It has been thrashed. We have decided to honour all those who raised their voice against the insult of our gods and goddesses in the university itself…All these people will be mobilised so that they could keep a close watch over the university syllabus.”

In almost similar set of events, the Mumbai University too withdrew Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991) from its syllabus after the far-right Shiv Sena protested against what it believed were derogatory references to its party members.

The then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had similarly threatened to burn James W. Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India when the Bombay high court decided to lift a ban on it in 2011. The party felt that it portrayed Shivaji, who is considered Maharashtra’s greatest icon, in poor light.

The BJP-led Gujarat government, too, in 2001 banned Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India after Hindutva forces objected to implications that Gandhi’s relationship with a German man was homosexual in nature.

Time and again, Hindutva forces have mounted pressure on governments and authorities to ban texts which did not go down well with their political posturing.

Hindutva: An artist’s nightmare

In the field of art too, these forces have been even less tolerant.

It goes back to 2007 when a Hindutva mob, instigated by one Raghu Vyas, a painter and a RSS member, and a fringe group called Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, attacked legendary painter M.F. Husain’s exhibitions at the India International Centre, New Delhi and in London. Husain was already facing at least seven lawsuits for allegedly causing offence to Hindu sensibilities in his works and was living in a forced exile, shuttling between Dubai and London.

The next August, a dozen Hindu fanatics from the little-known extremist group called Sri Ram Sena vandalised yet another exhibition that showcased reproductions of Husain’s paintings in the lawns of Vithalbhai Patel House in the national capital.

Work of M.F. Husain damaged by Hindutva groups. Photo: PTI

In May 2007, on the complaint of Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists, the Gujarat police arrested an art student Chandramohan in M.S University, Vadodara, for exhibiting paintings of religious figures with anatomical details for his coursework assessment. Although no faculty members objected to it, the Hindutva activists who weren’t a part of the university raised a hue and cry over the paintings, and threatened the university authorities to remain silent. His struggle for justice still continues.

In 2013, an art gallery in Ahmedabad, Amdavad-ni-Gufa, showcasing works by Pakistani artists was vandalised by the VHP whose activists tore the works and ransacked furniture at the gallery. Speaking to the press, VHP Gujarat unit general secretary Ranchhod Bharvad said, “How can paintings of Pakistani artists be allowed to be on display here when that country is beheading and killing our soldiers, waging a proxy war.”

There are several such examples in which the Hindutva brigade have shown intolerance towards a work of art or literature. In all these episodes, they have bafflingly contended that the Hindu religious sentiments were hurt and that the art or text were malicious attempts by artists and authors to defame Hindu religion. Strangely, apart from the Hindutva groups, there was no such resistance to these creative works from the larger Hindu population.

Also Read: As the Gujarat Model Goes National, Hindutva Hunts for the ‘Enemy in Our Midst’

Politics of “hurt sentiments”

The Charlie Hebdo episode became a rallying point for the Jes Suis Charlie cry in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the magazine’s offices. Although the cartoons were rightly criticised as an attempt to assert western hegemony over others and questions were raised over their intent, it has gradually become clear over the last few decades that fundamentalists in every religion have often tried to mobilise opinion through what can be called politics of “hurt sentiments”. More often than not, these attacks are meant to target who the fundamentalists think of as an inside enemy.

Flowers and candles are seen outside the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s former office on the the fifth anniversary of the attack and a siege at a Kosher supermarket which killed 17 people in Paris, January 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Eminent political scientist Aijaz Ahmed has attempted to theorise these phenomena by making quite discernible linkages between such fascist trends and the growth of free market capitalism. He argues that free market capitalism has succeeded in delinking nationalisms from its historical roots, Indian nationalism being one of the crucial examples.

Politics of liberalisation, he says, has created an ideological vacuum. It can only succeed if Indian nationalism can be detached from its anti-colonial origins and “redefined in culturalist, irrationalist, racist terms, so that the national energies are expanded not on resistance against imperialism but on suppression of the supposed enemy within: the denominational minority, the communist Left, the pseudo-secularist, any and all oppositions to tradition as defined by Hindutva.” In this context, Hindutva and liberalisation in this context are not only reconcilable but also complementary.

At the same time, free market capitalism, as art historian Geeta Kapur argues, has transformed creative work. She says that the cultural fall out of global capitalism has cancelled the very concept of avant-garde. Artistic movements like the Mexican mural, Fluxus, Arte Povera, or Dadaism engaged people in anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiments, and from these movements a radical idea of free speech emerged, one that challenged, and resisted, the status quo.

She says much of that changed in India and elsewhere because of liberalisation which ushered in capitalist ethos. Citing the Indian example, she had told this correspondent a few years ago, “The 1990s saw the transition of an artist from a citizen to an interlocutor in the changed public discourse. The operational term in art shifted from creativity to production. Indian artists broke off their pact with progressive nationalism and functioned according to the needs of the market.”

Against this backdrop, Kapur believes that the idea of free expression within the realm of contemporary art functions in a vacuum, and becomes susceptible to getting played at the hands of political forces with vested interests.

The renewed ecosystem in the artistic world that Kapur talks about legitimises Jyllands-Posten’s controversial cartoons as an exercise in free speech, while discounting entirely the havoc the cartoons may precipitate globally.

The divided responses that Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the cartoons has drawn, perhaps, is a result of the very ideological vacuum in the political and cultural spheres that Ahmed and Kapur talk about. The Hindutva groups in India, and other majoritarian forces across the world, otherwise no particular warriors for free speech, have seen an opportunity to use this for their own communal ends.