HIMMAT is starting off as a blog by Rajmohan Gandhi who has written on the Indian independence movement and its leaders, South Asian history, India-Pakistan relations, human rights and conflict resolution. His latest book is Modern South India: A History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New Delhi: Aleph, forthcoming).

Targeting Art

One of India’s finest and most popular vocalists, T. M. Krishna, has responded magnificently to attacks on South Indian musicians willing to perform at events organized by Christian groups.

Following the threats, some musicians withdrew. Krishna was not one of the artists involved but his steadfast defence of freedom of expression has never found favour with extremists. 

Krishna’s response to the unofficial ‘ban’ is to say that every month henceforth he would release songs about Allah or Jesus.

Earlier we heard the news that Damodar Mauzo, one of Goa’s most beloved writers and like Krishna a Hindu, had incurred extremist wrath.

The attacks on artists accepting the invitation of Christian groups focused on the groups’ alleged desire for converts. In some instances, attackers used the opportunity to demand a ban on conversions to Christianity and Islam.

There is no evidence that the events to which the artists were invited were aimed at increasing the numbers of India’s Christians, who today add up to fewer than one-fortieth of the country’s population.

There is no evidence either that organizers wanted more Indians to study the life of Jesus Christ. In any case, such a wish is not an offence. 

Hindus outside India commit no crime when they ask Christians, Jews, Muslims and agnostics to read the Gita and the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Likewise, India’s Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists would commit no offence were they to provide knowledge of their faiths to Hindu compatriots.

T. M. Krishna has done well to include Muslims as well as Christians in his response. In India’s Northeast, which has a substantial Christian presence, Hindutva extremists seek a political and ideological alliance with Christians by targeting Muslim migrants from Bangladesh.

In other parts of India, these extremists feel free to announce their hostility towards Christians.

In his attack on artists performing at Christian events, one ardent advocate of Hindutva claimed that Mahatma Gandhi wanted conversions banned in free India.

No, he didn’t. Gandhi wanted Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Hindus to live out their faith and their convictions, not to press their views on others. 

But as a passionate believer in individual freedom, he never tried to prevent others from changing their views, including religious ones.

This was confirmed in the mid-1930s when Ambedkar debated with Gandhi over Hinduism, and when Gandhi’s eldest son Harilal wanted to give up Hinduism, which Gandhi stoutly defended in each case.

The Mahatma never said to Ambedkar, Harilal or anyone else, ‘Please do not read anything which is not from your religion. Do not to go to, speak at, or sing at an event arranged by persons of another faith.’

Gandhi and Ambedkar – and Nehru and Patel – were absolutely at one in entrenching the freedoms of thought, expression and belief in the Indian Constitution.

In September 1946 – on freedom’s eve, and before the Constituent Assembly began deliberations on a constitution --, Gandhi gave the following reply when a Christian missionary asked if independent India would have a state religion:

If I were a dictator, religion and State would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The State has nothing to do with it. The State would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern (Harijan,22 Sept 1946; Collected Works 85: 328-29).

An assault on personal freedoms is now in full swing in India. The goal is to remove the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. The strategy is to generate passion and prejudice at ground-level before formally seeking a rewording of the Constitution.

The attack on the freedom of artists is part of that assault. Krishna’s response is that of a satyagrahi. It is also astute.

Gandhi would have blessed the response.

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