Art Attacks: The conflict between community and individual rights

Since the late 1980s, self-proclaimed representatives of a variety of communal groups – religious, caste, regional, linguistic – have incessantly obstructed artworks and attacked artists in the name of offence taking. Often, it has been noticed that the rhetoric used by the attackers to explain themselves is one based on ideas of "justice" and civil "rights". This complicates our understanding of these events through simple binaries of victims and violators. 

Malvika Maheshwari’s book, Art Attacks: Violence and Offence taking in India tells the story of this phenomenon through concrete political transformations that have informed this unfolding of attacks on artists. The book pushes for an understanding of these attacks as not simply ‘anti-democratic’ but points out the perverse ways through which they have been impacted by and through the logic of democracy itself. The given extract is an example of how the conservative strains have overpowered all other considerations in the reading and making of the free speech laws.

The following is an extract from the chapter "The Constitution of Free Speech" of the book.

Debates in the Constituent Assembly over the formulation of Article 19 represent the role played by India’s political elite at the helm of its transition from colonial rule to an independent, liberal democratic order. While the ambition was social revolution, it came to be filtered through responses to the political and social realities of the time, and expressed with an imagination, not of the way India’s masses might behave under ideal conditions of democracy, but of the way that they might actually in the process learn about its principles and adapt to its constraints. Not surprisingly, what the Assembly prepared was based more on a sketch of disorder, than on an unrealistic framework of orderliness. Particularly noteworthy was the framers’ concern with the ability of Indians to show restraint in matters of religious passions and communal inequalities.

It is true that despite these challenges freedom of speech and expression was unequivocally granted the status of a fundamental right of every citizen, with misgivings towards the central tools of domination like the clause on sedition, used by the colonial state. However, there were assumptions behind the creation of Article 19 that were ultimately indistinguishable from past institutional practices and contributed to the impression of conservatism, even as the choice to opt for their continuity (due to perhaps familiarity of practice, or even the belief that their absence might lead to unintended consequences) was ostensibly less severe. Indeed, a generally accepted impression of the Assembly is that its members were first of all diverse in their political and social outlooks, and thus secondly, not bound by a particular tradition. Its outcomes have therefore largely been determined by the framers’ collective commitment to generate consensus, where none existed, even if more precision might have been desirable. The conflict between community and individual rights is one obvious example. Herein lies the second main conservative side of the debates: a general scepticism about liberating individual freedom of speech and expression from the control of political and institutional authority, clearly exemplified by the caution exercised in the wake of extremist religious violence or even during the First Amendment debates. While it is apparent why individual freedom would be a source of anxiety, it remains a vital concern for liberal democracies today. Most writings on Article 19 have remarked on the suspicion entertained by India’s political elites towards individual freedom. Present-day constraints on freedom of speech in India, and on artistic expression in particular, then portray not so much the breakdown of a ‘liberal’ formulation of Article 19 as a misapplication of its ‘conservative’ formulation. It is not surprising that there has been a litany of judicial inconsistencies and problems associated with some of its open-ended terminology like ‘reasonable’, or ‘public order’, which have over time been increasingly misused by those intent on harassing artists in the name of a community’s ‘hurt sentiments’.

Another blind spot was the problem of art and free speech which rendered the palimpsest of these offences incoherent: while the view of the Assembly seemed to suggest that art not be distinct or separate from the general sense of free speech as it was being imagined, art was not a ‘handmaiden of self-government or reasoned liberty’ even if ‘it must ultimately connect to the world in which we live’, to use Randall Bezanzon’s words from his study of the constitutional value of art in North America1. Yet, contemporary politics reflects the most flagrant breakdown of the central liberal and collective commitment of the framers of India’s Constitution, a commitment that led to its creation in the first place: the commitment to generate consensus over conflict.

1. Randall P. Bezanson, Art and Freedom of Speech(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2009), 256-7.

This is an excerpt from Art Attacks: Violence and Offence-Taking in India, written by Malvika Maheshwari and publish by Oxford University Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Malvika Maheshwari teaches political science at Ashoka University, Haryana.