Many of us have been living with Fatwaitis for a long time now. Fatwaitis, also known as the ‘Offence Virus’, entered humanity’s bloodstream around 1988, about six years after AIDS was discovered, and has proved to be an even more dangerous disease. In fact, we are closer to eradicating AIDS and overcoming many cancers than we are to getting rid of Fatwaitis. The Offence Virus is replicating and mutating rapidly in different human societies faster than we can counter it. Even as we search for antidotes, more and more people are falling victim to the tentacles of the dread disease.
The thing is, Fatwaitis is a tough enemy. It is not a physical disease, it’s a condition of the mind and spirit. In this, too, some people are, in a sense, what you might call ‘innocent’ victims, while others are ‘carriers’, a small minority of ruthless people who deliberately carry the virus and infect others, sometimes hundreds of thousands of others, without any pity or care.
Below, I put down an ‘Offence Calculator’, which offers some basic steps to fighting this grave illness of the mind.
1. Learn to Differentiate Between Offence Virus and Hate Speech. F-itis, or OV, is a very different sickness from the disease of Hate Speech, though sometimes people mix them up — again, some without thinking things through and others with great pre-meditation. Hate Speech has certain clear indications. One such marker is when someone, publicly, exhorts people to physically attack someone or some community. The ‘publicly’ bit is important. For example, if sitting at home, over drinks with friends one evening, I were to say “God, I want to kill everyone who thinks So-and-So is a great writer,” that is not hate speech, that is an emphatically critical opinion. But if I were to say on TV, or on a stage at a literature festival, that “people who regard Sir So-and-So as a great writer should be beaten up mercilessly”, then that would, indeed, qualify as hate speech against the community of readers who, whether ill-judged or not, worship the writing of Sir So-and-So.
The second bit that’s important in identifying Hate Speech is the exhortation to assault or to in any way deny a community or a group of people their human rights. So, if standing on a stage in Shivaji Park I say “I think everyone who still insists on calling this city Bombay is an idiot”, that’s, technically, not hate speech. But if I say “Everyone who still utters the names, ‘Bombay’ or ‘Bumbai’, is a traitor and you know what we should do with traitors” then that’s hate speech and a jailable offence. Similarly, if I say something like “The poor are greedy and leeches on society” then that’s not hate speech, it’s completely stupid and may be offensive to many but it’s not a crime. But if I say “Everyone begging at traffic lights should be jailed” then that veers close to hate speech because I’m suggesting that beggars’ human rights be taken away.
The third pointer has to do with the ‘speech’ bit. This is tricky but not that tricky. For instance, people do, and should have, the license to insult or make fun of different groups of people in books and films. In fiction, especially, it could just be an accurate depiction of a character. A good example of this is Mario Vargas Llosa’s great novel, Aunt Julia and the Script-Writer. In this Peruvian novel, there is a character who hates Argentinians with nuclear venom. So, on every third page, there is an insult either to Argentina or Argentinians — some insults funny, some of them vicious. If a writer had similarly insulted India we would have been ‘offended’, accused the book of ‘hate speech’, burnt it, banned it, and arrested the offending writer if he ever came to the country. As far as I know Argentinians celebrate Vargas Llosa as a great writer of their region.
2. Who Reaches for Violence when an Offence is Claimed? Hate Speech is dangerous because it demonstrably leads people into attacking other people either physically or socially. Similarly, when looking for Fatwaitis, look out for signs of violence — who is threatening violence, who is exhorting people to become martyrs, who is implying that riots and arson will take place if their demands are not met? A book or film or a painting that offends someone does not demand physical violence. In fact, the book, film or painting is a non-violent, passive, thing (you can shut the book and throw it away, it won’t bite; you can walk out of the cinema, you can walk away from the gallery, neither the film nor the painting will follow you out) and it is the ‘protests’ that often threaten violence or are actually violent. So one classic symptom of Fatwaitis or OV is that a passive product, usually some sort of artistic or scholarly product, is labelled as having offended some group and then this offence is used as a license for violence by that group. The disease runs on a sick tautology: I have the right to be offended = I have the right to be violent if I’m offended.
3. Who Profits when an Offence is Claimed? A wise friend once told me: “After any riot or terrorist attack, always look to see who profited from the incident. That will usually indicate who caused the riot or attack.” Similarly, when looking to identify and cure OV, always look to see who gained an advantage from a group being offended. So, when Rushdie was stopped from coming to Calcutta did the city’s Muslims suddenly find their lot improved? New schools for poor Muslim kids? Sanitation for the slums where Muslims are in majority? No. The people who gained, or might imagine they gained were the ruling party. What did they gain, exactly? They gained the right to say “Look, we care about Muslims, we stopped Rushdie from coming to Calcutta!” Have we seen this kind of calculation before? Yes, when the Left Front stopped Taslima Nasreen from returning to Calcutta in order to pander to the same voters’ sentiments. A minister in the TMC apparently told a journalist, “Thirty per cent of our voters are Muslim. There is no way we will let Rushdie come here.” Again, a tautology: If you are a Muslim in West Bengal, whether you read novels in English or not, you will be offended by Salman Rushdie. If you are not offended, we will ask you to be offended. Then we will stop the bad Rushdie and show you how much we care about you.
Similarly, who gained when M.F. Husain was driven out of India? Poor Hindus who had never set foot in an art gallery? Nope. The VHP and the BJP who could say, “We defended Bharat Mata!” Who gains when people chase Ashis Nandy with an FIR (when a massed, loud derisive guffaw would have hurt old Ashis-da much more)? The Dalit leaders who can beat the drum and say, “Look we stood up like lions for Dalit rights!”
4. Isn’t Religion Special? Shouldn’t we be Extra Protective of it? No. People have made fun of religious figures — whether mythical figures or actual historical figures — ever since those figures came into being, and people have a right to make fun of or insult these figures. Also, the moment you practise a particular religion you are, in a sense, denigrating all other religions. If you say “There is no god but my god,” you are insulting and dismissing the gods of others. So, if you have a right to practise your religion, then others have a right to practise their belief, or to not practise any religion, and that right includes dismissing or insulting figures you may hold sacred. If you actually believe in your deity or your saints, if you actually believe in an all-powerful being, then let that being or that prophet or that son of god, or that Maha Godddess take their own offence. If someone’s spitting at the sky, let the sky answer back. Who are you, an ant, to play bodyguard to Mount Everest?
5. When is a Good Time to Start Fighting Fatwaitis? Now. Because the more we let the disease spread, the harder it will be for future generations to eradicate.