Take Abhijit Iyer, a strident right-wing analyst who spent more than a month in jail for a satirical video about a temple in Odisha that 'hurt religious sentiments', and a year-old tweet about the origin of the rosogulla.
His specific ‘crimes’ were sarcastic, disparaging comments about the sexually explicit scenes depicted on the walls of Konark temple, and tweeting a year back, “There’s no such thing as an Odia rosogulla.” Iyer was one of the loudest voices against freedom of speech when that speech went against his own sentiments, though. At one time, he had tweeted calling for the arrest of American historian Audrey Truschke for "hurting Hindu sentiments."
Now, after having been stuck in a political dogfight between BJD leader and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik and former BJD MP Jay Panda to whom Iyer is close, the vocal provocateur must see the irony: That he has fallen prey to the forces of intolerance he helped fan. Even as liberals grudgingly protested the farce of his arrest (and it is grudging), the right-wing ecosystem that once propped him up mostly abandoned him to his days in prison.
Who Let the Fascism In?
It's not only the right wing that upholds the imagined sanctity of 'religious and cultural sentiments'. Successive governments over the decades have bowed ingratiatingly before populist sentiment, refusing to repeal the onerous Sections 295A and 153A that have been used in much the same way Pakistan's blasphemy laws are used – selectively, and to settle scores.
295A makes “deliberate, malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” an offence, while 153A makes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc” an offence. The wording of these two sections is vague enough to allow authorities to invoke them as they see fit.
The case against Iyer, though lawful, was an assault on the freedom of expression from the beginning. His sarcastic joke about the sexually permissive scenes at the Konark temple being offensive 'hurt' the sentiments of the Odishan people as it is their great cultural icon. But causing 'offence' or 'hurt' to religious and cultural sentiments can hardly be a reason to put someone behind bars in a country that prides itself on its democratic credentials. And why should religion get special treatment anyway? In a country where everything from Donald Trump to cricket is worshipped, what special standing should religion have? And where does this leave us atheists? Can I bring a suit against somebody for insulting Darwin, for example?
As a society, we have decided that the Constitution and Supreme Court are the final arbiters. See, for example, the Supreme Court's dismissal of religious traditions that bar women from entering spaces. And yet, it was the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, when ruling on whether Iyer could get protection from arrest as he feared for his life, who said "If your life is in danger, then what better place for you than in jail? Your life will be secure."
‘Then They Came For Me...’
After spending 50 days in jail for the ‘crime’ of hurting cultural sentiments, Odisha's government has now agreed to withdraw all charges against him, putting the ball in the judiciary’s court.
The true takeaway from this, however, is that the fascism that has been incrementally pumped into Indian society, has begun to cannibalise its own.
Take the case of the violence in Bulandshahr in CM Yogi Adityanath's UP. After media reports of the UP Police staging a staggering number of fake encounters and turning a blind eye to the violence of gau rakshaks in their state, an officer has been murdered by a mob incited by the same intolerant sentiments and lawlessness that the CM himself fanned.
Or even take the case of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was bombarded with rape and death threats by right-will troll for taking action against a passport officer accused of harassing an inter-faith (Hindu-Muslim) couple. Her membership of the BJP and status as Union Minister couldn't stem the tide of vitriol.
What's clear is that something is now changing. A critical mass may have been reached, and the assiduously fanned hatred has begun to spill over from the carefully constructed channels through which it was supposed to flow. There may soon come a stage when the genie can’t go back in the bottle.
Now, it's not just a skull cap, beef, or a surname that can get someone abused or imprisoned or killed – it's anything.