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Towards a Subcontinental Understanding of Secularism, Hurt Sentiment, and the Law: Siddharth Narrain Reviews Hurt Sentiments

Neeti Nair’s book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (HUP 2023), is an ambitious book that brings together two strands of arguments. The first strand examines how the meaning of secularism has evolved in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, both in relation to their individual histories and political contexts, but also in relation to one another. Nair argues that secularism in the subcontinent emerged as a practical form of tolerance and co-existence between religions rather than a strict conceptual division between state and religion. In her discussion on secularism in the subcontinent, Nair highlights the second strand of argument which is that claims of hurt sentiments have been and continue to be used strategically by different communities and political actors. Protection of hurt sentiment has been integral to the understanding of secularism and the protection of the rights of minorities that has evolved in the region. Nair’s argument is that the legal protections against hurt community sentiment that are codified in the Indian Penal Code, were part of the protections that secularism provided – wherein any speech that overtly manifested intolerance of other religions was deemed unacceptable. One of the main contributions of this book is a subcontinental lens that Nair brings to these discussions given her attention to the links between historical developments in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Connected Aspects of Hurt Sentiment Claims in the Subcontinent


Nair’s juxtaposition between developments in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh draws attention to aspects of claims of hurt sentiment in the subcontinent that are interlinked and should be understood in relation to each other. Nair’s account of Gandhi’s prayer meetings in the wake of communal riots leading up to and immediately after Partition is a powerful reminder of how Indian political leaders understood secularism, rooted in and in response to events of the time (chapter 1, pp 19-75). Nair highlights how this understanding of secularism and the approach to the rights of minorities and the legal regulation of hurt sentiments in India has been shaped by events across both sides of the border. These events include political contestations in post independent Pakistan, when the protection of the rights of minorities was debated and contested fiercely within Pakistan’s Parliament (chapter 3, pp 149-197), and the events of the 1970s when secularism was forged in Bangladesh through the atrocities of war and in co-existence with the principles of Islam (chapter 4, pp 198-241).  Nair makes this subcontinental connection in a thoughtful manner acknowledging the porosity of ideas and ideologies across borders and recognising how debates in Pakistan and Bangladesh have had an influence in shaping the political discourse around secularism and hurt sentiment in India.


Hurt Sentiments and the Law


I understood Nair as being broadly sympathetic to the adoption of laws that were meant to regulate hurt religious sentiment in the India by the Nehru government at the time of Independence as part of its effort to protect minorities and give effect to its idea of secularism as tolerance. I also understood Nair as being keenly aware of the history of the use of hurt sentiment claims by governments, individual actors, organisations and interest groups in the subcontinent to promote their own interests, for publicity, and to silence dissenting voices [1]. This is evident from Nair’s excellent account of the controversy over Hum Sabh Ayodhya, and opposition by Hindu nationalist parties to the festival for secularism organized by Sahmat post the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalist activists (pp 128-148). 


Nair’s account of the decision in Punjab Religious Book Society of Lahore v The State [(1960) 12 PLD (Lahore) 629 (Pak.)] points to how a subcontinental approach to this question could add to our understanding of this issue. In this case, the Lahore High Court struck down a ban on a book printed by a publishing house specialising in Christian religious literature in West Pakistan for “outraging the religious feelings of the Muslims of West Pakistan”. The Court judged the book through a speech-protective standard of “a neutral person who is neither connected to the religion of the person who is alleged to have outraged the religious feelings of someone nor stated to have been outraged” (p 193). Nair’s account of this case is an especially striking reminder of how understanding the complex history of contestations around religion and the protection of minorities in the subcontinent, could be useful to contemporary scholars grappling with these questions within their domestic jurisdictions.


Conclusion


Hurt Sentiments is an important and timely contribution to the existing literature in the field. Nair’s retelling of the history of contestations around secularism, minority rights and hurt sentiment in the subcontinent has lessons for a region that is grappling with a growing rise of the politics of intolerance. Nair’s account is both a tale of caution, but also one of hope, allowing for a glimpse into the complicated and interlinked histories of how nation states and political movements grappled with the question of religious minorities in the subcontinent. A poster of members of the then Indian men’s cricket team titled “Sportsmen against Communalism” that was part of the Sahmat campaign at the time it organised the Hum Sabh Ayodhya exhibition in 1993 was especially striking, an important window into the popular sentiment against communal politics just over two decades ago (pp 134-136). Hurt Sentiments shows us that any attempt to grapple with the contemporary politics of hate and ascendance of authoritarian populism and ethnic majoritarianism in the subcontinent must be rooted in an understanding of the complex and contested debates of the past.


End-Notes


[1] See e.g., Raminder Kaur and William Mazzarella (eds), Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction (Indiana University Press, 2009); Rajeev Dhavan, Publish and Be Damned: Censorship and Intolerance in India (Tulika Books, 2008); Cherian George, Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and the Threat to Democracy (MIT Press, 2016); Malvika Maheshwari,  Art Attacks: Violence and Offence-Taking in India (Oxford University Press, 2019); Rina Ramdev, Sandhya Devasan Nambiar and Devaditya Bhattacharya (eds), The State of Hurt: Sentiment, Politics, Censorship (SAGE Publications, 2016).


 

Dr Siddharth Narrain is a lecturer at the Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide, Australia. His research focuses on themes related to social media platform regulation, public law, and human rights law.


This post is part of a book round-table on Hurt Sentiments. Read the other posts here.


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