Right to offend – Is it absolute?

The recent act of Australian brewery Brookvale Union featuring Hindu Gods and Goddesses on their beer bottles is yet another case in point where Hindu Gods are mocked without slightest of consideration for the religious sentiments of Hindus. The beer bottles feature Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha with the severed head of a Cow.

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While, Brookvale Union did render apology eventually, yet, the damage has already been done. Moreover, the apology was not furnished swiftly upon when it was brought to their notice. It took them over a week and that too after the sustained efforts of organisations such as Overseas Friends of Bhartiya Janta Party (OFBJP) and several individuals that Brookvale Union agreed to apologise, with what could be termed as lip service than a sincere one.

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A school of thought subscribes that demand by several Hindus to remove the distasteful pictures from the beer bottles would compromise the right of freedom of expression, a vital cog  in the wheel of flourishing democracy such as Australia.

One would do well to remember that not so long ago, in 2010; an Indian national Nitin Garg was brutally murdered in Melbourne. Reflecting on shoddy investigation into the murder, New Delhi’s Mail Today published a cartoon showing a figure wearing Klu Klux Klan hood with Victoria Police Badge. This cartoon came after series of violent incidents had occurred with Indian nationals in Australia and was merely capturing the sense of disappointment and despondency among many Indians on the unsatisfactory police investigations in the incidents.

Yet the cartoon enraged Australian authorities so much so that the then Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard had issued a statement condemning the cartoon and terming it deeply offensive and absolutely unacceptable.[1] If the state’s objection against publishing an innocuous cartoon does not compromise the idea of freedom of expression then how can the demand for removal of images that have hurt thousands of Hindus be termed as an attempt to subjugate freedom of expression?

While Hindus are hurt from the pictures of their sacred Gods on alcohol bottles, they are smarting from the high handedness of Brookvale Union in the whole fiasco. Hindus have legitimate questions on this: How much cerebral ability does one need to figure out, that what could have been more insulting for a community than having pictures of their Gods on alcohol bottle? The casualness and indifference, with which the company handled the whole fiasco, is it because the company consider Hindu religious sensitivities not vital enough and therefore deem irrelevant? Is Brookvale Union thinking that given Hindus are by and large tolerant and peaceful community so despite deeply offending Hindus it would be business as usual for the company?

 

Which leads to the obvious follow-up questions: how would have Brookvale Union responded if the brewery had printed Muslim religious figures? Would the brewery risk print anything on beer bottles that even slightly offended Muslims at the first place? Would they have not exhaustively researched before venturing out beer bottles with Muslim religious figures to examine the potential impact? Had the Muslims protested would Brookvale Union have taken over a week to apologise? How would have the Australian government reacted in such a scenario? The answers are uncomfortable ones but not difficult to guess.

 To seek the answers one must examine how some of the western governments and media responded during the infamous Danish cartoons that had offended and enraged Muslims around the world. By and large western media backed out from broadcasting the cartoons. In Australia barring the Courier Mail no newspaper published the cartoons.[2]  In France, when a magazine published the cartoons, fearing the hostile response, the French government decided to shut down their embassies and schools in as many as twenty countries.[3] The overwhelming majority of public in western world agreed that publishing the controversial cartoons was blasphemous and would invite backlash by Muslim groups.  The world community observed unilateral restrained on displaying the cartoons. By not publishing the cartoons weakens the claim that right to freedom of expression is absolute.

It is no brainer to estimate that for the indiscretion of Brookvale Union, had not for the Hindu community the earth below Brookvale Union’s feet would have shaken. Unlike in this instance where even a delayed soft apology has saved the day for them, it would have taken damage control efforts of gigantic proportions both from the company and the political machinery to bail them out from the mess.

So here is my view on this issue:  Upholding the right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct for all the liberal voices but should not be responsibility of a single community alone – Hindus in this instance. Brookvale Union is an important stakeholder in Australian community. Common sense calls for the stakeholders to observe sensitivity fairly towards all the religious groups. Blatantly ignoring the religious sensitivities of one group would only weaken the discourse on free expression.

Hindus are taught to be forgiving but Brookvale Union could do a little more than offering a mere token apology to Hindus. It could begin by sponsoring education for 101 girl children of India (101 being an auspicious number for Hindus). While this may not totally absolve them from their indiscretion they have committed, yet they could take this opportunity to help and build some lives for the future. This is the least they could offer to do to assuage the thousands of Hindus they have hurt to some extent.

by Kushagra Bhatnagar

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