By: Dilip Simeon
Shirin Dalvi, the editor of the Mumbai edition of Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, has become the latest victim of the running saga over cartoons. Since mid-January, when she unwittingly published a Charlie Hebdo cover, she has been slapped with criminal charges, her newspaper shut down, its employees rendered jobless, and she herself forced underground. Vicious threats are sent to her via social media. All this is happening despite her printed apology. The police have opposed anticipatory bail on the ground that it would cause a law and order problem (aren’t they paid to deal with such matters?).
The man who filed the complaint heads an Urdu journalists’ body. He is cited as saying, “I filed a case against her and I am happy that she was arrested. If she was in an Islamic state, she would have been beheaded as per law.”
That the freedom of speech could be so flagrantly attacked in the name of religion is by now a common experience. Self-appointed guardians of faith have attacked our minds with relentless aggression for years. But that someone could wish a horrible death to another human being is itself highly offensive to many of us — and this person thinks it earns him merit in the eyes of Allah. I have no access to the mind of the Almighty, but I can venture to suggest that Allah is more considerate than some of his followers.
Hurt sentiment has become the cutting edge of tyranny. It is the perpetually available political tool for preparing “spontaneous” mob violence, violating the law, mobilising illiberal movements and intimidating everyone — especially within the preferred community — who disagrees with communal politics. It becomes worse when responsible individuals glamorise this fake and vicious form of piety.
Sentiment appeared in the law in the aftermath of the Rangila Rasul case of 1929, when the publisher Rajpal was murdered in Lahore by a 19-year-old youth named Ilm-ud-din. The boy pleaded guilty, against his lawyer M.A. Jinnah’s advice — this is reported as the only case Jinnah ever lost. The philosopher Allama Iqbal led the funeral ceremony, at which he reportedly declared: “This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones.” One of pre-Independence India’s outstanding thinkers had no qualms in glorifying murder in the name of hurt sentiment. Ilm-ud-Din is now revered as a ghazi in Pakistan. This is akin to the reverence accorded to V.D. Savarkar, a prime accused in the M.K. Gandhi murder case, not to mention the glorification of men like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Nathuram Godse.
Section 295-A, which penalises offensive utterances, was framed in the aftermath of the Rangila Rasul case. Jinnah helped frame the act and stressed that it should apply only to cases of deliberate and malicious intent. The misuse of this law in India is well-documented. Pakistan augmented it with the death penalty for blasphemy. Pakistani Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard for merely suggesting that the law be re-examined, in the context of the Aasia Bibi case. His killer has now acquired heroic status, and his appeal is led by a former chief justice of Punjab. Instead of advocating the non-violent resolution of conflicts, members of the elite have added fuel to the flames. A society whose philosophers, lawyers and judges think it fit to celebrate revenge killing is doomed to an infinite spiral of extremism.
The topic of blasphemy has always been suffused with blood-thirst. Let us be clear that Dalvi is not merely being harassed by a complainant, who is aided and abetted by a mean-spirited police and government. Formal harassment is only part of the story. More significant is the violence that underpins all the arguments, phone calls, arrests, social-media posts, etc. Dalvi is exposed to violence, with the active connivance of the state, which is supposed to protect her. By referring to beheadings and sharia law, the complainant is creating an ambience of murderous hate around this hapless woman. Can he not see that his behaviour mimics the hateful propaganda directed towards religious minorities and other vulnerable groups in India? In this case too, a minority is being oppressed. Shirin is a minority of one. Those who oppress minorities themselves have no business complaining about the oppression of minorities.
Islamic theology does not always lead in a tyrannical direction. The ideas of the Egyptian professor of religion Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Mohammed Taha are worthy of respect. These learned scholars were persecuted for advocating liberal readings of the Quran and hadith. Abu Zayd was forced to divorce his wife and flee Egypt in the mid-1990s. Taha was executed in 1985 by a sharia court under the regime of the dictator Gaafar Nimiery. We would also profit from a study of the lives of famous Muslims from the national movement, such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad; not to mention lesser known ones like Bibi Amtus Salam, whom Gandhi used to call his daughter.
A war of conscience is underway for the soul of Islam. The Dalvi case is merely the latest example. In July 2013, a lecture by the American Islamic scholar Amina Wadud was cancelled by the Centre for Islamic Studies in Chennai, because of threats received via a text message. The leader of a communal outfit had called the police and threatened an agitation. Instead of providing protection to the event, the police intimidated the organisers, who gave in. Why does the freedom of conscience and speech apply only to providing state protection to petty tyrants and blackmailers, and not to those who wish to criticise religion or to study alternative religious currents? What message do governments send to society by encouraging goondas and oppressing people of mild temper? What will happen to the rule of law if this continues?
Would the complainant in the Dalvi case kindly reflect on whether his religion contains some resources for restraint and compassion? Or is it, in his view, a compendium of justifications for working up murderous rage in the faithful? If the latter is the case, he is no different from those who hounded M.F. Husain out of India and who now wish to deify Godse. Whether he knows it or not, he is acting in their interest. His actions will not benefit Islam, rather, fanatics of other brands will be doubly energised. However, if he can find something gentle in his faith, let him use it as inspiration to withdraw the case.
Those of us who are more offended by gratuitous violence than by cartoons must defend Dalvi. We must demand that the government provide her with protection, investigate those threatening her (didn’t the police arrest a young woman for Facebook posts at the time of Bal Thackeray’s funeral?), and instruct the state prosecutors to drop the case. We have had it up to our throats with fabricated outrage. We, too, are angry at the police and government repeatedly surrendering their responsibility to protect peaceable citizens from hooligans wearing religious masks. Down with the tyranny of sentiment.
The writer is a labour historian based in New Delhi.