Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blasphemy laws in the 21st century

The anti- religious offense laws come from the 19th century and remain stuck because the attitudes of the community leaders (all of them) which remain firmly in place (and may actually be inching backwards to 7th century and beyond). You have the case of MF Hussain who had to leave his native land, Taslima Nasreen who had to abandon her second home (after being expelled from her native land) and Salman Rushdie who will never be able to speak live in front of an Indian audience.

The religious mafia(s) are making it clear that they are hurt by every spoken word and will inflict maximum pain in return. It is time for the intellectuals to lead the battle but they have remained passive (unless some Hindutva angle is present). Why not demonstrate some principles for a change and stand up against intimidation by the bullies??

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If Narendra Modi moves to Race Course Road this summer, India is set for an epic culture war. Even if he remains as cautious in office as he is being as a prime ministerial candidate, a future BJP-led government in New Delhi would chill India’s beleaguered liberals to the bone. They are already on the backfoot, since over the last ten years Congress has not shown the slightest interest in protecting, for example, the individual’s right to free speech. Nor has it reconsidered how a commitment to the separation of State and religion might be updated for the 21st century. 


The idea of offense and blasphemy in India remains old-fashioned, with both offenders and offended following an imported 19th century script. As the original Penal Code of 1860 states, imprisonment will be the punishment for anyone who ‘with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person’.
For decades now, the idea of personal liberty in the form of Nehruvian secularism and freedom of expression has failed to gain much popular traction. This is not to suggest any infringement of freedom of belief would ever be tolerated by India’s citizens, or that Indians lack the right to openly express an opinion in a way that remains forbidden in many countries, but rather that the current form of the debate remains elitist and abstruse, and is often confined to the English-language media. 

Thus a ban on a film or book may get reported around the world as an attack on freedom, but it will rarely draw an Indian crowd onto the streets. A dispute over the upkeep of the Dargah Shah-e-Mardan, on the other hand, will, for example, produce over 25,000 passionate protestors, as happened earlier this month in Delhi; but it will barely be reported in India and will be ignored internationally, as if it were of no consequence.
What passes for secularism in India—which in practice is often a system whereby political parties secure Muslim votes by wooing hereditary and religious leaders—has its roots in the shift away from reform and conversion in the wake of the great rebellion.
Queen Victoria, influenced by her well-educated German husband Albert, had an aversion to Christian bishops and a great dislike for missionaries. She even objected to her children’s governess telling them to kneel while saying their prayers in the evening. Why couldn’t they just lie in bed and pray? The settlement after 1857, with power passing from the East India Company to the British Crown, was a way to maintain British power at a time of weakness, but it was also a statement of Victoria’s own beliefs.
Against the advice of her ministers, Queen Victoria made amendments to a proclamation of future government policy, stating that from now on, nobody in India would be ‘in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects’. This was—in an era when Britain still had legalised discrimination against Jews and Catholics—quite a step to be taking.
Individual freedom of conscience came first: missionary organisations quickly flooded Windsor Castle with letters of complaint, but Victoria did not budge. The toleration of the Indian state was guaranteed. More than 150 years later, the royal proclamation of 1858 forms the basis of India’s policy of freedom of belief. In Pakistan, the situation reversed: the state legally discriminates against heretics.
The difficulty with the shape that toleration now takes in India is not the theory, which remains admirable, but the practice. If artists are in trouble with outraged members of a religious group, they are at risk. If a film or a book is suppressed for spurious reasons by a politician or a court order, the state will do nothing at all to protect the right to liberty of expression. If Salman Rushdie appears at a public event, no ‘secular’ leader will go near him, for fear of contagion. A supposedly representative Hindu opponent of an academic book will use outmoded and imported Christian arguments against impiety, and ignore the expansive, eclectic traditions of Hinduism—in which devotion is too intense to be troubled by the petty misrepresentations of others.
A beleaguered liberal, asked what should be done about this impasse, will generally answer that the Indian state needs to intervene legally or physically at times of threat, and securitise the right to freedom of speech—while knowing this is a political impossibility.  

What seems to happen remarkably rarely (and much less, I think than it used to in the post-independence years) is direct engagement between the opposing sides of such arguments. It is striking that both Hindu and Muslim traditionalists complain privately of being excluded from any opportunity to discuss what it is that offends them, and feel they suffer if their command of English is shaky.


When it comes to electoral politics, the assertion of secular values is even more skewed. Indian Muslims still suffer from social exclusion, lack of secure employment and chronic tokenism.
Earlier this year, I spent time with a Muslim leader in central India who had an iron grip on his community: he, or his family, had control of access to places at an engineering and medical college, the opportunity for individuals to stand for election, and even the chance to start a business. If an outside politician wished to hold a meeting in the local areas under his control, they had first to seek the leader’s permission. In his own view, and it was not wholly without foundation, the power he wielded was necessary to protect the minority community from hostile communal forces.
He spoke of progress. Would it not be helpful, I asked, if India had a single law that applied equally to all citizens on matters such as marriage, inheritance and the adoption of children? Absolutely not, he answered, as I had expected. But the present divided system, a leftover from earlier times, significantly weakens personal liberty by subsuming individuals into a system of control based on compulsory group identity. Indian Muslim women, for example, can still be divorced by the utterance of the triple talaaq. In many Islamic countries, this has been prohibited as archaic. Even across the border, the triple talaaq was abolished under the Pakistani Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in more liberal times in 1961. In India, it remains firmly in place.

If any of these myriad areas of contention are to be improved, the change has to come from what in India is perhaps inaccurately called the left: secularists, progressives, liberals and former and current communists. Were a BJP-led administration headed by Narendra Modi to try installing a uniform civil code, for instance, the country would turn into a sea of protest; coalition partners would fall away, probably bringing down the government.
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regards