'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Shirin Dalvi case: The tyranny of hurt sentiment
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
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. (See his Court statement)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