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For an India of blasphemers

Get one thing straight: the murders in Paris were intended as an attack on the freedom of expression. The murderers explicitly acted in the name of their conception of Islam; they reportedly said, after the massacre, that the Prophet Mohammed had been “avenged”. To add layers of nuance to these murders is self-deception. They were not about Arab cultural values, about France’s inequality, about Eurocentric racism, or about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They were about blasphemy. They were about the imposition, through the fear of targeted killings, of a medieval speech code on a society that has voluntarily freed itself of such restraints. 

Yes, Charlie Hebdo, the magazine that was attacked, skirted the borders of bad taste. Some of the cartoonists who died were in their 70s, and had been since the 1960s icons of the anti-clerical, semi-anarchist left; they spent their careers lampooning practices that they saw as oppressive. And, here’s the thing: for many on the left in Europe today, the practices of some of their Muslim co-citizens are seen indeed as oppressive. You do not need to take a stance on whether this view is in itself racist or Eurocentric or whatever in order to justify their right to express it. Modern Europe has been built on the gradual retreat of oppressive traditions when faced with disbelief and mockery. To demand this cease now, as some liberals do, is to spit in the face of three centuries of history. 

Let there be no doubt about it: those who choose to defy fundamentalist Islam today are brave people. Most of us would not dare. Yes, we will certainly mock other, defanged religions – Reform Judaism, perhaps, or many strains of Christianity. (One of the murdered cartoonists himself described his aim as being to make European Islam “as banal as Catholicism”.) Yes, we would think twice about being disrespectful of the Majority Religion in these parts – it may lead to mobs and legal trouble. But we will seriously fear even the slightest expression of disagreement with principles that fundamentalist Muslims hold in esteem. There are degrees to everything, and militant Islam has a doctoral degree in intimidation. 

This means that what is claimed to be a double standard among Indian liberals – you never talk about Islam as much, we are told – is simply fear. It is ridiculous to angrily denounce people for not risking martyrdom. The kind of wishy-washy timid pragmatic middle-of-the-road un-fanatical compromise-loving individuals such as myself to whom Indian liberalism appeals are not known for seeking out martyrdom. 

But the truth is that, in India, we have voluntarily restricted ourselves even further. Blasphemy against anyone carries far more risks than it should. Besides the fear of death, there is the fear of the mob, as I mentioned – the fear that drove M F Husain to die in exile.

And there is the fear of legal action, on the basis of contemptible, illiberal and outdated laws, of the sort that sent Mumbai rationalist SanalEdamaruku to exile in Finland, after legal threats from Roman Catholics. 

Edamuruku had questioned a “miracle” being claimed by some Roman Catholics in Mumbai. A steady drip of water from the toe of a statue of Jesus in a suburban church was not in fact a miracle, he showed, but the consequence of an overflowing drain. For this, he was rewarded with criminal cases being registered against him in three police stations in Mumbai. The crucial statute, of course, is Section 295A of the penal code, which criminalises speech that offends the religious. This is India’s own secular blasphemy law, one which should offend every liberal sensibility. It is used to drive men like Edamuruku into exile, while genuine hatemongers are, instead, elected to Parliament so that they can make speeches threatening “a heavy price” for those who “defame Hindutva” protected by parliamentary privilege.

The existence of these laws on the books means that in India, we would never react like the French did to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. We instead evaluate what people said. Did it give offence? From that it is but one step to point out: was the speech not criminal then? Yes, death is an extreme punishment, perhaps, but let’s not forget those killed were criminals anyway. Section 295A turns anti-blasphemy Islamic terrorists in India into justice vigilantes, “encounter” specialists. Just a shade darker than Superman. (The Man of Steel version.) 

Shockingly, instead of repealing Section 295A, we intend to further criminalise offence against religion in this country. We are seriously considering, according to the ruling party, a national anti-conversion law. Why? To protect “forced” conversion. Note that, according to various legal judgments, “force” here does not mean what it does in plain English. It does not mean tying people up and making them say “I am Buddhist” three times. Saying people will go to an imaginary Hell if they don’t convert is also “force”; indeed, “insulting” the precepts of another religion is also “force”. 

In other words, we are close to passing an additional statute that religious nutters can use to intimidate those who disagree with them. Just last fortnight, the Madhya Pradesh police arrested 10 Christians under the state’s anti-conversion law for “insulting Hinduism”. With the typical blind hypocrisy of the fanatical, those most supportive of free speech that attacks Islam are those most in favour of an anti-conversion law. 

Yes, vehemently disagreeing with, and mocking, the cherished beliefs of others is not a pleasant act. It can mask bigotry. Even if not, it is usually bad manners. But you cannot legislate good manners. And frankly, if we are going to, I would prefer we start by trying to criminalise queue-breaking, which I am sure infuriates more Indians, and causes more public disorder, than blasphemy. But we won’t, because we have an exaggerated respect for religious “sentiment” that the French, in particular, have chosen to dump. 

We in India have little in our history similar to French anti-clericalism, and we are the worse for it. The attack on Charlie Hebdo did not just kill cartoonists – it also killed two policemen outside, one of them a Muslim. These two men gave their life for the highest achievement of the French Revolution, the right to insult god. They also are martyrs of liberalism. 

Our state would not risk its men thus. Because the father of our revolution was not Voltaire but Mohandas Gandhi, as big a defender of illiberal religious obscurantism as any country has ever been saddled with. And his heir was Nehru, who personally intervened to end Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech – over the wishes, as it happens, of the BJP’s ideological hero, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. To this extent, their legacy must be rejected, and that of Mookherjee and B R Ambedkar – whose brilliant Annihilation of Caste violates Section 295A on every single illuminating, polemical page – should guide us instead. 

Take all these illiberal laws off the books. Establish that giving offence through speech is not a reason for the state to frown on you. Only after that can we hope that the state will protect you if you do give offence. We in this country who offend should have the popular support Charlie Hebdo received – and the state support Salman Rushdie received. Only after that will ordinary Indians start to speak freely about religion. And only after that, once we build an India with more blasphemers, can we hope to rise above the swamp of irrationality in which we wallow. 

@mihirssharma

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