Wo Chahte Hain Jaage Na Koiiiii, Ye Raat Ye Andhakar Chale Har Koi Bhatakta Rahe Yunhi, Aur Desh Yunhi Lachar Chale
Friday, 9 January 2015
The Paris Tragedy and the Half-Truths In the Indian Discourse
Expose these agenda-driven cliches and half-truths emanating from our “intellectual establishment”. Lobby the government to reform India’s Penal Code and give us a real measure of freedom of expression.
Rupa Subramanya is editor-at-large at Swarajya. She is a Mumbai-based economist, policy analyst, commentator and co-author of ‘Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India’ (Random House India, 2012)
In July 2010, T.J. Joseph, a lecturer at Newman College in Kerala, was accosted by a group of activists from a radical Islamic group called the Popular Front of India (PFI). The group was incensed by the fact that Joseph had set a question a few months earlier in a Malayalam exam paper which appeared in the view of many observant Muslims to denigrate the Prophet Muhammed.
In the meantime, Joseph had been suspended by his college, denounced by his church, and charged under an illiberal Indian law (Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code) which makes it a crime to hurt religious sensibilities.
But Joseph’s attackers weren’t satisfied with the fact that the hapless college professor, who had from the outset denied intending to hurt anyone’s feelings, had already suffered humiliation and distress at the hands both of the college and the authorities.
They had a more direct punishment in mind for what they perceived as his affront to the dignity of their prophet.
With surgical precision and brutal intent the alleged attackers chopped off his right hand to avenge the alleged insult to Islam—a punishment in accordance with traditional interpretations of Islamic law. The only saving grace for Joseph was that someone rescued his severed limb, which was sutured back on at the hospital. Eventually, in November 2013, Joseph was acquitted of all charges by a court. The last chapter in this tragic tale was the suicide of Joseph’s wife in March 2014.
As of today, the alleged attackers have still have not faced justice and even won a municipal election.
I couldn’t help but think of T.J. Joseph after learning of the horrific slaughter of 12 innocent people at Charlie Hebdo, a left-leaning satirical publication in Paris. While Joseph got away with his life, or what was left of it, the individuals whose lives were ended in Paris were not nearly so lucky. Yet the common thread that ties the two incidents together is the brand of radical Islam that allows someone or a group of people, who feel that their religion has been affronted to justify a violent attack on the perceived perpetrators of the affront.
A few weeks ago, a column in a popular Urdu newspaper, Roznama Urdu Times, appeared to condone, if not commend, the murder of apostates, citing the teachings and sayings of the prophet Muhammed. The article was referring to the Ghar Wapsi campaign I’ve written on elsewhere, the attempt by some Hindu groups to voluntarily reconvert descendants of Hindus converted to Islam back to the fold of Hindusim.
In India, the threat from radical groups—Islamic or otherwise—is one side of the coin.
On the other side of the coin are inscribed illiberal laws which make it a crime to offend religious sensibilities (Section 295A), as we saw in the case of T.J.Joseph, or to create communal disharmony (Section 153A), a concept so broad that it could just about cover anything which someone doesn’t like.
As I write this, a Mumbai lawyer Vijay Gaekwad stands accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammed. I wish I could tell you the story in detail, but it’s been scrupulously avoided by the mainstream media and appears only in one article in Urdu Times. What we do know is that Gaekwad allegedly committed this offence on social media and that he spent time in jail. Beyond this, we know little.
In the case of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, some of the more offence-causing cartoons would very likely have transgressed Indian law and landed the publishers and editors of newspapers which printed them behind bars. The editors of Swarajya thought long and hard about whether this publication should reproduce the cartoons in their entirety, but in our collective wisdom, we decided it would be far too risky, given Indian law.
The Navbharat Times did have the courage to put online some of the more offence-causing cartoons, but these were quickly yanked from their website, presumably because of legal advice they received. In a widely publicised move, the newspaper Mint ran a front page story which reproduced some of the cartoons.
But it’s important to note that the carefully curated selection in Mintexcluded the ones most likely to cause offence to Muslims and the selection itself was tilted towards cartoons that would cause offence to Christians and Jewish people rather than Muslims. No other major Indian publication has published even a curated version of the cartoons at the time of writing.
By contrast, several US publications did carry unexpurgated versions of the cartoons—protected as they are by the robust protections of freedom of expression in the United States.
While I applaud Mint for its courage in publishing some of the less offensive cartoons, this action has been overhyped by many in the mainstream media as a victory for freedom of expression in India. If anything, it tells us the opposite, as the cartoons published were, as I’ve noted, carefully curated to filter out the most offence causing to Muslims.
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And that’s the whole point.
The people slaughtered in Paris were killed precisely for these cartoons that no Indian publication, including Mint, was able to reproduce.
A half-hearted nod to freedom of speech is one sort of hypocrisy associated with the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in India.
Another is the reaction of many members of India’s mainstream establishment, who evidently have sought to gloss over the fact that the Paris tragedy had to do specifically with radical Islam and the actions of a few radicalised Muslims—not to terrorists with a generic motivation to commit violence.
But to these luminaries, the message was that all religions are like this and that we, Hindus and others, must introspect on the ills within when looking at what happened in Paris.
Below are some representative examples of tweets.
Religious fanatics of all hues attack journalists as latter are sometimes the only ones left in society who raise questions#ParisShooting
To me such views are a bit reminiscent of those on the far left, who set up a bogus and ludicrous equivalence between the Hindu cultural and social organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Islamist terrorist organisation, Islamic State. But then such folks are evidently willing to equate protests outside a newspaper office in Delhi where newspapers and photographs were burned with the massacre of journalists in Paris.
What’s more, it’s far easier for the leaders of India’s bankrupt left intellectual establishment to sign up for superficial gestures of solidarity such as “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) than to seriously confront what the Charlie Hebdo tragedy actually tells us—both about what happened in Paris and what’s not right in India.
For a start, independent thinkers in India can expose and hold to account the agenda-driven cliches and half-truths emanating from what passes for our intellectual establishment.
More importantly, in my view, the right response to the Paris tragedy would be to lobby the current Indian government to reform India’s Penal Code and give us a real measure of freedom of expression.
Then we could really say with conviction “Je suis Charlie”.
The Vijay Gaekwad case has been reported on in brief in two mainstream newspapers that I’ve been able to discover here and here. However it remains the case that his story has not been widely covered and there’s been little if any follow up I’ve seen since the initial brief reports. Considering that he has reportedly been denied anticipatory bail, it is noteworthy how little coverage there has been.