01, Jun 1994
FREEDOM TO DISSENT
In any secular democracy, the right to equality, the freedom to practice one’s faith and the right to life with dignity go hand in hand with the freedom of expression which includes the right to dissent.
If minority rights are inconceivable except in a democracy, democracy itself is unimaginable without the freedom of expression. The freedom of expression in turn is meaningless without the right to dissent.
Both as a matter of principle and from the very practical question of co-existence in multi-cultural, multi-religious societies like India, there is little to choose between the frenzy of the kar sevaks in Ayodhya and the murderous fatwas of mullahs or Ayatollahs for the head of Salman Rushdie or Taslima
No one can deny to Muslims, or any other group for that matter, the right to peaceful, non-violent protest against whatever, or whoever, offends their religious or other sensibilities. But if democracy is to survive, the call to kill Rushdie or Taslima must be unequivocally condemned.
“Mujh ko to sikhadi hai afran ne zandaqi
Is daur ke mulla hain kyun nang-e-mussalmani?
(The West may have taught me faithlessness,
But why are the mullahs of this age a disgrace to Islam?)
–Mohammed Iqbal, renowned poet.
“No matter how much offence Rushdie’s book might have caused, to condemn him to death for what he wrote is intolerable, inadmissible, and has nothing to do with the tolerant Islam that I was taught.” –Tahar ben Jalloun, a prominent Moroccan literary personality in Pour
Rushdie, (For Rushdie) a compilation of 150 Muslim intellectuals’ support for Salman Rushdie.
It was the apprehension of inflamed passions, uncontrolled anger and mindless violence that impelled many Indian secular-democrats to support, however uncomfortably, the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses in 1989. India, a democracy, became the first country in the world to impose the ban with implicit or explicit endorsement from even proclaimed champions of freedom. Despite this, we watched aghast as violence broke out anyway. A 17-year-old Muslim youth, misled by inflammatory slogans during a procession protesting against the book in Bombay, fell victim to police bullets.
We appear to be in the same sorry state today. This time the problem is closer home. The target: 31-year-old, outspoken novelist from Bangladesh, Taslima Nasreen. Nasreen was, last fortnight, forced to go into hiding after the Bangladesh police ordered her arrest for alleged blasphemy. With a fatwa of 50, 000 takes on her head announced by a local mullah and with no state protection, she is in grave danger of losing her life.
The first fatwa against Nasreen was announced at a rally in Sylhet last September after the publication of her novel Lajja – a story on the plight of a persecuted Hindu family in Bangladesh following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992—and her bold remarks against the oppression of women under all organised religions. Her attack was not limited to the clerics alone; holy texts, including the Koran, were also the targets of her critical scrutiny.
Her unorthodox views on sexual relations earned her the charge of “instituting sex and sin in society” and the label of a murtad (one hostile to religion). Allegations of blasphemy were even then hurled at her and her passport impounded by the Bangladeshi government.
Today, the threat to her life is far graver after an interview given to the Statesman, Calcutta, last month where she reportedly urged a revamping of all religious texts since, in her opinion, within them lies the root of women’s oppression. (The author has since claimed that she had only demanded a revision in the Shariat law, not in the Koran, but the reporter who interviewed her still stands by the published version).
Women’s organizations, students, trade unionists and some sections of the Bangladeshi academia have strongly condemned this “fundamentalist attack on an individual’s freedom of expression”. Internationally, hundreds of renowned writers led by the post-war novelist, Gunter Grass, have risen to Nasreen’s defence and have launched strong protests with the Bangladesh government.
But in New Delhi, Muslim activists of the Samajwadi Janata Party have already held angry demonstrations demanding that the author be hung. Even some Muslim liberals have gone on record asserting that the statement attributed to Nasreen in Calcutta is the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back.
Why? Simply because, as they see it, even if earlier writings and statements of Nasreen that conjured up visions of an unfettered play of feminist sexuality could be somehow swallowed, or ignored, the Holy Koran itself is now under attack.
But the question is — Even if Nasreen’s views cannot be condoned, are the violent threats to her life justified? By shifting attention from the extreme intolerance evident in the fatwa for her head to the blasphemy apparently committed by the writer, do they not endorse the view that violence is the best way to settle all differences?
By supporting the politics of fighting words with swords (isn’t that what the Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray, also believes in?), aren’t Indian Muslims, wittingly or unwittingly, contributing to the growing climate of intolerance within our multi-cultural, multi-religious milieu?
No democratic-minded person would deny to Muslims, or to any group for that matter, their right to peaceful, non-violent forms of protest against whatever or whoever wounds their religious or other sensibilities. But if dissent is going to be countered with fatwas for violence, if that is how the Muslim community chooses to deal with a minority within it, what moral and political message is it sending to the forces of Hindutva who have very similar views on how to deal with minorities in their midst?
Is it not obvious that a vibrant, secular, democracy is the only guarantee for the security and the protection of the identity of all Indian citizens, including Muslims? Is democracy conceivable without freedom of expression? And are not the freedom of expression and the freedom to follow one’s faith totally meaningless in a democracy without the equal freedom of individuals and groups to dissent?
In the past decade, we have experienced frequent incidents of violent responses to the written or the spoken word:
* Three years after a murderous attack on his life by students of the Jamia Milia university — for defending Rushdie’s right to the freedom of expression – Professor Mushirul Hasan, its Pro-Vice Chancellor, cannot step into the premises. A month ago, some students have threatened again to “cut him to pieces” if he were to resume duty on the Jamia campus. He has no adequate security. Hasan, a liberal in an avowedly secular state has, in a nutshell, been held to ransom by fanatics threatening violence. *Frenzied kar sevaks in Ayodhya brutally assaulted press people, including a woman journalist obviously critical of the happenings while the Babri Masjid was being torn down. This was followed by a vicious campaign of threatening hate-mail and abusive phone calls against journalists, historians and other intellectuals in New Delhi and elsewhere, forcing one senior journalist to move to Kerala. Needless to add, from Hindutva’s point of view, all pseudo-secularists’ are enemies of Hinduism’.
* The prestigious Times of India group in Bombay succumbed to Shiv Sena-BJP pressure and apologised for an article on Shivaji, the Maratha ruler and the Rani of Jhansi after copies of the Illustrated Weekly of India were burnt in July 1993.
* The uncrowned king of Bombay’s streets, SS chief Bal Thackeray periodically dictates his disapproval of personalities and happenings: a number of films (including Dharavi starring Shabana Azmi and Sholay, with veteran actor, A.K. Hangal) were ordered to be pulled out of theatres in the country’s commercial capital last year.
For a secular-democrat, the issue of freedom of expression including the right to dissent is a basic principle. But even from an entirely pragmatic point of view, there is no real option in pluralistic societies like India. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis not only need to learn to peacefully co-exist with each other but also with agnostics and athiests who whatever their birth, have opted for independent value-systems. If we are unable to accept varied and dissenting opinions and world-views from within our own or other communities, intolerance and violence can be the only result. And, since we do not live on isolated islands, this bigotry, fanaticism and extremism must inevitably flow across the borders of faith.
The practice of “majoritarianism” by the self-appointed custodians of Islam, that is, the resort to violence to settle any difference over views or issues can only contribute to the growth of majoritarian tendencies in society as a whole. Both hate ridden majoritarian politics and the violent and intolerant reactions of the members of a minority towards a dissenting voice from within are flip sides of the same coin. Both deny the principle of equal treatment for all, both reject through word and deed the principle of the right to dissent.
Dialogue, debate, peaceful forms of protest by aggrieved individuals or groups are the very essence of democracy, fatwas and dictats its very anti-thesis. In a democratic society such as India, any religious community can have only as much right to its freedom of faith as any another community or individual. To deny the basic principle of equality of all before law or to assert a group’s right to take the law into its own hand is to undermine the very foundation of democracy. If democracy loses ground in India, or anywhere else, who gains?
When intolerance of individual dissent takes an extreme and violent turn — such as threats to the life of Nasreen, Hasan, and Rushdie –Muslims not merely sacrifice abstract principles of freedom and democracy; they help the growth of majoritarian politics and thus endanger their own security along with that of other minorities and individual dissenters.
The right to equality for all religious and other minorities in a democracy presupposes an inherent equality between the various individuals who together constitute the community. The preparedness to accept divergent opinions, beliefs and traditions within and outside both majority and minority frameworks is the only practical way through which citizens can bring abstract principles of secularism and democracy to life and only thus ensure the flourishing of a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-religious society.
The socio-political tremors which the kar sevaks triggered in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, did not merely reduce the Babri Masjid to rubble. The ensuing violence claimed over 3.000 lives and property worth crores was looted or destroyed. Muslims were the major victims in this holocaust engineered by the saffron brigade. The demolition did something more. It rudely jolted the very foundations of India’s secular democracy and, 18 months later, the cracks are still visible.
The Hindutavaadis’ hatred for what they term as ‘pseudo-secularist’ has been more than matched by the intolerent Muslim’s cry for the head of a Salman Rushdie, Mushir-ul-Hasan or Taslima Nasreen. People whom the saffron brigade calls ‘pseudo-secularist’ are those who have systematically questioned the Hindutvavaadis’ monopoly over Hinduism and resisted distortions of history aimed at promoting the exclusivist, hate ridden politics of the sangh parivar.
If, today, Hindutva seeks ideological hegemony over all of Indian society, Islamic extremists are similarly trying to assume the role of the thought police in Bangladesh. Both are identical as both threaten the freedom and equal rights of all those other Indians or Bangladeshis who by birth and descent are non-Hindu or non-Muslim (the minorities) respectively. Not to oppose the fatwa of the Bangladeshi mullahs is one way of supporting the growth of an identical tendency in India — Hindutva.
Any commitment to a genuine secular, democratic ethos (read mutual co-existence in a pluralistic society) must therefore necessarily affirm the link between the principles of the right to freedom to life with dignity and the freedom to dissent.
The principle of mutual coexistence based on equality and tolerance, the only guarantee for the continuance of a democratic order must, in honesty, be equally extended to the free, non-violent expression by individuals of even such thoughts and beliefs which fall outside the pale of accepted norms, customs and tradition.
Any denial on this freedom, whether by the majority or the minority needs to be unequivocally condemned. This may often lead to painful situations when individuals, in disagreement with popularly accepted religious or political beliefs, feel compelled to speak out against them, and thus commit ‘blasphemy’ or ‘treason’. However difficult, however hurtful the voice of dissent, peaceful, non-violent forms of protest are the only option. Otherwise, the very existence of a secular democratic order and the security of minorities (whether in India or in Bangladesh), will be in serious jeopardy.
Any fatwa for the killing of any individual however serious the provocation, oversteps the acceptable norms of democratic protest. That is why the hysteria and the outrage whether against Salman Rushdie, or Taslima Nasreen or Mushirul Hasan must be publicly and unequivocally condemned. If unchallenged, only intolerance and violence can grow.
Between the frenzy of Hindutva and the murderous fatwas of the mullahs there is, really speaking, nothing to choose. Support to Taslima Nasreen, then, is both an urgent pragmatic need and a question of an essential democratic principle.
* Aubrey Menon’s O Rama is targeted for fundamentalist attack by Hindu chauvinist sections in India (1950s)
* The Last Temptation of Christ, a fictionalised critique of the Biblical version is the target of fury by the Christian orthodoxy, many western countries forced to ban/restrict viewing; in India too, there are protests demanding a ban. (1960s).
* Jesus Christ Superstar, another fictionalised biography of Jesus, on the stage and films is similarly targeted. (1970s).
* Shakepeare ki Ramayana, a play scripted by Iqbal Khwaja and staged in Bombay is disrupted by Vikram Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha, the playwright forced to touch Savarkar’s feet in forgiveness; the play is never performed again. (1987).
* Mohammed, the Idiot, the title given to a short story in the Deccan Chronicle generates such rage from Muslims in Hyderabad that offices of the newspaper are attacked and set ablaze. (1987)
* Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Riddles of Hinduism on Ram and Krishna generated violent objections from the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra which were silenced only after a massive show of strength from Dalits in support of the book. (1988)
* Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses generates worldwide furore, a price is put on Rushdie’s head; the author has been forced into a life in hiding ever since. (l989).
* Public showings of Ram Ke Naam, a documentary film by Anand Patwardhan that severely critiques the Ramjanmabhoomi movement have often been marred by violence and the filmmaker subjected to violent threats from various wings of the Hindutva brigade. (l990 onwards)
* Nikhil Wagle, the outspoken editor of the Marathi eveninger, Mahanagar has thrice been roughed up, and copies of Mahanagar burnt by Sainiks for his courageous criticism of the Sena (first in 1991).
* Professor Mushirul Hasan survives a murderous attack on his life by Jamia Milia students after he defends Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression. (1992).
* Dr. Abid Raza Bedar, Director of Patna’s Khuda Baksh Oriental Library faced a violent witch-hunt from Muslim students and other fundamentalists when he made bold to say that the word kafir meant someone who rejects faith; hence Hindus should not be called kafirs but mushrik, someone who has more than one God. (1992).
* The Rape of Sita, a critique of the anti-feminist perspective of the Ramayana is banned in Indonesia (1992).
* Hum Sab Ayodhya, an exhibition put together by the Sahmat group Delhi faced violent objections since among many other panels, it displayed the Dasaratha Jataka that depicts Ram and Sita as siblings. (1993).
* Activists and MLAs of the Jharkand Mukti Morcha threaten Sunil Gangopadhyay for his book, Prothom Aalo for “uncondonable derrogatory references to Goddess Kali”. (1993).
* Taslima Nasreen faces the wrath of the Bangladeshi clergy for her book Lajja and outspoken remarks against organised religion. (1993).
* Schindler’s List, the award-winning film by Stephen Spielberg is banned by many Muslim countries because it “portrays Jews as a persecuted minority and encourages racism!” (l994)
“Sab khuda ke vakil hain lekin
Aadmi ka koi vakil nahin.”
(Everyone claims to speak for God
But no one speaks for the human being.)