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??
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
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
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.