Blasphemy, Sedition, Democracy

Have you ever wondered?

Why does our media get so worked up when someone in Pakistan is accused of or convicted for blasphemy but is not overly perturbed when someone is charged with or convicted for Sedition in India?

Is this differentiated response occasioned by the belief that a modern state should overlook things like blasphemy but give no quarter to sedition?

Do anti-Blasphemy laws encroach upon Individual freedom while anti-sedition laws protect national interests? Is convicting someone for blasphemy essentially undemocratic but doing the same for sedition not so?

Let’s for the time being leave these major issues aside and engage ourselves with more mundane issues.

Why is it that when the shooting of films like Fire or Water are stopped by vigilantes, very few people speak up in defence of the film maker’s right to free expression, when hoodlums decide what the most well known painter in India can and cannot paint, there aren’t too many protests against the hoodlums and no cases are filed against them, but when the same hoodlums claim that their sentiments are hurt because of paintings the artist made 40 years ago, cases are filed against the artist? Why is it that one does not hear too many voices raised in support of the artist and hardly anyone questions the right of the hoodlums to speak for all of us.

Why is it that every time a mullah says something stupid it is discussed 24X7 but when schedule caste women are raped and paraded naked our conscience does not get agitated?

Muslims are the automatic choice as perpetrators whenever bombs explode in a temple or in a Hindu locality and when bombs explode at Mosques and in Muslim localities and on Eid prayers, again it is the Muslims who are the prime suspects in the eyes of the police and the Media. Even when Hindutva extremists are shown to be behind the latter set of terror acts, the falsely accused innocent Muslim young men remain behind bars and the media asks no uncomfortable questions and what about us, do we ask the questions that need to be asked?

All of us are up in arms against the attack on Rushdie and Tasleema but we do not come out in the streets when the Bhandarkar institute is vandalised  or the history texts on Shivaji written by historians of St. Xaviers college are burnt by the Shiv  Sainiks  and the Maharashtra government proscribes the book.

Why is it that we do not agitate when young couples who marry against the wishes of caste leaders are burnt alive or hacked to death in the name of tradition on the orders of caste panchayats? Why do we not organise rallies against ministers who defend the upper caste Kangaroo courts in the name of tradition.

Is it not a fact that:

Those who hound the filmmakers of Fire and Water and burn Salman Rushdi or Tasleema’s book are the same forces?

Those who vandalise the Bhandarkar institute, burn history books and burn the Husain Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad share the same genetic code.

Those who deny young people the right to chose their spouses, kill women for dowry, and oppose reservation for Dalits are peas of the same pod.

Is it too much to say that:

The Anti Blasphemy Laws and the hudood ordinance that strengthen the arm of the Mullah in Pakistan and the anti-Sedition law used to convict Binayak Sen and prosecute many others share a common illegitimate parentage? In fact both draw sustenance from colonial law put in place in the aftermath of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857.

Blasphemy, Sedition, Honour Killing, Vigilante Justice, Caste Panchayats, Book Burning, Culture Policing and all such tendencies are tools to crush the democratic aspirations of different sections of people. Some of them come to us disguised as law, others as religious dictum and the rest as hallowed cultural customs or questions of identity.

Regardless of the garb in which they dress up, they are nothing more than rotten vestiges of a decadent past, a past with roots in religious bigotry, colonial exploitation and gender and caste oppression.

Let us not make the mistake of treating any one of them as less harmful or less dangerous than the other. Let us not prepare a priority list of what we have to fight now and what can be postponed for a later date. That would be a prescription for disaster. They have to be fought consciously, continuously, ceaselessly. If democracy is what we want, we have no choices. Do not for a moment think that Blasphemy is a problem of the Pakistani or Bangladeshi alone. What is the attack on Hussain and on Water and Fire if not the Hindutva form of the law against Blasphemy?

Seditious acts will not always be defined as hob-nobbing with Maoists, as Dr Binayak Sen has been charged. Speaking up for Muslims and Dalits can also attract charges of sedition and it has in Karnataka. Asking students in Kashmir to write an essay on “Are stone throwers real heroes?” can make you a seditious element, a Kashmir University Lecturer has recently discovered this.

In 1577 a case of blasphemy against a Brahmin was lodged and the man was executed, despite the fact that Akbar had not permitted the execution. A debate ensued on the conduct of the sheikh who had ordered the execution; the consensus at the end of the debate stated that non believers cannot be judged under the laws of blasphemy. Those who support the killers of Salman Taseer lack even this modicum of common sense. Are those jokers any different from those who defend the sedition law?

The laws of Sedition were framed by the colonialists in whose eyes every Indian was conspiring against the state and their rule. The law was framed to ensure the continuity of British rule over Indians, how can such a law continue in the statute book of a Secular, Democratic, Socialist Republic?

How can the spreading of disaffection against the government be construed as sedition? In a democracy the spreading of disaffection against the government is the job of the Ppposition. How can you call it Sedition? We are all spreading disaffection against this government. I would like this government to fall this moment and be replaced by a government that is not beholden to the world bank, the IMF, Walmart, to MNCs and our own big business. I would like this government o be replaced post-haste by a government that reverses all the neo liberal policies of globalisation. Am I seditious? I think I am, we all are. The fight for reclaiming our right to dissent is a seditious fight.

You will agree that those that do not believe in a particular religion cannot be forced to follow the tenets of that religion or be prosecuted under the denominational laws of that religion. Freedom of religion entails the freedom to practice and preach your faith. If you oppose the imposition of laws of blasphemey in Pakistan, if you oppose any restrictions on the freedom of religion in Pakistan, you cannot remain silent spectators to the genocide in Gujarat and in Kandhamal and to all the anti-conversion laws enacted in this country. The fight for religious freedom and the fight for the right to be irreligious, the fight for the establishment of a secular state is also indivisible.

In a democracy you cannot stop people from saying what they want to say. Despite their rejection of Secularism has anyone, in this constitutionally declared secular democracy, ever charged the Hindutvavadis for sedition or prosecuted them for saying that they do not believe in the separation of religion and politics. They say they want a Hindu Rashtra, why are they not charged for sedition. If they can’t be stopped, if the Islamic, Christian, Sikh and other fundamentalists, who too do not believe in a secular state, cannot be stopped or prosecuted for sedition, if the corrupt generals who have misappropriated funds meant for the food and uniforms of the poor jawan cannot be prosecuted for sedition, if the Tatas, the Radias, The Rajas, the Kalmadis can’t be prosecuted under Sedition laws, why must a doctor be prosecuted for carrying a letter from an alleged Maoist.

The fight for democracy is an unrelenting fight, in India, in the sub-continent, in the world. Democracy is indivisible; you cannot fight for democratic rights of the minorities in Pakistan and keep quiet when democratic rights of women, minorities, Dalits, Tribals, Landless Peasants and Workers are trampled upon at home. You cannot fight for Binayak Sen and challange the courts if you accept what the Allahabad High Court has decreed on the Babri Masjid title suit.

You cannot support the fight for democracy in Pakistan and keep quiet about American threats to Iran, about the struggle for democratic rights in Iran, about American acts in Iraq, what Israel is doing in Palestine, what our armed forces are doing in the northeast and in Kashmir. We cannot be quiet about the fight for democracy in Egypt just because the Egyptian state has been close to India. Keeping quiet on these issues is not fighting for democracy, it is akin to advancing the agenda of US imperialism and their local cohorts. There is no choice. Not for me. I don’t think there is a choice for any of us. Not if we believe in democracy.

7 thoughts on “Blasphemy, Sedition, Democracy”

  1. Mr.Hashmi seems to have assumed that India is, or has the potential to be, what it says it is – that it is a democratic secular state where everybody’s rights are protected. Nothing can be farther from the truth. India is run by a coterie of venal politicians & bureaucrats and for them India is a land of rich pickings just as it was for the countless invaders who tramped into our country over countless centuries. To expect a population, which has been inoculated to accept that they are “aam admi” ( by which they mean a mango ripe to be sucked dry I suppose), to ponder over the questions put up by Mr.Hashmi is asking for too much. It is just the luck of the Indian leaders that across the border we have a more venal group of thugs ruling their country. This helps them to show us how much better off we are. No blasphemy laws here and does it matter if some miscreants chase off an artist or two or burn a few cinema halls now and then. And if the Indian security organs run riot in the North East does it matter? They population there all look Chinese anyway. And don’t you talk about Kashmir – our great leader and his dynasty came from there albeit with a strain of Italian blood. Mr.Hashmi I am sorry.But your questions will never move the Indian masses or the miniscule group of intellectuals. They are all waiting for the Cricket World Cup.

  2. Dear Sohail,

    you have raised a very powerful set of questions indeed!
    I only wonder why you hesitate to provide an answer…

    At least part of such an answer would lie in the very forms that the respective nationalisms of the nation-states of India and Pakistan took — the effectively secular Hindu nation-state at the time of independence believing itself to be infinitely superior to the theocratic Islamic nation-state of its partitioned neighbour.

    Most of the equally ‘seditious’ issues you raise do not touch this nerve of inherited national frames. Such issues therefore demand a different kind of sensibility and political consciousness, which is the work of social and political movements, in distinction to nationalist fervour and its multiple and sanctioned violences, which are triggered with such ease, especially today.


  3. Oh Ravi. You sound exhausted and demoralized. Understandable, but we must retain some optimism of the will even while pessimism overtakes our intellect, to paraphrase Gramsci!

  4. Nivedita, I have been a citizen of this country since 1947 and nothing has happened to give me any hope about this country. In school I was made to stand and sing on Nehru’s birthday. We were told that he loved children but it turned out that he cared only that his children and their children got into power. I had to watch with amazement slogans like “Indira is India, India is Indira” being put up and I forget the name of that sycophant who cried “Priyanka Bitiya ke bina hum nahin jee sakte”. And of course the ongoing obscenity of Karunanidhi and his family or Yedurappa and his coterie is there to shudder at everyday as we open our newspaper. Should I be proud to see some sycophant of Sonia Gandhi telling me on our TV channels why saying “Holy Cow” cannot be tolerated in a nation which worships holy cows? Should I be proud of Indira Gandhi keeping quiet about the Russian led crushing of the Dubcek Govt in Czchecoslovakia ?Am I proud that we made an atom bomb? No way. Am I proud that ISRO sent a probe to the moon ? Not when 40% of Indians don’t have clean drinking water – or did ISRO have some secret plans to find water on the moon and bring it down?? When Richard Branson could make a special craft to take tourists into outer space within 5 years, our HAL has taken 30 years to make the much vaunted Light Combat fighter plane which still hasn’t passed all the tests. Should I be proud of having my country men designated by acronyms like OBC, SC, STs and made into vote banks for our politicians? Do you still think I should have some optimism? And as I write this Arnab Goswami is screaming that ISRO gave away S-Band spectrum at a throw away price!!! Even banana republics would be blushing at the antics of our politicians and bureaucrats.


  5. The comparison is meaningless because blasphemy is not a crime to be punished in India with death sentence.Laws on sedition need to be changed and in India it is possible to do that if political parties show an interest in amending it.Binayak Sen’s case itself can be used for that.In Pakistan all the moves to amend blasphemy laws have been given up. Does a conviction for sedition in India automatically result in death sentence. Please tell us how many minority groups in India have been sued for and convicted for sedition. In India according to Supreme Court right to propogate faith does not include right to convert.That is perfectly understandable and does it in anyway affect right of the minorities to practise their faith or perform worships.In this country we subsidise muslims for undertaking Haj piligrimage and this has been upheld by Supreme Court. For an Indian the threat is terrorism from Pakistan and not what U.S does in Egypt etc. 26/11 – can we forget it. Those who are criticising RSS,USA and Israel should be criticising Pakistan, Iran, OIC and organizations in India that want Taslima to be sent out, object to visit of Rushdie and should be against any sort of fundamentalism. If you agree with this then your contention ‘You cannot support the fight for democracy in Pakistan and keep quiet about American threats to Iran, about the struggle for democratic rights in Iran, about American acts in Iraq, what Israel is doing in Palestine, what our armed forces are doing in the northeast and in Kashmir’ will have some credibility. Otherwise it is yet another pseudo-secular rant.

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