Conflict between freedom of expression and religion intolerance in India

Amit Singh, a Norway based human rights researcher. He can be reached at evolutionyog[at]gmail.com.

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Amit Singh

Introduction

Religious intolerance against freedom of expression in India is well known- where censoring books and films by the state and victimization of writers, film director, painter by the radical Islamist and Hindu religious-nationalist groups is well noted. Indian Constitution not only empowers media and free thinkers, but also those who are easily religiously offended, where they can pursue criminal charges against editors and reporters. However, the tension between the right to freedom of expression and the desire among many people to prohibit religiously hurtful speech (or expression) has become a focal point of conflict between religious groups and free thinkers. The Indian Penal Code, 298 and 295A provisions have resulted in the arrest and/or harassment of many writers, journalists and academics. In addition, use of violence and fatwa is also being used to suppress the freedom of expression.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in power, extremists and fundamentalist forces have been emboldened to suppress free expression and dissent.[1]

Hindu fundamentalism and freedom of expression

Forces of fundamentalist Hindutva along with fundamentalist Islam is posing serious challenges to the freedom of expression and liberal voices in India. Hindu fundamentalist have succeeded in threatening publishers to withdraw publication, exerting pressure to censor films deemed offensive to their political agenda, and silencing any critical voices contesting the Hindu religious myths and legends. Those in power use not only physical force but also erase alternative interpretations and silence those who subvert, critique and dissent to ensure their version of history and religion prevails.[2] Due to Hindu fundamentalist books such as Dharmakarana by P.V. Narayana, and Gandhi Banda by H. Nagaveni, have been withdrawn from circulation and university syllabi.[3] Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” was accused of attacking Hinduism and sexualising Hindus and has been pulped under the pressure by fundamentalist forces. The fear of the mob is so palpable that even after a court order lifting restrictions on James W. Laine’s book on Shivaji, bookshops are still unwilling to stock it.

Islamic fundamentalist and freedom of expression

Islamic fundamentalist is no less behind their Hindu counterpart. Film, books and free speech alike have been targeted in the court of law and in public. In the court, Indian Penal Code (IPC) 298, 295A, 153A have been invoked against free thinkers.[4] In more informal ways fatwa, physical violence, and threats have been employed by Islamic fundamentalist.
Vishwaroopam, a film directed by ace film maker Kamal Hassan, was banned in movie houses. Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu claimed that the film would hurt Muslim sentiments. Although the film was cleared by Central Board of Film Certification of India, state of Tamil Nadu gave orders to the theatre owners to not show this film.[5]

Shirin Dalvi, editor of an Urdu newspaper, was arrested for printing a controversial cover of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Dalvi was booked for outraging religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion with malicious intent under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.[6] Self-proclaimed Hindu Mahasabha activist Kamlesh Tiwari came under fire for making derogatory remarks against Muslims and Prophet Mohammed. Thousands of Muslims demanded for his death penalty[7].

In the distant past, India banned the book Satanic verses in 1988 due to pressure from Muslim political groups. Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin ‘Dwikhandita’ was banned in India, she earned the wrath of fundamentalist and radical Muslims of Bangladesh and India because she had written against female oppression in Islam.[8] Under pressure from Islamic radicals, Indian government refused to grant her citizenship.

Concern

human-rights-in-indiaFreedom of expression and religious freedom need protection from those who would meddle with them. However, in the Indian context, they seem not necessarily incompatible. Free thinkers normally face challenges at the two levels; either offender drags them (those who write books and make film\documentary) in the court of law or coerces them with intimidation, physical violence and social pressure. Expressing her concern Wendy Dognier (Author of banned book in India-The Hindu: An Alternative Story) commented, “The real adversary of free speech in India is the empowerment of the offended.” However, what is more alarming is the openness with which radicals and fundamentalist forces operate in Contemporary Indian politics, where nationalistic and fundamentalist tendencies are pitching and posing serious threat to free thinking and freedom of expression.

Worrying trends for the future

A small study conducted by this author, titled “the perception of Indian Students on Conflict between Freedom of Expression and Religious intolerance, at the University College of Southeast Norway, has recognized some disturbing trends not conducive for the freedom of expression, secular and liberal values in India. This study was conducted in three universities in Varanasi- which is also constituency of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In this study, nearly all interviewed youth preferred religious sentiments over freedom of expression thus; free expression shall not be allowed to provoke, offend or hurt religious sentiments. Most students justified government’s censorship in case where freedom of expression is offending religious sentiments.  Findings of this study, though small sample size research, represent a gloomy picture for the civil rights especially for the Right to freedom of expression.

This world would have been a very different place, had some creative person (Philosopher, scientist, painter, doctor, poet) would not expressed their dissent to challenge the established religious-social norms. During most of the 16th and 17th centuries, Church persecuted scientists who formed theories the Church deemed heretical. Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were two scientists who printed books that later became banned. Both scientists held the same theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, a theory now known to be true. Raja Rammohan Roy was kicked out of his home when his protested the tradition of Sati in India.

Above study though conducted with a small sample size with a narrow geographical area of Varanasi, however, seems, define the current state of the right to freedom of expression in India where religions have become a hegemonic discourse robbing people of their rational thinking and free expression. We are living in a society where a tyranny of religious majority (includes all religion) could suffocate free expression of those who (secular-non-atheist, free thinkers) disbelieve in their religious narratives. Most interesting findings of this study was the disregard to secular values and free expression held by many of the students, Hindu and Muslims alike.

Reflection

India, though, is not theocratic state, but respondents still wanted government to prioritize religion over secularism and human rights. This fact also connects this particular narrative to growing intolerance related to violence currently occurring in Indian society against liberal and secular elements. No wonder action of Indian government towards free expression reflects opinion of majority on religious behavior.

This point could be worrying for a secular democratic nation (India in this case) who constitutionally claims to protect fundamental rights and secular values. In this type of scenario, where a state government is swayed by anger (real or imagined) of religious-nationalist groups, the possibility to discuss some moderate outlet in public debate due to fear of political correctness and legal sanction tend to suffocate and discourage open discussion in a liberal democratic society. Discouraging open discussion could also led to violent underground extremism.

Historian Romila Thaper and prominent advocate Rajiv Dhwan also have expressed their deep concern over politicians supporting and propagating extreme religious nationalism. Increasing fundamentalism in Indian society is active in suppressing dissenting opinion and quite often refer liberal voices as an anti-national.

In this context, enforcement of certain ideology by religious-nationalist groups manifests their open desire in power sharing and taking control over the lives of people in a non-democratic manner. This progress is certainly a challenge for a society based on secular-liberal democratic values. 

Notes:
1-http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/perumal-murugan- indiahinduextremismbooksfreespeech.html
2-http://www.sarkaritel.com/religious-freedom- perception-of- tolerance-187638/
3- http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/sacharya/religion-freedom- speech-india
4- Section 153A(1)(a) criminalises “words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, [that] promot[e] or attemp[t] to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community, or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial,language or regional groups or castes or communities
5- Kerala saw an unlimited release of the film, although some Muslim outfits were reportedly arrested by the police of Kerala for disrupting screenings. In Thiruvananthapuram, a group of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) supporters took out a protest demonstration to the theatre complex. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversies_related_to_Vishwaroopam
6- See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/urdu- newspaper-editor- arrested-over- reprint-of-hebdos- prophet-cartoon/#sthash.F7q42LWh.dpuf
7-http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/malda- mob-violence- why-so- many-politicians- love-a-riot/article8108145.ece
8- All India Muslim Personal Board (Jadeed)" offered 500,000 rupees for her beheading in March 2007. The group’s president, Tauqeer Raza Khan, said the only way the bounty would be lifted was if Nasrin ‘apologises, burns her books and leaves’. Muslim leaders in Kolkata revived an old fatwa against her, urging her to leave the country and offering an unlimited amount of money to anybody who would kill her. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taslima_Nasrin

 

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