Speaking Volumes: Into the abyss

One of the few joys of researching blasphemy, a crime with increasingly bleak consequences for those found guilty of it, is that it’s a fine excuse for watching a Satanist rocker for a Polish death metal band spin his hair expertly as he belts out the lyrics to ‘Christians To The Lions’.

In September 2007, Behemoth’s frontman Adam Nergal Darski ripped pages out from a Bible when he was onstage in Gdynia, calling it a “book of lies” and saying that the Catholic Church was “the most murderous cult”. Behemoth was sued, first for “promoting Satanism” – the case was dismissed – and then under Poland’s religious offence laws.

In 2012, the European Union made a strong statement in Darski’s support, citing the definition of freedom of expression set out in the European Convention on Human Rights: protection not just for information or ideas that were favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock or disturb. Darski was acquitted only in 2015, and by August, Behemoth was back to playing numbers from their album, The Satanist, at Bloodstock.

Darski’s case feeds into the uneasy approach to religious offence laws on the subcontinent in many ways: the length of time spent in the courts, between 2007 and 2015 (when he also successfully battled cancer) and in the tension between the respect for the Church in Poland pitted against the strongly held belief that artists must be given immense latitude. But one element was, luckily for the rocker, missing: there was no threat of violence from mobs, organised or spontaneous, to muddy the blasphemy debate.

In the subcontinent, the presence and the threat of violence from three fronts – political parties, religious bodies and far more rarely, spontaneously formed mobs – has shaped the debate on blasphemy and religious freedom laws, in ways that are downright dangerous. India is approaching a critical junction on religious offence laws.

This month, the Kerala newspaper Matrubhumi was forced to apologise to the radical Muslim confederation, the Popular Front of India (PFI), and to the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, for publishing a comment that is said to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad. (In May 2015, 13 members of the PFI were found guilty of chopping off lecturer T J Joseph’s palm after he was accused of insulting the Prophet in 2013.) This was the second time in recent months that Matrubhumi had faced pressure from religious fanatics – in September 2013, their columnist Dr M M Basheer stopped writing on the Ramayana after a sustained campaign and threats from Hanuman Sena activists, who declared they would not let a Muslim write on a Hindu epic.

The lawyer Gautam Bhatia points out in Offend, Shock or Disturb that Section 295(a) in India is a variant of a blasphemy law, and that its potential for abuse, since police are authorised to arrest accused persons without a court warrant, casts a chilling effect on free speech. The comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested under this law for mimicking the godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh; Yogesh Master, the author of the Kannada novel Dhundi, has faced several cases on the charges of offending Hindu religious sentiments.

Last year, the Shri Ram Sene openly threatened to cut off the tongues of writers if they did not stop insulting Hindu gods: this was in the context of threats made to Professor K S Bhagwan and the writer Chandrashekhar Patil. A year after she was forced to go into hiding for publishing an image from Charlie Hebdo in the Urdu paper Avadhnama, editor Shireen Dalvi still faces threats from extremist Muslim organisations, and has no job.

This January, a court in Anantapur issued a non-bailable warrant against the cricketer M S Dhoni for an old 2013 magazine cover depicting him as Vishnu; the Shiv Sena Hindustan and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are among those who’ve filed cases against him. Last year, top comedian act All India Bakchod apologised to the Archdiocese of Mumbai for jokes that “offended religious sentiment”.

This February, the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind staged a massive meeting in Meerut demanding blasphemy laws. There’s been unrest in Punjab over the burnings of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib and other Sikh holy books, last week, and also in May and October 2015.

There are enough organisations and individuals in India who would gladly set a match to the powder keg of religion. The offence laws form the ground for a power grab, as competing religions deploy them as ammunition in a war for primacy.

Religious offence laws are usually seen as legal barriers to free speech. But their use is also an indicator of whether a country is moving towards or away from greater violence, a privileging of religious belief over basic human rights, and the viral spread of fear in the body politic. Countries that are moving towards more equality and less turbulence either do not have or do not use religious offence laws.

The fallout from blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where these were used to persecute minorities such as the Ahmadis and to settle personal scores, and in Bangladesh, where laws were used as justification for murderous attacks on atheists and to muzzle criticism of clerics, has been devastating. Both countries are cautiously examining the role of religion in a functioning democracy, and there are faint signs of hope after many years of violence and disruption, much of it traceable back directly to blasphemy laws.

Once the laws were in place, more and more groups pressed them into service. It is a small step from arguing that religious beliefs require special protection to arguing that religious beliefs should outweight Constitutional rights and basic human rights.

Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that India’s democracy was too strong for the country to go down this route. But the present climate is both religiously and politically volatile. In the past two decades, the erosion of what used to be fundamental free speech rights has been steady, the protections of outlier and minority free expression weak at best.

The rise of religious offence laws has been accompanied by outbreaks of actual, deadly violence. India is not immune to the twin viruses of fear and hate, but if its institutions acted now to prune religious offence laws, the country might veer away from the path that our neighbours took with such disastrous consequences.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 14, 2016)






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