What if you asked me if I have a complaint with Mohammed Zubair of Alt News? I shall give you three answers. No, No, and Yes. Let me elaborate on the two ‘Nos’ first.
To begin with, nobody should be prosecuted, or jailed, for their views. Especially when these are limited to social media. People living in a democracy, liberal or not, can’t be so thin-skinned. In any case, recourse to a law that takes away the liberty for whomever they see as an “offender” should not be available.
That explains my first ‘no’. I stand four-square behind him for the restoration of his liberty. It’s also the view in this short and sharp 50-Word Edit.
Further, the laws under which people are being prosecuted by those offended, sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, are obscenities. While section 295 was included in the IPC of 1860, subsection 295A was added by the British in 1927 responding to a specific crisis. All laws made in crises, or responding to events, are dangerous.
This was in a decade of public disorder which ended with the killing of a Hindu (Mahashay Rajpal) in 1929. He had published in 1924 a book by a pseudonymous author that Muslims then considered blasphemous to the Holy Prophet. Top Muslim lawyers, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, appeared in defence of the assassin. Poet Iqbal of ‘Saare Jahan se Achcha’ fame attended his funeral. He was hailed as a ‘ghazi’ and is still a national hero of sorts in Pakistan.
It was in the preceding decade that the British had to deal with rising Hindu-Muslim troubles. There was the bloody Moplah Rebellion in Malabar (Kerala). This followed a series of riots across the country. In the Punjab, this manifested in angry argument wars between the Muslims and Arya Samajist Hindus.
From the Muslim side, a book was published which the Hindus saw as offensive to the revered Sita of the Ramayana. They got even soon enough with the book on the Prophet. There were multiple but failed assassination attempts on some suspected to be the author, and the publisher. Until Ilm-ud-din, barely 20, succeeded in April 1929.
It was during this troubled decade that the British attempted a legal-cum-bureaucratic solution by passing the equivalent of India’s blasphemy law. That’s how sub-section 295A was added in 1927. The hope was that once people had a legal recourse for their anger over blasphemy, violence would be prevented. It did not save Rajpal’s life. Almost a hundred years later, it didn’t save Kanhaiya Lal or Umesh Kolhe’s lives either.
It was a bad law, enacted by a cynical colonial power with no permanent stake in India. Not only has it survived on the books, it was sanctified by a large bench of the Supreme Court in 1957. It was taken to its awful, logical end — and I call it logical deliberately, it isn’t a typo — by Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan.
He added further sub-sections prescribing a life sentence or death, respectively, for offences against the Quran or the Prophet. If in India nobody has dared to dump this law in 75 years of independence, who will ever touch it in Pakistan?
In India, it has lately found a new oomph with tit-for-tat FIRs.
If the law is an obscenity, so are the arrest of Zubair, or anybody, under this law, and the demands to arrest Nupur Sharma.
If the first ‘no’ to whether I have a complaint with Zubair is principled, the second comes from the heart as a believer, a Hindu. I understand that old social media posts by Zubair have popped up and triggered a vast number of Hindus. Now that’s new.
For generations, we Hindus have grown to have a questioning, often critical view of our gods. Probably that’s why we have so many of them. You need one god to make up for the imperfections of the other. None has given us the final word we can’t argue with. At least not until lately.
All our gods, particularly in their humanised manifestations, have frailties. Through history, Hindu religiosity has been worn mostly lightly, with some sense of humour. Even our gods have a sense of humour, and thank God for that.
One of the storied exchanges in the history of the Indian Express, now recorded by Arun Shourie in his memoir, is between the late Jansatta editor Prabhash Joshi and Ramnath Goenka. Joshi asked Goenka why he wasn’t renewing the contract of then Express editor B.G. Verghese although he was such a “sant aadmi” (saintly soul)”. “That’s the problem,” said Goenka. “He’s Saint George Verghese. And my Express is Shiv ji ki baraat.” You want to know what Lord Shiva’s marriage party looks like, check out this song from the 1955 Dev Anand starrer Munimji. For nearly seven decades now, nobody has taken offence to this. Nobody was charged under 295A IPC. Or under the NDPS Act.
We might also remember how the late Sushma Swaraj was angered by the ‘Radha on the dance floor’ song from Student of the Year, and asked, why does it always have to be the name of a Hindu deity? But there were no consequences. Since then, millions of Hindus must have danced to the same songs at weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, office and college parties. In her film Fire, Deepa Mehta featured lesbian love between two lower middle-class Hindu sisters-in-law trapped in loveless marriages. There were murmurs asking if she really had to name them Radha and Sita, but no consequences.
Blasphemy was almost non-existent for the vast Hindu majority in our country. Now, if the same Hindus are taking offence, and that too so angrily as to cheer Zubair’s arrest and demanding more such, it shows an ‘Abrahamisation’ of Hinduism, which isn’t good. This is the second reason for my second ‘no’. Given how we Hindus have been, I’d still see Zubair as a victim. He obviously didn’t figure the mood had changed.
Which brings us to my third answer, yes. Having stood by his side on principle as well as my religious beliefs, here is my complaint with Mohammed Zubair. While it is correct that he and Alt News have caused much discomfiture to the Modi government with their fact-checking version of journalism, the reason behind his current troubles is the Nupur Sharma episode.
In an argument on Times Now, she made some references to the Prophet’s personal life that offended Muslims. This may have blown over with an apology, or stayed within India, but Zubair taking out that short clip and giving it a wide airing led to a kerfuffle in the Islamic world and embarrassed the Modi government. His unfortunate arrest now is a regrettable payback for that.
Nupur Sharma’s Hindu supporters’ defence that she was only stating what’s written in Islamic records doesn’t wash as much as the one for Leena Manimekalai saying what’s the issue if she has Kali puffing a cigarette because in that manifestation, the Goddess doesn’t exactly conform to conservative social injunctions. In both cases, it is the context that matters.
See, on the other hand, the larger proposition of Zubair and his institution. Left or not, it is liberal and secular. If that be so, do you still believe in blasphemy? What kind of liberalism justifies promoting outrage over blasphemy?
It would be ok if you were speaking merely as a devout Muslim. My complaint is that you get your fame and respect from your secular-liberal credentials. Or, please say that isn’t so. If you still, like a member of the Muslim clergy, are offended when somebody says something you see as derogatory or offensive about figures you so revere, that’s acceptable too. But then apply the same principle and avoid taking liberties with other people’s gods too.
I have zero problem with the Left, as long as they are true to their ideology and do not believe in any god or religion. I have a serious issue with the so-called Left-liberalism which holds this selective view of the right to deliver or endure offence. I am complaining as an Indian here. Na Hindu, na Musalman.