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India: Activist challenges Indian blasphemy law

19 November 2012

“Can you legislate against offence without compromising free speech?,” asks Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist Magazine, in his report about Sanal Edamarauku, who challenges Indian blasphemy law on the basis that it conflicts with provisions in the Indian constitution which protect free speech.

Catholic groups in India have brought blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamarauku, known as the India’s most prominent rationalist, who in return thinks it is time that India’s blasphemy law — legacy of colonialism, put in place in 1860 to tamp inter-communal strife and ensure a smooth-running Raj — is challenged.

The case could have major consequences, and not just in India.

Catholic Secular Forum, acting, apparently, with the tacit support of the Archdiociese of Mumbai, brought a complaint against Sanal Edamarauku, under Article 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code which functions as a de facto blasphemy law, making “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage of insult religious feelings” an offence punishable by up to three years in prison.

Neighbouring Pakistan also inherited Article 295(a) from the British, which General Zia l-Huq went about strengthening in the 1980s adding sections (b), (c) and (d) which explicitly outlaw blasphemy against the Qur’an and Muhammad, the latter offense carrying a mandatory death sentence.

According to journalist Beena Sarwar, these laws have become a weapon for settling personal scores and furthering the agenda of religious extremism, and there is growing clamour in Pakistan for reform.

Caspar Melville writes:
“There is a serious debate to be had about whether countries with histories of inter-faith violence do need to protect religions from hate speech. Religious minorities continue to require legal protection from persecution. But can the law be used to protect feelings? Can you legislate against offence without compromising free speech?

Hopefully participants in an upcoming debate in Britain, including the retired judge Stephen Sedley, can kickstart such a debate. What is clear is that in bringing such charges against Sanal Edamaruku, someone articulate, determined and armed with irrefutable scientific facts, these Catholic groups – no doubt cheered on by Sadhus and gurus with lucrative snake-oil careers to protect – have chosen the wrong issue, and the wrong target.”
Rationalist association
Sanal Edamaruku is president of the Indian Rationalist Association — India’s largest rationalist organisation, which was founded in 1949 and since then has been campaigning for “scientific temper, secularism, freedom of thought and expression, defending reason and science, and exposing superstition, blind belief, obscurantism, paranormal claims caste-based social divisions and guru-politics nexus”, according to its website, indianrationalists.blogspot.co.uk
Artist persecuted by religious groups
Attacks from Christian, Muslim as well as Hindu groups have been seen before in India, and the matter is of concern for the artistic community. In February 2006, for instance, one of Indian’s best known contemporary painters, MF Husain, was charged with “hurting sentiments of people” because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. A Hindu nationalist organisation staged campaigns against any expression considered to be abusing Hinduism.

Husain was granted exile in the United Arab Emirates, where he lived till he passed away in 2011.

Indifferent to both religion and politics, Husain, a Muslim by upbringing, treated the gods and goddesses of Hinduism as visual stimuli rather than deities, depicting them unclothed and often in sexually suggestive poses. This earned him the bitter hatred of Hindu nationalist groups, which, beginning in the 1990s, mounted a campaign of intimidation and violence against him.

The paintings in question were created in 1970, but did not become an issue until 1996, when they were printed in Vichar Mimansa, a Hindi monthly magazine, which published them in an article headlined ‘M.F. Husain: A Painter or Butcher’

In 1998, Husain’s house was attacked by Hindu groups and art works were vandalised. The leadership of Shiv Sena endorsed the attack. Protests against Husain also led to the closure of an exhibition in London, England.

Eight criminal complaints were filed in India against Husain. In 2004, Delhi High Court dismissed these complaints of “promoting enmity between different groups … by painting Hindu goddesses – Durga and Sarswati that was later compromised by Hindus.”
Related:

Nepal: Death threats against artist who painted Hindu deities
• Reports from India on this website

• Incidents and cases concerning religion on this website

Index on Censorship / IFEX – 16 November 2012:
Catholic groups in India file blasphemy charges against critic
About Sanal Edamaruku in Wikipedia – the open encyclopedia:
wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanal_Edamaruku

 

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