Islamist fundamentalist organisations rooted in religious obscurantism have long been prone to sudden bursts of irrational violence at the slightest provocation. The stone-throwing and arson in Karnataka by fanatics against the publication in a Kannada daily of an article, purportedly by Taslima Nasreen, on wearing of the burka were a nasty challenge to the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. Two people died, one of them in police firing, after thousands of protesters came out on the streets in Shimoga and Hassan districts and indulged in indiscriminate destruction of private and public property. Muslim organisations have on several previous occasions voiced their opposition to the well-known views of Ms Nasreen against oppression of women and patriarchal prejudices in Muslim society. By violently protesting every instance of publication of her articles, the religious fundamentalists obviously want to enforce a ban, otherwise legally unsustainable, on her critical and creative works. The larger purpose was to criminally intimidate free-thinking writers who dare to question the authority of religion and religious scriptures. Freedom of expression is an inviolable, fundamental right in India; it cannot be held to ransom by intolerant, communal, fringe elements who invoke religious sentiments to get away with blatantly unconstitutional acts. In secular India, the right to freedom of religion is on a par with other fundamental rights. One fundamental right cannot infringe on another fundamental right.

It is a great pity that after being hounded out of Bangladesh for her views on society and religion, Ms. Nasreen has had to face the wrath of religious extremists in secular India. She is now forced to live in hiding, avoiding all public appearances for fear of provoking radical Islamist outfits. In this particular case, Ms Nasreen sees a conspiracy to “misuse” her writings to create public disturbances and denies writing any article for the Kannada newspaper. The translation of the article too seems to be flawed. However, the issue is not the authenticity of the article or its authorship, but the right to freedom of expression it embodies. For Islamist fundamentalists, the target is much bigger than Ms Nasreen: it is the democratic Constitution of secular India. Fatwas and threats of violence in the name of religion are meant to coerce people, especially writers and artists and public figures, into an unquestioning submission to religious diktats. These undermine the secular structure of the Indian Constitution. Creativity and artistic expression, when stifled, will have the effect of killing off critical reasoning and undermining the very democratic fabric of the country.

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