The silence of the liberal Muslim

While Muslims rightly resent being called upon to condemn every act of Muslim extremism by arguing why the community should be held accountable for the actions of individual members, the Shirin Dalvi case is about standing up for a fellow Muslim being intimidated by the community’s own lunatic fringe

Updated - November 26, 2021 10:25 pm IST

Published - February 10, 2015 02:01 am IST

A Muslim woman is accused of blasphemy, sacked by her employers, dragged through police stations and courts, and is forced to go underground in the face of a vicious hate campaign, including death threats.

This is not a story from the badlands of Waziristan, and her tormentors are not the sharia-enforcing Taliban. It is happening right in the heart of modern India — in cosmopolitan Mumbai, to be precise — with our own Taliban leading the show.

The victim is a respected Muslim woman journalist, Shirin Dalvi who edited a Mumbai-based Urdu daily, Avadhnama , until she got the sack a few weeks ago for allegedly hurting Muslim sentiments. On the basis of complaints by local Muslim groups, she was arrested, and multiple cases were registered against her for “outraging religious feelings … with malicious intent.” She faces a jail sentence, if convicted.

A campaign of intimidation Her crime? While writing about the Charlie Hebdo controversy, she decided to reproduce the magazine’s cover carrying a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad to illustrate the report. But she was also quick to recognise her “mistake”, and immediately made amends for it by publishing an unconditional front page apology. This, however, has not satisfied the self-appointed custodians of Islam who continue to hound her through a campaign of intimidation and vilification.

Dalvi has claimed that the same image was printed in some other media outlets but she is being “singled out” because she is a woman.

Her life, she says, has become a living hell. Apart from having to do the rounds of police thanas and courts, she fears for her life after receiving anonymous threatening telephone calls. Someone reportedly sent a message through WhatsApp warning her, “ Maafi nahin milegi (You won’t get forgiveness)”. Dalvi has taken to wearing a burqa to escape attention, and she doesn’t live with her family any more lest any harm should come to them because of her.

Meanwhile, attempts are being made in sections of the Urdu press to tarnish her reputation and undermine her credibility. It is being alleged that she has joined the RSS women’s wing and is a “follower’’ of Taslima Nasreen. There have been reports claiming that she took the decision to print the cartoon despite attempts by a colleague to dissuade her. But it has emerged that the said colleague was not even in office that day having resigned a few days ago.

A senior Urdu newspaper editor has admitted that elements of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, which represents Urdu journalists, are involved in the cases filed against Dalvi. Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of the Urdu daily, Hindustan , is reported as saying that only “one individual” and not the entire Sangh is “against her”. If so, why doesn’t the rest of the Sangh dissociate itself from that individual and throw its weight behind Dalvi, a fellow member of the Sangh?

“Why am I being harassed even after publishing a front-page apology? Facing the community again has become a great concern for me as there is still a lot of unrest. I have avoided showing my face in Muslim-populated pockets. I have not gone back to my house since the protest started. Our house has been locked. Both my daughter and son are living with relatives. They haven’t been able to get their books, and they haven’t attended college in the last two weeks,’’ she told one newspaper.

Surprisingly, her case appears to have gone largely unnoticed by civil rights groups and free speech campaigners. And, barring a few isolated protests, Dalvi has been left to fend for herself. The only strong statement I have seen is from the Mumbai-based Hum Azaadiyon Ke Haq Mein demanding that she be provided protection and appealing to those who have filed cases against her “to accept her clarification in the right spirit with which it has been given and to withdraw all the cases against her”.

“The manner in which she is being hounded bodes ill for free debate and discussion and for peaceful resolution of controversy. Besides, the incident is also being used as a pretext to ratchet [up] public opinion, which is a dangerous game and detrimental to freedom of speech and expression in a democratic society, besides causing immense personal harm and a threat to her life and safety,” it said.

Absence of the liberal voice But where are the liberal Muslim voices apart from a few who signed the Mumbai statement?

Muslims rightly resent being called upon to condemn every act of Muslim extremism by arguing why the entire community should be held accountable for the actions of its individual members. After all, the same test of accountability is not applied to other communities.

But the Dalvi case is about standing up for a fellow Muslim who is being intimidated by our own lunatic fringe which, if allowed to go unchallenged, could well turn against us tomorrow. It is our fight and we need to fight it in our own interest.

Moreover, the issue is no longer whether what Dalvi did was right or wrong. She has already admitted she made a mistake and has unconditionally apologised for it. She has lost her job and is facing due legal processes with which she is fully cooperating. What else do her detractors want? Shouldn't liberal Muslims be protesting against her continued harassment, and putting pressure on the police to make sure that such acts of thuggery stop?

If there’s a law against “outraging” religious sentiments, there’s also a law against harassment and making death threats. Dalvi may not have made a formal complaint for fear of reprisal, but nothing prevents others from filing a report against those she has accused of hounding her. There are many brilliant, liberal, Muslim legal activists, progressive Muslim journalists, writers and women’s groups but they all have preferred to remain silent. Some have been reported as saying that they are deeply concerned but fear about the consequences of speaking out on a “sensitive” religious issue. And this is the really worrying bit: the liberal Muslim intelligentsia’s “fear” of putting its head above the parapet and its reluctance to come out of its cosy comfort zone of silence.

Quite understandably, nobody likes to mess with thugs but a point comes when the alternative to not standing up to them is to be dragged down by them. We only need to cast a glance across the border to see what happens when such elements are allowed to go unchallenged because we think it is safe not to mess with them. What’s happening to Shirin Dalvi should be a wake-up call for all of us liberal Muslims. We can ignore it only at our own peril.

Legitimising intolerance But while we leave Muslims to ponder over this, the case has thrown up another disturbing trend that needs a wider debate. And it is this: while India has no specific anti-blasphemy law, certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlawing hate speech are being increasingly abused to legitimise intolerance. Section 295A of the IPC, which comes closest to the notion of blasphemy, punishes any speech, writings, signs or any other visible representation intended to “outrage religious feelings’’ of any class of citizens with “deliberate and malicious intention”.

Its sweeping provisions have become a licence to gag free speech. At the first hint of trouble, nervous law enforcement agencies — invoking a threat to law and order — promptly seek recourse to it, and set out to “punish’’ the accused as is happening with Dalvi. Even if the accused is finally let off by courts, given the delays in the Indian legal system, the person concerned remains effectively condemned for years simply at someone’s say-so.

The key question, which is invariably ignored, is the intention of the person accused of hate speech. The individual must be shown to have set out with “deliberate and malicious intention” to hurt someone’s religious feelings. It is the definition of “deliberate and malicious intention” that is often problematic. Courts have tended to devise a rule of thumb whereby any perceived insult of figures venerated by a religious group is generally deemed to have been committed with malicious intent.

With the police clamping down on grounds of law and order and courts relying on the inviolability or sacredness of religious beliefs, we have ended up effectively with an anti-blasphemy regime through the backdoor. It is time to take a fresh look at a colonial law, enacted in wholly different circumstances to prevent discord among different communities, to bring it in line with the demands of a more open and argumentative society.

In an ideal situation, we wouldn’t need laws to regulate what, ultimately, boils down to a question of civilised behaviour by making sure not to maliciously cause offence to others. But if we must need a law, it should be more nuanced and its interpretation less laissez-faire so as not to encourage the likes of Dalvi’s tormentors.

(Hasan Suroor is an independent commentator and writer. E-mail: )

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