Controversies, followed by vandalism and violence, over sacrilegious statements against religion or religious figures are not new in India. There is a history that even predates India’s independence. For example, the Urdu pamphlet controversy, Rangeela Rasool, in May 1924, written by Raj Pal of the Arya Pustakalaya, Lahore, on Prophet Muhammad; the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic verses, in the 1980s; the harassment of MF Hussain in 2008 for his painting Bharat Matain the hands of the Hindu right.
Earlier, in the 1860s, a colonial administrator wrote William Muir’s book, the life of muhammad, had attracted Muslim uneasiness. However, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) chose not to respond with violence or verbal passion. Instead, he decided to do research and write a rebuttal. For this he traveled to England in 1869. Interestingly, William Muir helped him provide the logistics for traveling to and staying in England. Sir Syed is arguably one of the most important modernist reformers of the 19th centuryth Century India. Its legacy of providing modern education to the Muslims of its class lives on as Aligarh Muslim University, the subcontinent’s largest residential university.
Sir Syed’s extensive study of the Qur’an and his comments on it led him to discover that there is no Qur’anic provision that blasphemy actually carries the death penalty. Prof Shafey Kidwai’s (2021, p. 87) report on Sir Syed writes: “Sir Syed condemned the book for its myriad historical contradictions, but stressed that the Qur’an does not prescribe corporal punishment for such a deplorable act and that Muslims this must not seek vengeance in the name of the Almighty or his Messenger, the Prophet of Islam.”
However, some Muslims of the Indian subcontinent have not been able to develop the habit of writing intellectually informed rebuttals instead of resorting to violence, which is also of a cruel nature. It should be further added here that even if there could have been a Qur’anic sanction for such a punishment at all, a modern, liberal, multicultural society must not have resorted to invoking the Qur’an. Instead, the law of the country should have prevailed over such an alleged “moral violation.”
The gruesome killing of Kanhaiya Lal of Udaipur (for allegedly supporting BJP’s Nupur Sharma’s derogatory remarks about the Prophet) by two Muslim men in Udaipur is brutal and unprecedented in terms of his barbarism and execution.
One must also consider that in recent years much anti-Muslim hatred has been systematically delivered by the bigoted majority. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the public space is full of them. The persecution, the lynching of Muslims under the pretext of “love jihad”, conversion, cow slaughter has now become commonplace. Lynchings over cow problems or dehumanization of everyday life by right-wing forces, enjoying impunity and state support, have marginalized Muslims, mainly the poor and low-caste. The state’s utter and willful failure to keep Muslims safe by failing to uphold the rule of law has further aggravated their despair.
With this in mind, perhaps the assassination of Kanhaiya Lal should be examined, not to find justification for killing poor Kanhaiya Lal, but to understand the sense of civil war in the current polarized environment.
Blasphemy law in India and its contradictory application
Blasphemy as a concept does not have much taker in liberal democratic nations, being viewed essentially as a retrograde and egregious phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Furthermore, in a modern, diverse and multi-religious society, blasphemy laws act more as a language barrier than as an intermediary. While countries with deep and long liberal cultures, such as the US and UK, abolished their respective blasphemy laws long ago. There are notable exceptions, however, where theocratic nations like Pakistan have included anti-blasphemy laws in their statute books.
In India, with its longstanding secular and liberal ethos, constitutionally and legally there is no anti-blasphemy law per se. Or that’s what we’ve been led to believe by legal decrees and court pronouncements. However, if one goes through the language of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the instances in which this law is invoked, one gets a clear picture of what the purpose of this law is. Constitutional scholar Gautam Bhatia has an interesting take on why the Indian legal and constitutional landscape is unfamiliar with the term blasphemy. He says, “The Indian judiciary has long emphasized the inclusive and pluralistic nature of Hinduism, making a concept like blasphemy incoherent.” Therefore, Section 295A of the IPC is unofficially the Indian version of the Blasphemy Law.
Section 295A was essentially designed to punish “willful and malicious acts aimed at outraging religious sentiments of any class by insulting their religion or religious belief.” However, looking at the cases related to Section 295A, this law created more problems than what it was intended to address. The problem with this law is on many levels. First of all, the wording of the law is very vague and too broad, which has been a major reason for its abuse. Second, this law provides legal immunity from fabricated “feelings of hurt.” And the most unfortunate aspect of Section 295A is the judiciary’s inconsistent approach to its application. Siddharth Narrain in his essay Hate speech, hurt feelings and the (im)possibility of freedom of expression (2016) criticizes this approach. He notices: ” [The] overwhelming concern for law and order, the constitutional value of the “orderly society” that has determined the legal regulation of expression and has determined the contours of the right to free speech in the country.” This legal approach of favoring public order over free speech leads on “Censorship of creative endeavors, artistic work, criticism of religion, questioning of social orthodoxy and satire”.
This was reflected in the Supreme Court Justice’s recent oral comment, whose comment on Nupur Sharma may imply a speech barrier, despite the fact that the former Speaker also did not exercise her freedom of speech. Rather, her tone and tenor were willfully provocative and contemptuously partisan.
Bigotry prevails in India today to an alarming degree. A somewhat similar situation prevailed in the 1920s. Punjab legislators intervened significantly on this occasion. The historian Neeti Nair wrote in her 2013 essay on i.e. on the legal history of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC):
“[The Punjab] legislature [across the political divides] could rise above the interests of their religious communities (as Hindu or Muslim publicists) to speak for a larger putative “Indian” community, collective or nation. Far from being a textbook example of communalism, the debates bring to light an alternative moment in the emergence of an ‘Indian’ nation.”
So the lesson we can learn from our own history is that the dominant groups and powerful majorities must rise up against bigotry, to mobilize the appropriate laws and their impartial, rigorous enforcement so that all groups have genuine trust in the system develop. Unfortunately, no such claim seems to come forth. Needless to say, prolonged prevalence of this will be dangerous for India.
(Mohammad Sajjad is Professor of Modern and Recent History at Aligarh Muslim University and Md Zeeshan Ahmad is pursuing a Masters in Law from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)