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Extreme hues of the Tricolour

A multicultural society like India is bound to have religious differences. The loopholes in our legal system help hardliners to victimise whoever they might wish to target, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2009 22:34 IST

If you thought the law goes by precedent, you were wrong. The Minister of State for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury, has been slapped with an FIR by a court for referring to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Mangalore after the infamous attack on girls in a pub. But this ‘crime’ had been committed by almost every major newspaper in India well before the minister picked up the refrain. In fact, to enlarge on the theme beyond the rather small city of Mangalore, there is a Wikipedia page on the ‘Hindu Taliban’ which quotes a slew of authorities dating back to 2003.

Common sense suggests there were two options available in this case — either to respect precedent and call for the prosecution of Jimmy Wales, the prime mover of Wikipedia, or to throw out the case against Chowdhury as frivolous. Instead, she is to be charged under Section 153A and B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which punish acts promoting enmity between groups to the detriment of national integration.

A week ago, the editor and publisher of The Statesman in Kolkata were arrested under Section 295A of the IPC, which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings, after Muslims demonstrated outside their offices. They were objecting to the reprint of an article from the Independent of the UK by the columnist Johann Hari headlined ‘Why should I respect these oppressive religions?’

Essentially, it concerned the subversion of the office of the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights, which is supposed to expose the suppression of free speech, by “a coalition of Islamist tyrants led by Saudi Arabia” insisting on a culture of unquestioning respect for religious dogma. It argues that the Rapporteur will now have to protect repressive orders which regard the questioning of dogma as thought crime. For merely reprinting — not even originating — this article, which was already freely accessible on the internet, the most important officers of a media house were arrested. Again, the idea of precedent went by the board.

Ever since the slew of cases against MF Husain, Article 153, its sub-articles and Article 295A of the IPC have been routinely misused by interest groups of the colours on either side of the Ashok Chakra on the national flag — saffron and green. Such groups, which have become assertive globally, are being taken seriously because in a multicultural society, we have unquestioningly valourised religious difference. In India, we have made it ridiculously easy for any extremist to trammel anyone at all with frivolous cases and depend on judicial delay to destroy their lives. That is what happened to Husain — the principal cases against him were thrown out by the Delhi courts two years after he was hounded out of India. By that time, he had lost his constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

I am no fan of Husain in his recent avatar. It is distressing to see a master craftsman degenerate into a barefoot showman. But it is positively painful to see the law being used to whip men and women of substance into line by tiny people who crawl like triumphant cockroaches over the body politic, pre-ordained survivors of the holocaust to come — a holocaust of their own making. And what hurts most is that all the while, the law sleeps the sleep of the just.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine