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Dangerous trends: Urgent need for greater restraint from autonomous institutions

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

The Supreme Court has dismissed a plea by Nupur Sharma for clubbing together all the FIRs against her in different parts of the country. But before rejecting her plea, the court passed strong observations against her. The Court said that ‘she was singlehandedly’ responsible for what is happening in the country today. The courts also observed that whatever happened in Udaipur was because of her observation. Justice Suryakant actually asked her to apologise to the country and said that she was the spokesperson of a political party and should have been more restrained.
After the Supreme Court’s observation, suddenly, there is a return of faith in our ‘institutions’. Actually, what can we do except to have ‘faith’ whether we like it or not, Supreme Court is the final authority over anything that happen around us and hence whether we have faith or not, we have to accept its verdict.
However, as I said many times, in the last few years, we have more lectures and lesser judgement which provide us hope for the protection of freedom of expression and human rights. There used to be off the record observations but now there are open observations but they do not necessarily form the part of the Court order or judgement but they create an impression which is difficult to ignore by the lower courts which might make a person guilty much before the trial has begun.

Different yardsticks

Just a few days back, the Supreme Court dismissed Zakia Jaffari’s petition on the Gujarat riots in 2002 when her husband Ehsan Jaffari was brutally burnt to death at the Gulbarga Society in Ahmedabad. Ehsan Jaffari was a freedom fighter, a Congress leader and former Member of Parliament belonging to Congress party. She had been pursuing the case and had a right to be heard. There were people who stood with her and supported. Activist Teesta Setalvad stood with the people and was instrumental in getting many of them justice. We don’t know but possibly she was also helping Zakia Jaffari in filing her petition or providing her legal guidance to fight the case. The court finally found no merit in Zakia Jaffari’s petition and dismissed it. But that was not all, it actually made strong remarks against Teesta Setalvad and two other police officers who were instrumental in helping many of the victims. It was like punishing the petitioner or human rights defender as why they stood with the victims. There is a dangerous precedent here which is any petitioner who is unable to ‘win’ the case in the Supreme court, might be pulled up for ‘conspiring’ against the state or the prime minister or any leader.
Look at the police response on the two orders of the Supreme Court. Immediately after the Supreme Court delivered its final order on Zakia Jaffari case, STF of Gujarat police arrested activist Teesta Setalvad from her residence in Mumbai. The other noted arrest in the case is Mr R B Sreekumar, former Director General of Police, Gujarat. Former IPS officer, Sanjeev Bhat is already languishing in jail for years too was named by the apex court in the conspiracy angle to defame the then chief minister Narendra Modi.
Nupur Sharma remains out without any action against her, as Justice Suryakant had already spoken in the court, getting the VIP treatment but on the other side, Delhi Police arrested one of the founders of Alt News, Mohammad Zubair, from his Bengaluru residence for posting a tweet in 2018 which according to the police hurt the sentients of Hindus. The tweet was nothing but clipping of an old film made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It is also reported that the anonymous twitter handle under whose complaint Zubair was arrested actually did not exist and is not available on twitter but the action on the complain has already taken. At the Delhi High Court, Solicitor General appeared on behalf of the complainant and the date for next hearing was fixed after four weeks. We don’t know whether Zubair will remain in jail or some lower court will give him bail.

Crime against humanity in Udaipur

In the meanwhile, an atrocious terror incident has happened in Udaipur Rajasthan where two terrorists who happened to be Muslims brutally murdered a tailor named Kanhaiya Lal for his alleged blasphemous Facebook post supporting Nupur Sharma. The incident enraged the entire country but a timely action by Rajasthan government helped douse the tempers which were being aggravated as the elections are due in Rajasthan next year hence attempt was made to keep it boiling and get the political mileage. The Hindutva organisations have been blaming Rajasthan government for inaction but there are certain things which need to be clarified here. That this heinous act of terror was condemned by the Muslims activists, individuals as well as political leaders. The accused were almost immediately arrested by the Rajasthan police. Contrary to this look at the action of the government as well as the political leaders on the similar crime committed by Shambhu Lal Raigar when he chopped off the head of a Bengali labourer for alleged Love jehad, made the video and posted it online. Raigar was made hero and there were people who came out in his support. We don’t know where is the case and why it was not fast tracked when Vasundhara Raje Scindia was the chief minister of the state.
Now, there are several questions which need to be understood and probably one can disagree with Supreme Court’s observation as they do not reflect in the final order related to Nupur Sharma. The point is that the court observed that she should apologise to the nation but why didn’t the court order her arrest if it was so much disturbed with her statement. All the observations are oral and means nothing as far as the case is concern. Nupur Sharma’s lawyer had to withdrew her case. I don’t think she was wrong in asking the court to club together all the petitions or FIR filed against her because of the ‘threats’ that she now might have from the radical groups.
The role of the Supreme Court is to look into the constitutionality of an issue and whether any one of us have violated it or gone beyond it. The Courts are here to protect our rights but in recent years, a pattern has been normalised which is that most of the judgements have two parts. One is theoretical aspect and the other operative part. That apart, court make lots of comments. Unfortunately, most of the cases, Court’s observations find more space in the media than the real judgement and unfortunately most of the observations have rarely found a place in the written judgement. So, despite all the hypes, Nupur Sharma’s lawyer withdrew the petition but all that the judges said so ‘powerfully’ does not form the part of the order. Though it is also a fact that the court did not give her any relief which she wanted but that is the crux of the problem because state can use such tactics against others who they dislike.

Issue of Frivolous FIRs need to be dealt with seriously

Now, a trend has also been observed that whenever a political party want to create trouble for its opponents, it actually encourages its cadres and leaders to file cases in different states against the individuals. Many activists, authors and journalists are facing this and they don’t even know where cases against them have been filed. Some unknown entity’s feelings are hurt and case is filed in a local case. In many cases both the BJP as well as the Congress was responsible for doing this. In the Arnab Goswami case various FIRs were filed against him in several states but the Supreme Court took a strong view and asking all of them to be clubbed together and transferred to Mumbai or Delhi. Even when we disagree with Goswami and his ranting, I think, this issue is serious because procedures have become punishment for the human rights defenders. It is a direct threat to not only activism but also freethought and freedom of expression. How can any one expresses his views if one does not know that some body’s feeling might get hurt and some one can file a case at a remote place. Those who are in the organised sector, have powerful background and back up whether they claim to be with some parties or not, can survive as they can afford to have a lawyer to defend them in the court of law but those who write just for the sake of convictions and without making any money or being part of any organised political or ‘civil society’ structure, they might face bigger problem. It will just compel them to keep quiet. Such things will be disastrous as those voices are needed more who are individuals and outside the organise groups of competitors today claiming to be the ‘real’ Indian. There cannot be different yardsticks in this regard particularly when FIRs are filed in different places by anyone in the name of feeling getting hurt. These are deliberate political tactics to humiliate a person to engage him in procedures which are cumbersome and expensive too.

Is Nupur Sharma responsible for the current crisis?

Is the current crisis really started by Nupur Sharma? Yes, she crossed her limit but for that we need to look a record of the ruling party’s spokespersons and TV channels spreading lies and hatred. The IT Cell provide distorted and mischievously edited clips of the opponents and that are circulated through not only social media but magnified through television channels as prime time debates revolves around them. Is it possible for these spokespersons to cross the line without the encouragement and blessings of the top leadership of the ruling party? Has any one of the top leaders of the ruling party ever expressed regret, pain, shock of what has been happening in the country during the last five years? Has there ever been an appeal of communal amity so often used by Indira Gandhi and other leaders. Contrary to peace appeal, a pattern that developed was to legitimise and justify things according to political perceptions. The anchors were facilitating the hatred against minorities particularly Muslims. The debate today is not about the socio-economic issues of all but our birth-based identities which are not chosen by us. Some one is hero and other is a villain just because of his or her faith. While Muslims have unequivocally condemned the crime in Udaipur, the Hindutva groups have always tried to justify the killings of the innocent people such as the similar murder by Shambhu Lal Raigar or lynching of Pahlu Khan or Akhlaque whose lynching was celebrated by the Hindutva groups. In the last few years the atmosphere has been vitiated particularly on our prime time shows which are actually promoting hate filled political agenda. The spokespersons are competing along with the anchors to get attention and then get ‘out of turn’ promotion and benefit of being member of ruling party. For that they are ready to cross the ‘limits’ of decency and physically fight in the studio. The anchors are ready to push the war further as aggression and shouting brings TRPs. More than that, such aggression help divert the real issues of the public and humiliate the minorities and in this case, the Muslims as it fetched politically to BJP hence all their spokesperson make every effort to humiliate the Muslims, for they know well that most of those in the TV studio will not be able to respond and the anchor will ensure that the humiliation is complete. The fact is that these TV debates are nothing but deliberate pushover agenda where anchor allow you to play your politics. In fact, it would have been better for the Supreme Court to take up the issue of media and frame a guideline. Don’t we know how channels are spewing venom daily and all this is not possible without blessings of the top political leadership. Can the courts act against the channels? Can they frame guidelines and seek responses from Ministry of Information and Broadcasting regarding hate speeches? That ‘Sudarshan news’ is a channel and Suresh Chavhankve is a journalist can only happen in a country where autonomous institutions have decided not to act against people and channels spreading hatred, prejudices and open threat against minorities. Who will take notice of it. The open threat, intimidations and distortion remain unchallenged institutionally and that shows the political clout of the channels and their owners who have got a free hand to issue open threat to minorities in the name of ‘freedom of expression’.

Blasphemy laws must be abolished

It is also a reality that Muslims normally have not agitated on any other issue except the issue of Islam and Prophet Mohammad and there are sacrosanct for them. It is a global phenomenon and many of the Islamic countries have extremely dangerous blasphemy laws which are often used against dissenters and minorities. The punishment to these blasphemy laws normally death penalty through primitive torturous and brutal methods. Often, political leaders and religious leader speak loudly on these issues suggesting that ‘Muslims’ won’t speak on anything but are extremely sensitive on the issue of Prophet Mohammad. The Hindutva counterpart of blasphemy laws in India is the Cow protection laws and conversion laws. The unfortunate part of all these ‘laws’ is that people don’t wait for the courts to give a final judgement. Emotions and rumours make the maddening crowd take law into its hand and the administration become ‘helpless’ or plays a supportive role everywhere to the majoritarian ‘emotions’ and ‘sentiments’. For the first time in last few years, Muslims in India actually spoke up for their democratic rights with a large of women’s participation. Issue of CAA and NRC disturbed them as there was no effort to assuage their feeling and the entire community was made to believe as if they were being thrown out of India. The feeling of insecurity was powerful but people resorted to peaceful protests, sitting and Dharanas but that was countered by media lies and harshest response by many of the states. Many people have been jailed and their houses got demolished but we have not heard a categorical response so far that evictions and demolition is not the way out and are actually against constitution as well as international law. You can not declare an accused as criminal and decide yourself without following the due process of the law. State that way has much bigger responsibility than individuals because state is legitimised through constitution and due process of law. State must set up example to follow rule of law so that people follow it. Intimidations will never make people to follow procedures and rules otherwise western countries would have been the worst because they have the minimum number of police on the street and people follow rule of law on their own. This responsibility only comes when there is a trust between the state and its citizens. State is not here to boss over people by intimidating them but must open channel of communications which is absent these days.
Middle eastern countries were vocal against Nupur Sharma, they remain silent on the Udaipur murder. Why? 
It is not surprising that all the voices that came from the middle eastern countries against Nupur Sharma’s fulminations were those countries where blasphemy is a crime and attract death penalty. While Nupur Sharma may have spoken deliberately to fulfil the agenda of Sangh Parivar here, those who are facing death penalty or waiting for it in these countries are innocent humanists, seculars-liberals who were just trapped by the majoritarian fanatics just because they dissented or did not agree to their religious view point. In a country like Pakistan, Blasphemy law is used against the poor Christian community of Pakistan, a majority of those are actually Dalit convert and that too from Chura or Valmiki community. How can a 10 years old boy be charged with blasphemy? How can an illiterate sweeper be charged with blasphemy? This is happening in Pakistan and now we are following the same pattern.
Shockingly, while the middle eastern countries were vocal against Nupur Sharma, they remain silent on the Udaipur murder. Why? The problem is that the kind of argument which the murder of Udaipur gave are often heard among the clergy. The same countries do not speak on violence and discrimination against Muslims in India. So, the fact is Muslims may be in troubles and might face discrimination in non-Muslim majoritarian societies but it is not the issue for any of the Islamic nations as they too suffer from the old phenomena that religion is in danger. A historical and powerful religion like Islam can not be at risk by petty comments in the very similar way about Hinduism or Christianity. A hate speech or a comment which we disagree can be handled academically or even legally but no need to promote primitive barbaric methods to deal with such acts.

Differentiate between hate speech and right to critique religion or its bad practices

The most dangerous things which we are witnessing today is that hate speeches have grown and being target towards the other religions. Television channels are facilitating these debates deliberately. India must have a law against hate speech which is being used frequently for the political purposes and polarise the society. Unfortunately, the hate speeches during elections have gone unpunished as election commission could do nothing, purely because it involves the top leadership of the ruling party.
The counter to these hate speeches should be constitutional values and not hate speech but unfortunately it is further creating the rift. Hate speech can not be over come through hate speech but it is also a well-planned strategy. Hate speech actually create an environment in the opposite side where the similar group of leaders emerge and then they compete with each other to capture the ‘imagination’ of their respective communities. The result is there is little space for reforms. You can not discuss problems of our own religious values and how we have to reform because in the binary of ‘religion in danger’ and ‘religion beyond criticism’, we actually play in the hands of fanatics and fundamentalists of religion who do not want any reform and will have no issues to discuss.
Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, EVR Periyar spoke about evils of caste system in the Brahmanical hierarchical society. Shaheed Bhagat Singh spoke about dominance of religion in our life and why it is important to be rational and work towards people’s cause. It is also important for all of us not to selectively target particular religion but take a broader look that most of the religions have wonderful humanitarian ideas and promote universal truth but it is also a fact that organised religions have led by many heinous crimes against humanity. In modern societies, we need to bring together the universal ideas of religion but also not feel offended if some one disagrees with it. Our feeling gets hurt very easily on religious issues but not on the people’s issues. Untouchability and caste discrimination issues would not have come or outlawed if Dr Ambedkar and other great heroes of our society had not raised and critiqued them.
While I agree that no mischief should be made when we critique religion and humanists world over are doing that not for the purpose of humiliating or embarrassing a community or an individual but to protect individuals from the onslaught of people or governments who justify every evil and wrong in the name of religion. Religions world over get reformed over a period of time but it is also true that none of them will ever accept that their ‘holy’ things are ever for scrutiny but definitely it need to be a common understanding that we should not develop prejudices against people who believe in this religion or that religion or no religion. At least our laws, constitutions and institutions should show impartiality in this regard and remain absolutely neutral in terms of people’s faith but ready to intervene whenever an individual’s rights are violated because of his differing certain things or not following certain principles. Our fight is for common good and not against individuals or communities practicing certain faiths or no faith. We can not vilify communities and individuals as after all, religion survived for so many centuries not because it has greatness but because it has a strong social-cultural capital. While religion and religious people-communities are enjoying modern science, technology and democratic rights, religious communities, theocratic societies are unable to tolerate any fair criticism. Even right to be not religious is not acceptable in such societies. Actually, multiculturalism is the best bet for growing as we will learn to live with each other keeping our religions and faith in absolutely personal domains and developing a common agenda for public spaces. World over, authors, humanists critique religions and have their own views. Bertrand Russel wrote why I am not a Christian and some one else had a problem with Islam and many others wrote critique of Brahmanism or Hinduism but then this discussion must go as critique help us improve ourselves and not really meant to humiliate people or communities because of their faith but to warn them that everything written in the holy books can not be true and that we need to grow hand in hand with other communities too.

Let religion be private and constitutional values our common agenda

Today, the world is grown village. We need each other’s help. Communities bring their own experience which ultimately help us grow together. A country like India is melting pot of various civilisations and they complement us. Our food habits, cuisine, cultural value system only grows and get strengthened with this diversity of culture hence it is important that we need to come out of the mindset that divide us all the time and try to correct history. You can only learn lessons from history, you can not really correct it as there are hundreds of others who may seek the same questions from you. If the Hindus seek answers from Muslims or Christians, the Dalits, the Adivasis, OBCs seek the response for the same questions from the Brahmanical elite. Don’t dig the past to humiliate others. Don’t dig past to correct it or do politics as digging will only weaken our secular foundations. Our constitution, our institutions need to stay strong and autonomous so that even if politicians try to use religion for their political purposes then these institutions must stand tall and protect us from the forces of divisions. Once the law is applied to every one equally the things will improve and as Indians we will be proud of our heritage that ensure that different faiths, cultures, languages, ethnicities thrive hear and not merely live here but also enjoy it fully. Let us strengthen India’s diversity by building up relationship and following the constitutional values which does not discriminate on the basis of our birth-based identity but treat us as equal on the basis of our citizenship. Important to understand that growing hatred and divisions will not take us anywhere and it will only weaken us. For a stronger India, we need to follow the constitutional values and treat every citizen as equal, keep faith in your personal domain, stop hate speeches prejudices which will only deepen the divisions. For that to succeed, our institutions will have to protect their autonomy as well as rights of citizens when they are violated or intimidated.
---
*Human rights defender

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