ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2018.
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It has been a distressing week with several disturbing trends. Like the move to install not just a statue of Nathuram Godse, but to construct a temple for him on the day of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Then there is a very unsavoury debate going on regarding conversion, re-conversion and something called ghar-wapsi (returning home). To add to this, Asaduddin Owaisi makes the sensational statements that everyone born anywhere in the world is a Muslim, who later converts to various other religions. But all of this was overshadowed by the tragic terrorist attack in Paris, against the Charlie Hebdo magazine, massacring point blank 12 persons, including leading cartoonists, the editor, and two policemen. This meticulously planned and executed terror attack has stunned Paris, and sent shock waves across the world. But it has not broken the spirit of either Charlie Hebdo or the French people. As this goes to print, there is news of four hostages, believed to be Jewish, who have also been murdered by the terrorists, who too were shot dead later.
Charlie Hebdo has been a terrorist target for some years now. It specialises in satire and lampoons religious beliefs, politicians, industrialists, bankers, celebrities, cutting across all religions and nationalities. The French pride themselves greatly for being pioneers in creating the first blueprint of democracy and individual freedom for the underprivileged in post Renaissance European society. They fought the power of absolute monarchy, the Church and the nobility, through their great and bloody revolution of 1789. The French Revolution and the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, contributed substantially to the American Bill of Rights and the evolution of democratic ideas across the world. The Code Napoleon that forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified, was a precursor to the world's democratic jurisprudence. It is no wonder that the French are passionately attached to their freedom of expression, as is guaranteed under their constitution, which includes the right to offend and be offended. Generations before them have paid dearly for these freedoms through their lives and rivers of blood.
The maturity of any society is judged by the manner in which they react to criticism, satirisation, or even vulgarisation of their religious beliefs. Enough books have been written lampooning the Christian faith. I very clearly recall a book called The Last Temptation of Christ, which ascribes qualities to him that Christians could easily declare as blasphemy. However, what did Christian society do? They simply ignored it, as is expected from a mature society. I also recall a very popular rock concert called "Jesus Christ, Superstar" that describes the life of Christ in a rock show mode. The show went on, without any fatwa, or public protest from the Church, which normally reacts by praying for the misguided, and asking God to show them the right path. Back in India, a famous painter called M.F. Husain, made a handsome living, and became a celebrity painter out of lampooning only Hindu deities, and painting some of our goddesses in the nude. No doubt, he cannot be compared with the eclectic Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, because he appears to have been rather selective in his lampoonery, choosing only Hindu gods and goddesses, and no other religious symbols of his own faith or any other. Yes, there were protests by Hindu individuals and organisations, but Husain would be copiously defended by a huge army of our secular intellectuals and artists who stood up for his right of expression but never questioned him intellectually about why he was artistically obsessed with nude Hindu goddesses only, and no other female symbols of other faiths.
The demographic and religious composition of the western world today clearly reflects its inherited colonial baggage — from Morocco, Algeria, India and Pakistan to Turkey. The greatest challenge before it today is how it can protect itself from the fanatical barbarians of the new terrorist face of Islam, now scattered and organised all over the world, who want to impose a complete negation of all the democratic values, constitutionalism, and secularism, for which the West fought for centuries through the blood of countless unknown lives. Internet and social media are presumed to be the main vehicle for indoctrination, radicalisation and organisation of terrorism, another bite-back of scientific advancement. Cyberspace overcomes time and space and unites terrorism across the world. How will the civilised world counter this challenge?
The western world is showing a great deal of patience in the face of horrific terrorist attacks against it, starting from the 11 September Twin Tower attacks. In keeping with their secular ideology, they continue to wisely differentiate between true Islam and Islamic terrorism. But how long will this patience last? The day their patience runs out, the world will witness the most brutal Armageddon, fought on religion, a return to the dark ages. No part of the world will remain untouched; terrorist outfits are said to have spread out globally. All civilised nations must immediately come together and work out a common strategy about how to counter this very dangerous monster.
Let us look at the aberrations surfacing in India. I have no argument against Nathuram Godse's freedom of political or religious beliefs. He had every right to disagree with Gandhi's political actions and ideology and express his views through any stream of media, as his adherents do today. But did that give him legitimacy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi? I appreciate that these are subjects that were taboo for discussion under the Congress-led regimes. Perhaps it is the euphoria among Hindu organisations of experiencing their new freedom of expression that is triggering these trends. However, a statue or temple to perpetuate the memory of Godse is a permanent incitement and glorification of political murder, something which is in complete violation of the rule of law and public morality, and can have very sinister political and legal repercussions.
We have been witnessing a rather distressing debate going on about religious conversion, another subject that was taboo in previous regimes. Again, perhaps the removal of gags on this debate is what has caused a too-muchness in them. In this regard, I have repeatedly written that our Constitution is very clear on the practice of religion. The Preamble states that India is a secular state. Let me reproduce Article 25:
"Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion
"(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion
"(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law
"(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;
"(b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus..."
What emerges from these provisions is that all persons of any religion have a right to propagate it, but if it has the potential of endangering public order, or poses a threat to human health or is offensive to morals, it can be regulated. The word "propagate" was specifically introduced in the Constitution at the request of the minority representatives. But perhaps they did not grasp its implications — that anyone propagating any religion is entitled to compare and contrast it with other religions and demonstrate the superiority of the one he propagates in the free market of ideas and speech. Any law of blasphemy is repugnant to this provision. But if a religious group of proselytes try and convert anyone's religion through blandishments and material benefits, this would not fall within the freedom of conscience as defined in Article 25.
The most important actionable point emerging from Article 25 (2) (b), which should be of highest priority for our society, is reforming our own Hindu religious protocols, namely, "providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus". Let the leading, enlightened, secular Hindu religious leaders make a strong statement in this regard and invite the Dalits, Mahadalits, and all religiously marginalised communities and integrate them in our religious protocols. Otherwise, we will continue to maintain a huge corpus of religiously and socially disenfranchised, a critical mass that invites proselytism. This reform process should start immediately.
The last aberration for the week was not exactly a cartoon, but provided some comic relief. The view of Asaduddin Owaisi that "every child is born a Muslim. His parents and society convert him to other religions", adds an absurd flavour to this medieval debate. Mr Owaisi, let me ask you, what era are you living in? Your statement can only be labelled as comic, and not even deserving of any counselling that I could offer.