What is the hounding of Shirin Dalvi, editor of the now-shut Mumbai edition of the Lucknow-based Urdu newspaper Awadhnama, all about? Making an example of her so that “no one dares publish any image of Prophet Muhammed again”, as Zubair Azmi, the first person to file a police complaint against her, claims? Or driving out the only woman who has broken the glass ceiling of her profession at astonishing speed?

The 46-year-old editor has been on the run since January 17, when a host of complaints has been filed against her in several parts of Maharashtra for reproducing the cover of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on the front page of Awadhnama. The management of the paper shut down the edition soon after.

Ironically, those at the forefront of the campaign against Dalvi are not the usual maulanas but fellow journalists and intellectuals. Zubair Azmi heads Urdu Markaz, an organisation that promotes the cause of Urdu literature. Izhar Ahmed, president of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, who helped get a Mumbra resident’s complaint registered, considers himself a “Muslim first, a journalist second”.

Under Islamic law, Dalvi committed “a crime that can never be forgiven and the punishment for which is death”, he claimed. “We are not asking for that.  We are only asking that she be given the strictest punishment under Indian law.”

Pitfalls of community journalism

If Ahmed’s words embody the pitfalls of community journalism (which is what Urdu journalism has become after Independence), so does Shirin Dalvi’s case. Had she not been a Muslim, Imtiaz Ahmed, managing editor of Urdu Times, would not be pronouncing that this could be the end of the road for her as an Urdu journalist.

Talking to the principal characters ranged against her, you realise the female journalist is not exactly popular among her peers. From being a freelancer living under the shadow of her journalist-poet husband Abdullah Kamal, she reached the top quickly after his death – too quickly, perhaps. So when she published a Charlie Hebdo cover in her paper, it seemed a heaven-sent opportunity for all those waiting for her to fail.

Dalvi used to write as a student, and it was an article of hers written for Kamal’s magazine that culminated in their marriage. A few years later, she resumed writing, but, on her husband’s advice, under the pseudonym “Umme Wijdan” (mother of Wijdan). It took her a long time to drop that for “Shiri Kamal”. But it was only after her husband passed away in 2010 that Shirin Dalvi re-emerged.

And in five years since then, the jean-clad, burqa-less mother of two went from being associate editor at Sahafat under the late Sajid Rashid to editor at Awadhnama, leaving many seasoned journalists by the wayside. She also worked as an associate editor with Hindustan. Her association with the iconoclastic journalist Sajid Rashid added nothing to her popularity. Rashid died suddenly in 2012. Among those who called for a boycott of his funeral was the Forum Against Blasphemy headed by Zubair Azmi. It is as head of this forum that Azmi has filed the complaint against Dalvi.

Resistance at new publication

Soon after Rashid’s untimely death, Dalvi left Sahafat, unable to work with the new editor Saeed Hamid, a senior journalist not particularly known for his liberal views. Her appointment last year as editor of Awadhnama, succeeding veteran journalist Khalil Zahed, who had joined amid much fanfare when the UP-based paper had been launched in Mumbai, came as a shock to her peers.  “I immediately asked the proprietor: ‘You couldn’t find anyone else?’” snorted Nihal Sagir, who worked as sub-editor under Dalvi.

It was Sagir’s inflammatory quote that featured in the first reports about the controversy in the Urdu papers. “I had warned her not to use the Charlie Hebdo cover,” he was quoted as saying in the Urdu Times, “but she brushed it off saying: `We should be broadminded. At the most, a few hundred copies will be burnt.’”

Sagir now admits he wasn’t in the office when the January 17 issue was being produced – he had been sacked two days earlier. He explains the quote ascribed to him as a “misunderstanding that occurred during a phone interview. I knew that someone in the office had warned her, and this had been her reaction”.

However, Urdu Times managing editor Imtiaz Ahmed maintains that there was no misunderstanding: it was Sagir who had called the paper, eager to give his quote. It tallied with what he had been claiming all day on Whats App, added Ahmed.

But Dalvi denies such a warning was ever given. “No one said a word in the office,” she said. “Had they done so, I would have heeded their advice, because to me, my DTP [desk top publishing] operators represent my paper’s readership.” As things turned out, nobody spoke to her for her version after the picture was published, either. Her phone was switched off, says Ahmed.

An honest mistake

Why did Dalvi use the Charlie Hebdo cover, knowing the sensitivity about  images of the Prophet? “I do not agree that the cartoons represent the Prophet because there’s never been an image of him,” she said. She had wanted to use a picture of the latest Charlie Hebdo edition to illustrate a story, which quoted the Pope’s remarks on the limits to freedom of speech, and also pointed out that the killings of its staffers had, instead of silencing Charlie Hebdo, sent both its circulation and its price rocketing.

But, by mistake, she used an old cover of Charlie Hebdo  which showed a tearful figure, hands covering his face lamenting, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” The headline in French said: “Mahomet overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” She had no idea the caricature represented the Prophet, Dalvi said.

Senior journalist Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of Hindustan and secretary of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, said that this was a mistake any newspaper could have made. “When we want to show a newspaper’s masthead, don’t we pull out the first picture of the paper we find from the Internet, not bothering to check the news below the masthead?” he asked. “Any journalist would understand this.’’

Arzoo, who has published both Abdullah Kamal and Dalvi, is emphatic that Dalvi’s hounding has nothing to do with piety. “She has rubbed too many people the wrong way in her quick climb to the top of the ladder,” he said. “These people are using the Prophet for profit. And thanks to them, an Urdu paper has been closed and its staffers rendered jobless.”

A non-issue

Arzoo’s is perhaps the only paper that has not carried anything on the controversy. He describes it as a “non-issue” for the Muslim community. Indeed, given the limited circulation and relative obscurity of the Awadhnama, the picture might well have gone unnoticed.

The day after it was published, Dalvi published a front-page apology, as well as an editorial that blamed Charlie Hebdo for provoking Muslims. But it also said that Muslims should counter insults to the Prophet with wisdom, not violence, and should remember that Islam had spread through good deeds.

Her opponents are not impressed. “Let the law take its own course,” they intoned, as FIRs piled up against her from Thane to Malegaon under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code (“outraging religious sentiments with malicious intent”). Meanwhile, Dalvi and her children remain unable to return home.

Is this really the end of the road for Shirin Dalvi? “She can come back to run a boutique or a beauty parlour, anything but a newspaper – that’s what these people want,” said Arzoo. Will he publish her again? He replied:  “She’s welcome any time.”