The Big Story: Where offence is sacred

Taslima Nasreen is in the news again, this time in the Maharashtrian city of Aurangabad. The writer had flown in on Sunday to visit Ajanta and Ellora caves. Yet, this simple, private activity was seen as offensive by some Muslims in the city. Led by All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen MLA Imtiaz Jaleel, a group of Muslims protested outside the Aurangabad airport. At this juncture, the authorities upheld a time-honoured Indian tradition: they folded up like a pack of cards when confronted with hurt religious sentiments. A Press Trust of India article reported that the police itself stopped the author from stepping out of the airport and advised her to go back.

Nasreen has had a controversial career. She is from Bangladesh and started her literary career there. Her views about Islam, though, created a maelstrom in the country and she was forced into exile in 1994. She moved to Kolkata where, again, Islamist groups were angered by her comments. In 2007, Muslim protestors caused so much chaos in Kolkata that the Indian Army had to be called in to restore order. Nasreen now lives in Delhi, barred from both West Bengal as well as Bangladesh.

In this, there is a curious pattern to Islamist groups across India. Muslims in India today face the pressures of majoritarian bigotry. A spate of lynchings have occurred across the country targeting Muslims specifically. In many states, the meat industry, which employs a large numbers of Muslims, is being severely curtailed. In Maharashtra specifically, urban Muslims are poorer than even members of the scheduled castes and tribes.

Yet, in this near-crisis for Indian Muslim, the AIMIM is expending it energies tilting at windmills. The party’s main agenda now in Maharashtra is not to secure education or employment for Maharashtra’s Muslims – it is to try and prevent a Bengali-language author from Bangladesh from seeing the caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

If that is not irony enough, here’s more. The Bharatiya Janata Party – which came to power screaming Muslim appeasement – has capitulated to this bullying. The BJP has often – and rightly so – blamed the Left in West Bengal for expelling Taslima Nasreen from the state. Yet, the Left did that after letting her stay for more than a decade and facing in 2007 a Kolkata that threatened to descend into bedlam. In 2017, however, all it took for the BJP to fold was a modest crowd outside Aurangabad airport. The BJP – as a party that believes in Hindutva – often indulges in politics very similar to the AIMIM itself. The politics of privileging religious sentiment over rule of law has been seen multiple times, most recently in the spate of beef lynchings that have gripped the country. In the Dadri lynching of 2015, for example, the BJP all but made it clear that the killing of a man was a lesser offence than the religious sentiments of his killers over the holiness of the cow.

India needs to break this cycle of treating religious sentiment with kid gloves. Parties – and their voters – need to find rallying cries that move beyond blasphemy and cows.

The Big Scroll

  1. Ramachandra Guha on the eight threats to free expression in India that lay the ground for attacks on Taslima and Bhansali.
  2. Shoaib Daniyal on why Nehru and Patel curbed freedom of expression in India

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  1. The Modi government has been one of the most incompetent economic managers of the Indian economy in recent decades, contends Mihir Sharma in the Business Standard.
  2. Nawaz Sharif is clearly a flawed man but the manner of his removal from office is even more flawed writes Husain Haqqani in the Hindu.
  3. Privacy is not just about Aadhaar or data protection; it’s about letting people make free choices, argues Alok Prasanna Kumar in the Indian Express.
  4. In the Economic and Political Weekly, Goutham Shivshankar reviews Anuj Bhawania’s Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India.


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