Subhash Gatade

History is a thin excuse for unrelenting majoritarianism in India and its neighbourhood.

Recently, a senior advocate in Karachi was charged with blasphemy after another fellow lawyer complained about his having affixed ‘Syed’ to his name in an affidavit. This, supposedly, hurt the lawyer’s religious sentiments. The case is just one instance of the tremendous persecution the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan has faced since the early 1950s massacre of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan followed by the declaration of the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslim by the Pakistan Parliament in 1974 during the rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Ever since, no Ahmadiyya can use Islamic symbols or names, such as Syed. Their persecution began with the notion that Islam has no space for another prophet, as the followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the sect, believed he was. That declaration brought the community into the spotlight of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and their exclusion has continually expanded, as was done by the passage of Ordinance XX in 1984 during the rule of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq,—from being denied space in public life, education, and employment, now they are even proceeded against for using certain names or titles.

The situation in India is sometimes no different. Recently, a thirty-three-year-old woman was killed at the Dukhniwala Sahib gurdwara in Patiala for allegedly drinking alcohol there. The religious establishment was apathetic towards the crime and the victim and instead claimed she was part of an organised attempt at sacrilege. Its representatives even glorified the killing by visiting the killer’s house and honouring his parents with a traditional saropa.

In Uttarakhand in January, police registered a case of ‘temple desecration’ against a 24-year-old Dalit man after a direction from a local court in the Uttarkashi district. The charge was based on a plea submitted by the manager of the same temple where five elite-caste residents had assaulted the Dalit man, kept him captive overnight, and punished him for coming to the temple because of his caste. The five alleged assailants had been arrested four days after the attack on the evening of 9 January under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Dalit man was still in hospital due to the attack on him when the manager approached the court. The Dalit man’s relatives asked reporters then: How could offences under the Atrocities Act be so easily diluted by concocting a case against the victim? How could his humiliation and assault be made to appear less weighty than the dominant community’s false narrative about ‘hurt sentiments’ and so-called desecration?

In neighbouring Bangladesh as well, journalists have often questioned why the minority Hindus are repeatedly being attacked. Last July, after an attack on Hindus in a mixed neighbourhood in Narail town, once again over the so-called hurt sentiments of the majority, Aasha Mehreen Amin, joint editor of The Daily Star newspaper, wrote, “Here’s a conundrum no one wants to solve: When someone is accused of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ in a post on Facebook, law enforcers show incredible alacrity in arresting the individual—within hours they are ‘caught’ and taken into custody. But when hooligans attack the homes and places of worship of minority communities, vandalising, burning, looting and sometimes assaulting the community members, law enforcers are either nowhere to be seen or are nearby but not doing anything to stop the mobs until most of the damage is done. People were assaulted, women harassed, shops and houses looted and burnt, while the police turned into onlookers.”

These seemingly unrelated instances make some things evident. First, there is no shortage of issues for majoritarians to use to stigmatise, criminalise, and silence the ‘other’. Second, very often, the targets of crimes committed in the name of hurt sentiments are worse off than victims of other crimes, for these victims cannot even claim they have been hurt. Instead, it is the aggressor who wears the mantle of injury and gets the support of the state apparatus.

Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for a joke he did not even share with the public. Cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni was hauled into court after a calendar depicted him as Lord Vishnu. It took a ruling by a three-judge bench of the highest court of the country to give Dhoni relief when it rejected the petition that claimed the calendar hurt religious sentiments. The court ruled what should have been obvious, that an unwitting depiction that lacked malicious intent to outrage religious feelings could not be considered an injury to religious feelings.

Historian Neeti Nair writes in her book Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press, 2023) about how state ideologies in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been shaped by the divisive politics that accompanied the tumultuous birth of these nations. She describes how a wide range of regional political actors—including Nathuram Godse to justify Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination—have invoked hurt sentiments to explain away their crimes.

In all three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh protecting sentiments has also been the stated reason to regulate hate speech, especially after the violent Partition. Nair traces the underlying idea of protecting feelings in India to Thomas Macaulay, Law Member of the East India Company, who first elaborated in 1837, in his draft note on the Indian Penal Code, that the Indian public is especially predisposed to feeling “hurt” or easily wounded. She writes, “Macaulay held that there was ‘no country in which the Government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people’.”

It was a kind of acceptance that promoting “feelings of enmity or hatred” could spur unrest, and it justified harsh provisions such as Section 153A in the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises controversial speech or writing, and Section 295A, which outlawed insulting religious belief with “deliberate and malicious intention”.

The silver lining is there are voices raising questions about the majority’s silence over attacks which normalise sectarian violence. As Hrishik Roy writes in The Daily Star, this silence results from “tribalism”, an attitude that stems from “strong loyalty to one’s tribe or social group”. Members of a community should not take recourse to tribalism, he says, such as by claiming that attackers of their social group do not represent its “true face”. Indian writer and teacher Prof Apoorvanand emphasised this moral obligation when he said Hindus must oppose anti-minority politics conducted in their name. He asked, perhaps rhetorically, how difficult it could be for us all to say Indian society must not tolerate or inflict violence.

The author is an independent journalist.
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