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വായന

18 February, 2014

Settling with fascism

BRP Bhaskar
 Gulf Today

Are coming events casting their shadow before? US ambassador Nancy Powell travelled to Gujarat last week to mollify State Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, whom Washington had cold-shouldered for nine years. When pro-Hindutva Indian Americans invited him to the US, the State Department had denied him a visa, heeding the call of Coalition Against Genocide, a group formed after the Gujarat riots of 2002.

A US spokesman indicated later that Modi could get a visa if he applied again. Modi and the BJP reacted coolly to the offer.

Also, Penguin India, a unit of the US-based Penguin Random House, surrendered before Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a fringe group which had dragged it to court four years ago for allegedly hurting Hindu religious sentiments.

The cause of action was the publication of US Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The Samiti had cited Ms Doniger and the Penguin group’s US firm also as respondents in the civil suit and criminal cases it filed.

In an out-of-court settlement with the Samiti, Penguin India agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of Doniger’s book.

Doniger approved of the settlement but Indian writers and academics were scandalised that Penguin capitulated instead of awaiting the court verdict. Even if it lost the first round, it could have hoped for a favourable verdict from either of the two higher courts. Journalists Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan asked Penguin to pulp their books and “revert copyright so that we can deal with any would-be bullies on our own terms”.

Penguin defended its action saying it was obliged to respect the laws of the land, howsoever intolerant and restrictive they might be. It also said the penal law would make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression.

Under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens by words, signs or visible representations, or attempting to insult any religion or religious beliefs, is an offence punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment and fine or both.

Enacted by the British colonial regime in the 19th century, the IPC still remains in force with some amendments made after the country gained freedom. Its other archaic provisions include Section 377 which criminalises homosexuality. The Delhi High Court had struck it down as unconstitutional but the Supreme Court reinstated it.

It may be the notorious delays of the court system and the illiberal approach discernible in some recent judgments, like the one on gay sex, persuaded Penguin and Wendy Doniger to throw in the towel. But there could also be other factors. While the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti confines itself to litigation the Hindutva menagerie has entities with violent records as well.

Hindutva elements had attacked the late celebrated painter MF Husain’s house in Mumbai, vandalised his works at exhibitions and filed over 2,000 criminal cases against him in different states, alleging indecent depiction of Hindu goddesses. The Supreme Court transferred all the cases to the Delhi High Court, which rejected the charges against him. Yet he was forced to spend his last years in exile.

Last year, members of a Hindutva outfit attacked students of Pune’s famed film institute and artistes of the Kabir Kala Manch who had gathered for a screening of Jai Bhim Comrade, a film by Anand Patwardhan. Commenting on the emerging scenario, Patwardhan said, “When just the whiff of Modi sends goons to attack a ‘U’ certificate film in a festival and sends Penguin (which should be renamed Chicken) to pulp its publication, just imagine what will happen if and when fascists actually come to power!”

Others too have shown signs of intolerance. Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, is now in self-exile in Finland as he faces threat of arrest and prosecution as a Catholic priest has filed a complaint against him under Sec 295A for exposing a fraudulent miracle claim.

The IPC may be dated but the responsibility for its failure in the face of incipient fascism rests on the politico-legal system which, instead of using its provisions against evil-doers, allows them to invoke these provisions against sane elements. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 18, 2014

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