It is not a good time to be a free thinker on the Indian subcontinent. Two secular voices Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were forever silenced in Bangladesh barely a few weeks apart. Then, an outspoken activist Sabeen Mahmud was brazenly assassinated in Pakistan. On May 12, another Mukto-Mona blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered by machete wielding thugs in the city of Sylhet, Bangladesh.
We Indians are (relatively) fortunate to have the freedom to voice our opinion without getting stabbed for it, or riddled with high calibre rounds in a drive-by. However, recent trends suggest we may be headed down the same totalitarian path as our neighbours.
Artists and authors have been forced to leave the country for fear of becoming victims of vindictive laws. Movies that touch social taboos and mock our religious beliefs are either censored or face the ire of violent mobs on release. Satirical tweets by a columnist become a heated topic on the floor of the state's Legislative Assembly. An Urdu newspaper Editor who merely published a news story on the Charlie Hebdo massacre was forced into hiding. These are symptoms of fascism creeping into a democracy.
"A secular democracy is under no obligation to defend fragile sentiments and bruised egos. Its laws must protect its citizens and not their fairy-tale beliefs."
Criticism and dissent are necessary to bring about social change. If reformists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and Behramji Malabari had remained silent out of "respect for beliefs", we would still be burning our widows alive along with their departed husbands or living by a casteist social hierarchy.
A secular democracy is under no obligation to defend fragile sentiments and bruised egos. Its laws must protect its citizens and not their fairy-tale beliefs. By its very definition, secularism calls for the rejection of all religious dogma. Draconian laws such as Section 295A that we nowadays invoke on the slightest pretext are the very antithesis of this definition.
The cringe-worthy tale of how this law came about must be told (at the risk of digressing a bit). In the 1920s, Mahashay Rajpal -- who was the publisher of hitherto banned book Rangila Rasul was acquitted by the Lahore High Court in pre-independent India, on charges of insulting the prophet of Islam (at the time there was no law protecting hurt feelings). A 19-year-old illiterate imbecile by the name of Ilm-ud-Deen, roused by the exhortations of a local Imam decided to right this terrible injustice. He went to Rajpal's shop and stabbed a knife through the latter's blasphemous heart. He eventually walked willingly and unrepentant to the gallows, much to the chagrin of his acclaimed defence counsel Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Ilm-ud-Deen attained martyrdom and a hero's funeral; his name marked scores of roads, schools and parks in Jinnah's future "theocracy" of Pakistan. Section 295A (insult to religion) was the progeny of our British masters, born out of this sordid saga.
Attributing divine traits to inanimate objects and departed shamans does not make them sacrosanct. Certainly not more so than human life and the fundamental rights of the living. "Offending sentiments" is the most infantile of all personal injury claims. One that should be taken only as seriously as you would a Harry Potter fan expressing outrage over a caricature of Albus Dumbledore (not that Potterheads would ever act so petty).
When dissenting voices are browbeaten and the system remains tacit, or worse, treats them as offenders, the system becomes complicit in the slow asphyxiation of freedom. It empowers pernicious elements such as religious fanatics and honour killers, and enables them to ascend from the fringes into the mainstream. Which is exactly what is happening next door.
India may well be the last bastion of free and secular democracy in the region. If we wish to pass on the baton of freedom to the next generation we must exorcise these archaic laws; we must stop tolerating the intolerance of free speech and protect activists from persecution. It may not be a populist move, or one that is favourable to vote-bank politics, but it is the establishment's duty to do so, in the interest of the republic it has pledged to protect.
A version of this blog appeared on Indiaspeaksnow