By Hussain Rather
The ghastly gag on the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF)by the Indian Home ministry, is a direct assault on the freedom of speech, thought and expression- the fundamentals on which all open, democratic societies are based on. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, states:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.
Thus, the United Nations has in itself redeemed the right of a person to hold and propagate opinions. When the Indian home ministry banned Islamic Research Foundation merely for promoting ideas disliked by the government, I flipped through the pages of history and learnt about Sir John Milton’s defence of Freedom of expression towards the dawn of 17th century. In the British parliament, Milton, in defence of his case had argued, “he who kills a good book, kills reason itself, and kills the image of God.
The Indian government seems to be working on the same premise.
In the year 2015, the same government had jailed scholars of a prestigious higher education institute for merely protesting a Supreme Court judgement and thus stripping them of the right of Freedom of expression. The jingoism prevalent in India has led people to label anyone anti- National. It represents a new escalation of government overreach and meddling that has undermined the autonomy of institutions. More insidiously, it has brought home a point that violence in the name of nationalism is acceptable.
The Indian Constitution gives the citizens of India the right to religion. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution clearly says that citizens have the right to profess, practice and propagate their religion. However this article has been severely violated by banning the Mumbai based Islamic Research Foundation(IRF). The organisation, it may be stated, has been doing its job within the parameters of the Indian Constitution for the past twenty six years.
However, the ban on the IRF is not surprising.
It is in consonance with the hyper-Hindutva ideology promoted by the right wing and the right wing forces that have gained ground in India.. Thus, the attack on IRF’s Zakir Naik is part of a larger design by right-wing forces to impose a singular religious cum political discourse in India. This systematic pattern is clearly visible in and validated by the unrest in the Film and Television Institute of India , and the ghastly incident at University of Hyderabad which led to the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula , the controversy over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras , and now the gag on IRF .
What is interesting or surprising is the media Coverage and horrible silence of Indian “intelligentsia” over the issue.
When terrorists stormed a cafe in Bangladesh and killed innocent people there, the India media accused Dr Zakir Naik(Islamic Televangelist) of spreading terrorism, hatred and promoting the ideology of ISIS, because one of the terrorists was supposed to be a fan of Zakir Naik who heads the Islamic Organisation IRF(Islamic Research Foundation). He is an authority on Islam and the comparative religion. He has been peacefully giving lectures on this subject from the past several years. He has ldo played an important role in bridging the gaps between various religions by presenting similarities between them. His earnest endeavours have helped in clearing doubts about Islam and his work is not only applauded by Muslims by non-Muslims alike.
The ban on IRF curiously reminded me of the saga of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine, which was attacked by terrorists. The whole world had lined up behind Charlie and limned the attack as a direct assail on Freedom of Expression. The former US President, Barack Obama condemned attack on the headquarters of a French newspaper and amply described it as a “violent act against not just individuals, but the idea of freedom of speech in the civilized world.”. Now after few years post Hebdo attack ,history is being repeated in the same civilised world in some other part, but in an authoritative, democratic and less aggressive tone.
What is amusing is If an atheist condemns ,insults and hurts the sentiments adherents of a certain religion, the same media comes to their rescue and defends them. For instance, Tasleema Nasreen, who always criticizes and insults Islam as in her recent statement she said, ‘Now I came to know terrorism has got a religion’. The same media defended her stand.
What all this illustrates is the dichotomy of the media. Every person in a democracy has a right to adopt, practice and preach a religion. By the same token, one should also be free to reject or constructively criticize a certain religion. For instance if Arun Shourie criticizes Islam in a healthy way, through reasoning and logic or debates or discussions or through writing. It should not be problematic for Muslims. In fact, this should spur Muslims to respond intellectually way. However, the media seems to believe that only a certain “Elite Ideology” has the permission to use freedom of Expression, while other damned groups have no right to claim this right. These are serious double standards at work.
The need of the hour then is serious introspection: if some are accusing others of intolerance and dogma, are not these people acting the same way? Instead of addressing problems in constructive ways, are we not making the situation more complex by merely criticizing certain people or calling for their ban?
We are creating instead an atmosphere where healthy criticism and discussions are not possible; where anyone at home, on internet, in courts can label anyone as Anti-National or a terrorist sympathizer. We should be contributing by giving oxygen to internal debates on diverse issues, wherein problems of diverse groups are addressed with love and compassion towards each other. However, by continuing and insisting on ideology and dogma we are demonstrating a dualism by defending one person’s Freedom of Expression while stripping another of the same.
So, Irrespective of what anyone thinks of Naik’s ideology, all who believe in freedom of expression and the democratic way of life must express solidarity with him, and condemn this unspeakable act of banning.
The author is a student at Sri Pratap College, Srinagar and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org