Religious intolerance affecting free speech in India

    1457608028558.jpg By Amit Singh
    Religious intolerance affecting free speech in India

    March 10,Oslo: A recent study on the conflict between free expression and religious intolerance in India reveals that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, particularly when it comes to offending religious sentiments in the tremendously multicultural society. 

    Constitutionally, India is a secular country. However, in practice, the government very often crosses sacred lines between state and religion by interfering in the affairs of religion. National and Community-based issues become more complicated if the government overtly and covertly supports religious-nationalist groups. This has brought national shame to the current religiously-nationalist Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Cracking down on dissent through arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and attacks on freedom of expression continues unabated; a climate of intolerance against free expression against secular voices has engulfed Indian democracy.

    The Indian constitution that has been empowered by the media and free thinkers also tilts towards those who take offense or are religiously offended, who can pursue criminal charges against editors and reporters. Particular concern is the Article 295A in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 298, 1860. Both laws have been turned around to hurt most those very people who exercise their right to free speech as individuals living in a secular and free country. The IPC 298 and 295A provisions have resulted in the arrest, harassment, and censorship of many writers, journalists and academics. In addition use of violence and fatwa is also being used to suppress the freedom of expression. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in power, extremists and fundamentalist forces have been emboldened to suppress free expression and dissent.

    The research titled “the perception of Indian Students on Conflict between Freedom of Expression and Religious intolerance, in the context of radical Islam and extremist Hinduism in Multicultural India”, has reflected this fact in a study conducted by Amit Kumar Singh at the University College of Southeast Norway. This study was conducted in three universities in Varanasi- which is also constituency of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

    The Hindu and Muslim students interviewed in this study pointed that freedom of expression in a multi-religious country like India is not absolute, thus, if free expression offends religious sentiments, it likely to be restricted, and can even lead to mob violence. However, most of the students denounced use of violence to counter dissenting opinion.

    Many students expressed that “rights’ come with responsibility thus free expression shall be used to provoke or hurt religious sentiments.” For example, among Hindus, Cows and river Ganga shall not be mocked upon. In Islam, Prophet Mohammad and Koran, according to interviewed students, are beyond human scrutiny; any attempt to criticize them could disturb communal harmony and induce violence.
    The message is clear- In matter of critique of religion, freedom of expression is limited- as believed by most students.

    Ironically, Most of the students justified government censorship to protect religious harmony. Many of them were concerned over increasing Hindu fundamentalism and their strong ideological influence on the current ruling party (Bhartiya Janta Party-Hindu Nationalist Party). Most of them showed concern over the physical violence and intimidation by Hindu religious-nationalist groups such as Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Bajarang Dal and Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) against the proponents of free expression such as writers, social workers, film directors and anyone who dare to criticize or defame Hindu religion through their works.

    Some students related reasons of religious intolerance to ‘enforcement of particular ideology and to controlling the lives of citizens.
    Many Hindu students were concerned about growing Muslim extremism and their response to restrict free expression especially through the use of violence, by means of fatwa and public intimation. But only  a few Hindu students connected the link between Charlie Hebdo shooting incidence and increasing extremist tendencies in Islam.

    Most of Muslim students are alarmed by the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and think “Islam is under attack, Hindu political leaders make sarcastic remarks on Prophet to gain political mileage.” Many students complained about the abuse of freedom of expression by Muslim authors such as Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen for stigmatizing Islam. They also blamed local media for biased coverage on Islamic affairs.Majority of students highlighted the importance of freedom of expression in bringing social change and religious reformation in Contemporary India.

     Most of them were opined that critical debate is necessary for the development of society and free expression cannot be restricted until unless in rare cases; and free expression reflects merits and demerits of society thus without fair criticism of religion a society cannot progress. Nearly all students rejected use of violence to censor free expression. One of student stressed, ‘Even if writers and free thinker are killed, free expression cannot be stopped.’ 

    However, many students felt that a conflict has been created and prolonged for political purpose and politicians are responsible for provoking conflict between free expression and religion for political gain.

    Bottom Line-Religious problems- secular solutions

    Balancing between communal harmony and respecting secular values could be daunting task in a vastly diverse religious-ethnic nation such as India. Absolute secularism, in the context of this study, cannot provide a complete solution, neither can a state based on religious principles. So in the word of Charles Talyor, “we are doomed to live in an overlapping consensus”

    On the one hand, the multicultural nature of  the society requires formulating policies based on respecting core principles of all religions practiced, on the other,  the state needs to guarantee essentials for free expression and must provide a safe public sphere-unhindered and unrestricted from religious fanatics. Academicians and artists must be able to express themselves freely and they are free to ‘offend, shock or disturb’ if it is within their professional ethics. Extremist elements are a threat to freedom of expression and cause of instigating violence. They cannot be the custodian of culture and should not be allowed to control the lives of other people.

    Fundamentalism is not a problem but extremism is. Religious values are not problems if they are not enforced by the authorities. Media and religious leaders need to play their role with utmost sensitivity to the public- to the nation. Even globally there are no answers to solve the conflict between freedom of expression and religion. The answer needs to be contextualized.

    All Rights Reserved with The Oslo Times


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