Misleading ‘facts’ and omissions vis-a-vis religious freedom in an ‘Indian Express’ opinion piece

At the very outset, I may clarify that I am not in the least an uncritical admirer of the BJP or Narendra Modi, as you can see here, here, here and here, and I have also written an e-book available for free download aimed at addressing and dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices in the Indian context. That said, I believe in impartiality and feel strongly against unnecessary fear-mongering among our fellow Indians who are Muslims or Christians.

Prof. Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor of NALSAR, Hyderabad, one of India’s leading law universities, has written a piece, dated 5th May 2015, provocatively titled ‘The Unfreedom of Religion’, in the light of the US religious freedom report on India. Mustafa’s piece suggests that it was wrong on the part of the Supreme Court of India to uphold laws that prohibit conversions by force or material inducements. While the issue of forced conversions being unacceptable is hardly something that is debatable, the issue of material inducements is a more controversial and tricky one, and something that can certainly be accepted as immoral, even if not worthy of being legislated upon, and was acknowledged as a problem even by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi (who otherwise fell to the bullet of a Hindu extremist) and Maulana Azad. That said, if we believe in civil liberties, outlawing conversions altogether is deplorable, and there are some relatives of mine who totally voluntarily embraced Christianity, which has not made them any less of patriotic Indians.

Snapshot taken from The Indian Express
Snapshot taken from The Indian Express

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However, Prof. Mustafa incorrectly seems to convey in his piece that the court has explicitly prohibited conversion altogether (even though I accept that the wording in the judgment of Stanislau vs State of Madhya Pradesh is ambiguous, it is not illegal for anyone in India to voluntarily change his/her religion), but all his solidarity with Christian missionaries seems hypocritical, given his deafening silence on the current controversy of ‘ghar wapsi’, and his not explicitly upholding the same right of Hindu missionaries (as much as some may contend that that is implicitly included in the generalities). How can conversions by Christian missionaries, even right-wing ones with connections to the US establishment, be valid but those by right-wing Hindu missionaries be invalid? For one, in Kerala, the Congress government there accepted that none of the ‘ghar wapsi’ conversions there were forced. Some may accuse me of whataboutism, but imagine an article that upheld the right of Hindu missionaries to propagate, but didn’t utter a word about the religious minorities’ right to propagate their faith. Wouldn’t that article be called biased? While there have been right-wing Hindu missionaries for long, the ‘ghar wapsi’ campaign has made this side of the story more glaring and news-worthy, and it is bizarre to see people call it communal, and to not call conversions the other way round communal. While the puritan logic of reverting to the faith of one’s ancestors from which some of them went astray may not impress some of us, equally, the logic of being doomed in hell for just not being Christian or Muslim, howsoever good a human being one may be (which is indeed the mainstream Christian/Islamic position, some very heterodox interpretations notwithstanding), does also seem illogical to many others, but if we believe in the right to propagate one’s faith and the right to freedom of speech and expression, we cannot disallow either side.
But one blatant lie in the piece by Prof. Mustafa is to the effect that it is “a fact that the BJP’s 2014 manifesto had promised the banning of conversion” (which, if true, would imply something blatantly unconstitutional and not permissible as per Election Commission norms), and further suggests that Modi should backtrack on this particular manifesto promise. However, if one browses through the BJP manifesto for the 2014 elections, the word ‘conversion’ does not even figure, and the word ‘convert’ is used twice – once in the context of converting all unmanned railway crossings to manned railway crossings in a phased manner (page 33) and where it says – “We have to convert ourselves into a knowledge-based society and economy, powered by experience, tools of technology and energy of our people” (page 42). Neither of these two references to conversions can be deemed as aiming at infringing on anyone’s religious freedom! Whatever view one may have of the BJP, such blatant lies are unacceptable, and it is shameful that a newspaper of the calibre of the Indian Express should have published such a piece.  It is one thing to condemn genuine instances of communalism, and quite another to make the religious minorities feel unnecessarily insecure by way of furnishing fabrications as facts, leading them to imagine that they are actually living in a fascist state (somewhat akin to falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre). Such exaggeration of minority victimhood leads to the articulation of bizarre ideas, like a question posed by a Muslim girl from LSR, who has Hindu friends, to a foreigner from the IMF on an NDTV programme, as to whether only Hindu men would have a place in the Indian economy, as though others will no longer be able to pursue jobs or businesses.

Interestingly, in the law university I graduated from, the National Law University in Gandhinagar, Gujarat (a sister institution of the university headed by Prof. Mustafa), which comes under the state government in Gujarat (which is, and has been for some time, of the BJP) and has a vice chancellor known to have pro-BJP leanings (though he has never tried to influence students on the campus with respect to political leanings), a Christian teacher became Registrar after Modi became PM.  Shahnaz Hussain’s products still sell, though she is certainly not a Hindu man, Muslim-owned companies like Wipro and Cipla still remain corporate giants and many Muslims continue to remain employed and get employed in all sectors at all levels, including two female Muslim engineering students I know personally who got placed in leading firms recently. As for discrimination, it may exist in a few cases (though most employers are eager to get the most competent employees) at not only religious but caste, regional and sectarian levels within religious groupings too, including among Muslims, wherein it is known that the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband is dominated by UPite Muslim clerics, and in AMU, practically only Sunni male professors have a possibility of making it big,  while Prof. Mustafa, on the other hand, for instance, is the vice chancellor of a non-minority institution, NALSAR, Hyderabad. Such anti-majority rhetoric only turns off Hindus, and strengthens, not weakens, the extreme Hindu right (the likes of which justify vandalising a church in Haryana), for secularism then wrongly comes to be seen as Hindu-bashing, and I have logically deconstructed exaggerated narratives of minority victimhood and how they are counterproductive, at some length in this article.

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It is noteworthy that the Indian Express and other mainstream media houses have a history of wrongly portraying the news on BJP-related matters. The Indian Express had earlier reported a Rajasthan minister to have said that Indian children would not be taught about Newton in their textbooks, as if to make them study an un-historical history of science that conveniently undermines the scientific creativity of all non-Indian civilizations and promotes Hindu religious texts as undisputed history, and had that been the case, that would have certainly been worthy of condemnation, as I discuss in this article.  However, what the minister actually had said that Indian children should not only learn about Newton but also Arya Bhatt, a very fair and valid contention. Likewise, many mainstream media houses, in a rather baseless fashion, blamed the BJP for silencing Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, as you can see here and here.

If Prof. Mustafa is an academic worth his salt, he should apologize for having lied about what the BJP manifesto said (possibly unintentionally, owing to some misconception, and it must be noted that he has also written a piece supporting the Supreme Court verdict outlawing polygamy for Muslims and another one criticizing Congress leader Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for using the ordinance route too often), and the Indian Express, if indeed true to its journalistic ethics, must apologize for carrying this particular piece containing a blatant lie. Blind rhetoric has, more often than not, never done anyone any good, and given that thanks to the internet, such articles can easily be accessed online by foreigners, such baseless criticism only worsens India’s international image (at a time when we need more foreign investment, which includes a higher inflow of tourists, which is in the economic interest of the entire nation, including even the religious minorities), and this is not to say that I support banning India’s Daughter or even prohibiting activist Priya Pillai from travelling abroad (‘secular’ political parties imposing bans on movies like The Da Vinci Code, lifted only after judicial intervention, and disallowing Rushdie from travelling to India, certainly do not have an enviable free speech record either), but fear-mongering based on sheer lies (even unintentionally) is unacceptable.

 

By Karmanye Thadani
A freelance writer based in New Delhi. A lawyer by qualification, he has authored/co-authored four short books, namely ‘Anti-Muslim Prejudices in the Indian Context: Addressing and Dispelling Them’, ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms’, ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘The Right to Self-Determination of Pakistan’s Baloch: Can Balochistan Go the Kosovo Way?’. He has also been involved in making an Urdu television serial on Indian nationalist leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.


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