As Smriti Irani, in her much talked about Loksabha speech, read out the contents of a 2013 JNU pamphlet containing derogatory references of Goddess Durga; she was merely trying to score a political point over opposition that had accused Modi government of meddling in the affairs of JNU by subverting freedom of expression.
Social media, true to its reputation of being the first to react, reacted by drawing an interesting parallel with the case of Kamlesh Tiwari, currently lodged in Lucknow jail for an alleged case of blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed.
After Anand Sharma accused Irani of committing ‘blasphemy’ for ‘reading’ out the derogatory references to Goddess Durga from a pamphlet circulated by JNU staffers and students; many commentators began arguing about the concept of blasphemy itself.
Recent instance of Sharma’s party legislators in UP assembly, joining protesting Mullahs across India, to demand death penalty for alleged blasphemy by Kamlesh Tiwari made some wonder about the nature of Sharma’s accusations about Irani.
Curiously, freedom of speech champions remained mum about Tiwari’s freedom of expression vis-à-vis that of organisers of JNU festival. Evidently, Islamist’s writ of moral blackmail and threat of physical violence is enough to extend its influence over their views.
What Is Blasphemy?
Blasphemy, defined as ‘irreverence towards something considered sacred or inviolable’, is essentially an Abrahamic concept prevalent in monotheist religions. Hinduism, a faith that allows its practitioners (comprising majority of India’s population) an utmost freedom of thought and action, has no concept of blasphemy.
While two Abrahamic faiths- Christianity and Judaism have undergone and accepted considerable moderation in their views about blasphemy; Islam continues to use it as an oppressive tool against non-believers.
Borrowing from Christopher Hitchens, blasphemy is: “Islam and Islamists giving themselves permission to lie to non-believers; a vulgar paranoid thing, that an islamophobe would go around saying, something which is very easy to disprove, except that it hasn’t been.” Concept of blasphemy runs contrary to the principles of freedom of speech and consequently is a threat to the very core of a pluralistic society.
Tracing roots of Blasphemy in India
To understand the nuances of blasphemy, it is important to go back into the history and most importantly events of Lahore and Delhi, the two battleground cities for Aryasamajis and Muslims. Lahore, with a vibrant intellectual life and educational institutions, was chosen by Swami Dayanand as the headquarters of Aryasamaj and it became a hub of revivalist movements in Punjab.
As preachers of Aryasamaj went on with their job of educating masses about their teachings, Maulvis began to feel the heat and the fault-lines of the society widened further. Shuddhi movement was Aryasamaj’s answer to Tablighi movement and it didn’t go down well with Muslims either as they felt that Hindus do not have any rights to convert others to their faith unlike the Muslims.
Arya Pustakalaya of Lahore was at the forefront of Aryasamaj movement as it took the lead in bringing out their literature for distribution in Punjab and other areas. It was Arya Pustakalaya’s publication of Rangeela Rasool (May 1924) by its manager Mahashe Rajpal that led to widespread protests and greater communal discord.
However, the publication of Rangeela Rasool — written by Prashaad Prataab under the pen name of Pandit Champovati Lal — cannot be seen as an isolated case as it was written in response to Sep 1923 book titled “Unneesvin Sadi ka Maharishi” (Maharishi of nineteenth century) authored by Ali Qasim- editor of Alfaruq.
In addition to the date sequence of the publication of two books, another notable point was the response of then Punjab government to publication of both the books. While it bent backwards to address the Muslim sensitivities and ordered filing of case against Mahashe Rajpal under Section 153-A of Indian Penal Code; Ali Qasim was let off the hook for the reason that his book didn’t attract any attention. In short, threat of communal violence by the Muslims and not the content of the book was the deciding factor for the government action.
Little did anyone know then that Rangeela Rasool will bring the issue of blasphemy to the center-stage of Indian politics and will later become one of the contributing factors for the partition of India, 20 years later.
Rangeela Rasool Case
After long protracted legal battle, Lahore’s Magisterial court found Mahashe Rajpal guilty under Section 153-A and sentenced him to six-month rigorous imprisonment in Jan 1927; which was upheld by Lahore’s sessions court. Consequently, the legal battle moved to Lahore High Court, where Justice Dalip Singh turned down the lower court verdict on May 4, 1927. Justice Singh also observed that “the nature of the act, namely whether it is an offence or not, cannot be determined by the reaction of the particular class”. To Mahashe Rajpal’s credit, he fought Rangeela Rasool case through legal and peaceful means and also kept his word of not disclosing the name of the author of Rangeela Rasool till the very end.
Anger on Muslim Street
Lahore High Court’s acquittal of Mahashe Rajpal left Muslims seething with anger. Leading the charge at Delhi was Maulana Mohammed Ali, who was once hailed as “the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” by no less than Gandhi. Addressing a large Jama Masjid gathering on July 1, 1927, Maulana declared that “the kafir Rajpal will not go free” and exhorted Muslims to wage a jihad for the Rasool. Demanding reversal of HC judgement, he further said that any delay in reversal would be “an indicator that government wants to compel the Musalmans to take the law in their hands and such matters like this will precipitate a catastrophe which no forces on earth will be able to check.” (Hindustan Times, July 2, 1927). A demand was also made to amend the law to make cases like that of Rangeela Rasool a punishable offence.
Taking Maulana’s threat seriously, Central Legislative Assembly, within 4 months of Rangeela Rasool verdict, passed a bill to amend the criminal law by introduction of Sec 295-A in the Indian Penal Code (Sep 1927).
Killing of Mahashe Rajpal
Maulana’s exhortation to not let “the kafir Rajpal go free” yielded desired result after he was hacked to death in his own shop by a 19 years old Ilam-Din (hailed as Ghazi Ilam-Din Shaheed in present day Pakistan) on April 6, 1929.
It is important to mention here Ilam-Din wasn’t the only one who wanted to take Rajpal’s life. Before him, two more attempts were made on Rajpal’s life and that led Punjab police to accord him protection.
However, his police guard was removed following Rajpal’s visit to Haridwar and couldn’t be restored after his return to Lahore on April 4. Taking advantage of this, Ilam-Din attacked him on the afternoon of April 6 with a knife. Severity of this attack can be gauged from the fact that Rajpal received 8 wounds (4 on his hands, 1 on his head, 2 on area above spine and a punctured wound on his chest); final wound proved to be fatal as it pierced through his heart and killed him on the spot. (From A.I.R.1930, Lahore 157- Ilam-Din Vs Emperor)
After killing Rajpal, Ilam-Din proudly proclaimed to have “taken the revenge for the prophet.” It is another matter that Ilam-Din was hanged for his crime but not before Jinnah personally pleaded for commuting his death sentence before Lahore High Court.
Rajpal wasn’t the only one who lost his life to Muslim fanatics for alleged cases of blasphemy. Swami Shraddhanand and Nathuramal Sharma too had to pay with their lives at the hands of Abdul Rashid and Abdul Quayum respectively.
Muslim street’s usage of threat of violence and silence of Muslim elites
A careful reading of the events leading to the killing of Mahashe Rajpal bears testimony of the fact that Muslim community, when it comes to matters concerning religion and their Prophet, always uses the threat of violence to perfection. The statement of the official pleader in Rangeela Rasool case that “the Mohammedan community is more fanatical on the question of religion than other communities” (Rajpal Vs Emperor, AIR 1927, Lahore 592) captures it in no uncertain words. Going a step further, the defending counsel pointed out that it is wrong to punish someone merely because “the members of another community were easily excitable and very easily moved to the possibility of committing a breach of peace”.
What has been left unsaid here is how Muslim leaders channelized anger on the Muslim street to suit their political interests. While leaders like Gandhi, Lajpat Rai (an Aryasamaj leader himself) etc spoke openly against publication of Rangeela Rasool and lambasted fundamentalists; Muslim leaders like Mohammed Ali, Jinnah, Iqbal etc played their respective roles to perfection and found themselves standing (unapologetically so) on the side of a killer like Ilam-Din- all in the name of Prophet.
No wonder, country of their creation, Pakistan today is suffering massive violence in the name of blasphemy and Mullahs of that country cite Jinnah’s pleading for Ilam-Din as a case of Jinnah’s tacit acceptance of blasphemy related killings.
Kamlesh Tiwari and JNU pamphlet- Reactions of Muslim and Hindu Street
While more than 90 years have elapsed since first publication of Rangeela Rasool and Unneesvin Sadi ka Maharishi (Maharishi of nineteenth century); what hasn’t changed in post 1947 India is the reaction of the aggrieved communities. Respective reaction to Kamlesh Tiwari case and that to JNU pamphlet today mirrors that of the reaction of Muslim and Hindu community almost 92 years ago to the books quoted above.
But for Irani’s reading, ordinary Hindus wouldn’t have ever come to know of the derogatory JNU pamphlet of 2013. However, Kamlesh Tiwari wasn’t as lucky; simply because person at the receiving end of his alleged comments was Prophet Mohammed, usage of whose name by non-believers is enough to send Muslim street in a fit of violence.
Much through the winters of 2015, Muslims in cities across India thronged the streets demanding death to Kamlesh Tiwari. No one raising that demand (including Congress party’s UP MLAs) had heard Tiwari say what is being attributed to him, nor have they seen him say that. Just as the repeat of Rangeela Rasool case, liberal intelligentsia and Muslim elites not only spoke in favour of demand for stringent action against Tiwari but remained mum on the violent action/threats of the Muslim street.
Reaction of Uttar Pradesh government mirrored that of then Punjab government 92 years back; which in order to pander to Muslim galleries, arrested Tiwari and filed case against him under dreaded National Security Act and also under Section 153-A, Section 295 and Section 295-A. However, publishers of JNU pamphlet, much like publisher of Unneesvin Sadi ka Maharishi are roaming free.
By writing about the difference in the reaction of Hindu and Muslim streets to JNU and Kamlesh Tiwari respectively, I am not calling for Hindus to do Muslim street on JNU pamphlet writers; on the contrary it is an attempt to build a case for Muslim street doing Hindus on likes of Kamlesh Tiwari. For now, I know it is nothing but a distant dream.
Since history is repeating itself, chances are that Kamlesh Tiwari will be able to avoid punishment in all cases filed against him. What he can’t avoid however, is the risk of joining the likes of Mahashe Rajpal and Nathuramal Sharma; for we know that “sex worker” Durga won’t kill, but “Rangeela” Rasool will.
Over to the Muslim street now!
By Alok Bhatt
The writer is a Chartered Accountant, founder of Nature Connect Outdoors and has a keen interest in politics and economic development.
Credit- The Book on Trial: Fundamentalism and Censorship in India by Girja Kumar