Unique Threat to Secularism and Freedom of Speech in India

Last week, on January 25, when the whole news space was buzzing with the news stories on the much hyped Tiranga Yatra, two news pieces managed to escape from the general public view. Not sure if the main stream media deliberately wanted to cover up these stories or missed to see the threats to the secularism and freedom of speech in those, but it was a big and crucial miss.

Now, let’s come to the two news stories. First take this one. Supreme Court bench expunged some parts of the judgment in the Graham Staines murder case because of the protest by some Christian groups. Dara Singh, a small time criminal and believer of extreme version of Hindutva, had allegedly set the vehicle in which a Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons (of age 10 and 6) were sleeping on fire on January 22, 1999. The lower court had convicted Dara and 12 others in the case and Dara was sentenced to death. Later in 2005, the Orissa High court lowered the punishment to life imprisonment while acquitting all other due to lack of strong evidence against them. Supreme Court on the January 21 this year upheld the High Court decision with life imprisonment for Dara Singh and acquitted the other accused. There was one thing common in all the three judgments. The courts had seriously taken note of the conversion act in which Staines was involved. Several material were obtained by the police that proved that Staines was a key member of Christian missionary groups indulged in converting innocent tribal to Christianity using force or lure. Every court in their judgments had expressed their apprehensions over such religious activities in such areas where tribal are mostly poor and uneducated. The investigations had proved that Dara had intentions to take revenge for Staines converting people from Hinduism to Christianity and that was the cause of the murder.

In fact, on these grounds (that his desire to avenge was natural considering Staines activity), the High Court and Supreme Court had given Dara life imprisonment and not the death sentence. As the main focus wasn’t on the logic behind conversions, the courts have always maintained that conversions by force or lure are bad for the society. Supreme Court in the final judgment noted that converting one person from one religion to other using force and luring him/her is a shameful act. The SC also pointed that conversion by saying one religion better than another is against the secularism credentials of India. Even if there are rampant conversions to Christianity going on in the tribal areas all over country, the SC bench did the right thing by making a general comment and branding all forceful conversion as bad and established what exactly secularism is all about.

Do you find anything wrong in the sentences used by the SC judges? But strangely, some Christian leaders and some self-proclaimed ‘secular’ civil activists protested against these comments. Their logic was that these comments show Christianity in bad light as the case connected with Staines makes the comments of the bench look like made against the Christian religion. Though these were fringe, small scale protests, mysteriously the SC bench of Justices P Sathasivam and B S Chauhan replaced the sentences of the previous judgments fearing misinterpretation. The new sentence said, “After 12 years, the life imprisonment given by the high court need not be interfered with.” The whole basis of judgment got changed from provocation by conversion activity to the time factor involved in the case. What the judges observed in a case that ran for some 6 years had to be changed because of 4 day protests by some fringe elements. Or are these fringe elements so powerful? Sadly, the concept of the secularism was defeated in the whole process.

Now the second story which happened on the same day. The newly appointed Deoband Chief, Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi had to decide to resign from his post after the protests by several Muslim leaders against his comments lauding the ‘progress’ in Gujarat under Narendra Modi. Perhaps, Narendra Modi is such a big name that the opponents of Vastanvi missed the whole point in Vastanvi’s comment which was the progress in Gujarat. Vastanvi’s fault: he said that Hindus and Muslims, all are prospering in Gujarat. Isn’t it a threat to someone’s right to speak his mind? Vastanvi, in fact, had very categorically mentioned that his praise for progress wasn’t certificate of Modi’s work in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. It was really brave and praiseworthy at the part of Vastanvi that he moved on and decided to be a part of developmental agenda while most of the Muslim leaders want the common Muslim to remain a victim and this victimhood can be exploited politically. And they did that again. By twisting someone’s statement and using that to force someone (Vastanvi) to resign from a post for which the person was elected. Free speech took a backseat.

In a country surrounded by religiously intolerant countries as well as a country with autocratic regime which puts all constraints on rights of individual, setting high examples of secularism and free speech are not just important in the country, but also for the region and the whole world. Selective approach towards these issues will create tension in the society as it clearly denies the equality in the society. Such discriminating activities had led us to serious polarizing political era in the nineties. Now when India is well set on the development track, no one wants to return to such time. We can only wish that our political and religious leaders will take note. The sooner the better.

Dibyasundar Nayak

Dibyasundar Nayak is a student of Engineering. Interested in current affairs and Indian politics. A sports lover and passionate about cricket. An opinionated youth. Blogs his opinions at: thenewdimension.wordpress.com. He can be contacted on twitter @dibyabttb (twitter.com/dibyabttb) and on facebook (facebook.com/dibyasundar.nayak)

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