Stony silence from the government is what India’s best-known Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku has met with in response to his appeals to defend free speech and send out a strong signal that the state’s “laws are not to be used to suppress scientific knowledge and reasonable criticism of religious mysticism.”
In 21st century India, in Mumbai, no less, an endeavour to expose a fraud has cost the president of the Indian Rationalist Association his freedom.
Edamaruku’s perfectly logical explanation of ‘tears’ dripping from a statue of Christ at a church in Mumbai being the result not of a ‘miracle’ but of capillary action sucking up drain water from a leaky pipe, and therefore a health risk to devotees drinking it, was considered a blasphemy. He has been charged under Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code for ‘deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments’.
In April, after telephone calls from the Mumbai police (who have lately earned a notorious reputation for locking up students for Facebook comments) seeking his custody, Edamaruku moved into a safe house in Delhi and in June flew to Finland after the Delhi High Court (on technical grounds) and the Mumbai High Court denied him anticipatory bail. Incidentally, the two Mumbai students who were arrested over a Facebook post on Thackeray’s funeral were also initially charged under Section 295 (a), in addition to others.
Firstpost spoke to Edamaruku on India’s blasphemy law, life in exile and his fight against religious fanatics.
Has there been any response by the Indian government to your demands? Who in the government have you appealed to?
In August, I wrote to the Chief Minister and to the Home Minister of Maharashtra. My letters, supported by several documents, were sent by email as well as by postal service. But they were not even acknowledged. After two weeks, we sent copies of the same letters again: nothing. In September, I wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Unfortunately, there was no reaction either.
Could you recount the circumstances under which you left India? What was your initial reaction when you were informed about the Mumbai police’s intention to arrest you?
We did never receive any official notice about the case. We only read about it in the newspapers. That is quite unusual. Till today, I do not know what exactly the formal charges against me are. In April, I started receiving strange cell phone calls at night. A person claiming to be a police official urged me to come to Mumbai and get arrested. At first, I took it as a prank to tyrannize me. When it turned out that the unconventional caller, identified as S. S. Salvi, was a “real” police officer from Juhu police station, my lawyers swung into action. They tried to secure anticipatory bail for me.
The Delhi High Court rejected our plea unexpectedly for technical reasons. During the short hearing, a group of lawyers was present, flown in from Mumbai. The same procedure happened with the Mumbai High Court. There seemed to be no way to get anticipatory bail for me, and my legal advisers warned me that I could be arrested any day. Though I always liked the idea of fighting this case publicly in court with the archbishop in the witness box, I did not want to languish in pretrial imprisonment for months or years. But that exactly is what the Blasphemy Law holds in stock for any accused. It is an archaic law, inherited from colonial times and not in tune with the Constitution. It allows arbitrary acts and has a long history of abuse serving vested political interest and private revenge. Considering this, I decided in April to leave my house and stay at an undisclosed safe house.
In a way, it was a great time. I enjoyed overwhelming support and solidarity of so many people. For about one month, I lived and worked in a small hostel room on the university campus, in the midst of all my student friends, revisiting those wonderful years when I studied and researched at JNU. Well protected, I still participated in many live TV programmes and launched vigorous and successful campaigns against Nirmal Baba and others.
In June, the situation changed. We received secret information about alleged plans to physically assault me as soon as I would be arrested. That was alarming. I informed friends in Europe, and within hours, they made arrangements for me to fly to Finland. There had been a preplanned lecture tour to Poland scheduled for July, but I did not wait for that. On 16th June, I left India and flew to Helsinki. Nineteen days later, meantime in Warsaw, my friends in Delhi informed me that the police had reached my house with an arrest warrant.
Quoting from a post on your blog: “July 4: This morning, officers of the Delhi Police reached Sanal Edamaruku’s house to arrest him. They came upon directions of a Delhi court to execute an arrest warrant issued by a Mumbai Metropolitan Magistrate Court. If Sanal had been at home, he would be in jail now….”. Have there been any further attempts by the police to get in touch with you?
In June, there have been some rather informal calls from the Mumbai police to my phone numbers in India. After this, there is silence. However, that does not necessarily mean anything hopeful. An American journalist who recently travelled all the way to Mumbai to shed some light on the background of my case contacted all parties involved and sensed an air of grim determination in the camp of my persecutors. As per the petition on Change.org , “Formal complaints about Mr. Edamaruku were then made to the Mumbai police by three local Catholic groups, the Catholic Secular Forum, the Association of Concerned Catholics and the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum.” (Read full petition here)
Were all complaints registered on the same day? Is the charge the same in all?
On 10th March, the day of the TV programme, there were allegedly attempts to register independent FIRs against me in 17 Mumbai police stations, all of them on the basis of the Blasphemy Law, Section 295-A, Indian Penal Code. It was obviously a pre-planned operation to get me entangled in a hopeless battle against a legal hydra and bankrupt the Indian Rationalist Association. But it seems that only two of the FIRs were accepted. The one that finally became the basis for the arrest warrant against me was registered in MIDC Police Station in Andheri East under C.R. No. 124/12.