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'Blasphemy law is unworthy of secular democracy'

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.

The overwhelming support for you has largely come from Europe. Renowned author Richard Dawkins too has come out in your support. Has there been any response from the public in India at all?

There has been a great response, if you see all the encouraging letters that we received. Many intellectuals, writers and artists as well as numerous common people declared their solidarity with me. Even parts of the Catholic community, among them very prominent figures, ensured me of their support. There have been many articles, some of them excellent, in the media as well as on websites and blogs. And there have been numerous letters to the Archbishop of Mumbai and to the Indian Bishops Conference pressing for withdrawal of the case. The Archbishop did meantime respond with an official statement, declaring that he would get the case against me quashed - if only I apologized.

Of course, I do not consider this an option. I stand with every word that I said and I decline to apologize for presenting evidence based scientific explanations and historic facts. I hope, modern India won’t allow the Catholic Church to burn me at the stake as they did with Giordano Bruno four hundred years back.

Despite all positive reactions, however, we do not see any political will in our country to take the issue up. Our politicians seem to be afraid to offend the Catholic Church respectively some fanatic circles under its umbrella, even if this means to sacrifice freedom of expression and to ridicule the Constitutional duty that demands that all Indian citizens develop scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry. I am quite disappointed that even my appeal to the Prime Minister, whom I personally regard as an honest and upright man, met with stony silence.

Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Could you tell us about how you’ve spent the last five months and the toll it has taken on you and your family?

When I reached Helsinki on 16th June, I took a deep breath. After a long time, I felt safe and sound. But at the same time, I was very much aware of looming dangers of a very different kind. If I would be away from India for a long time now, my work could suffer. I could lose track of the burning problems in our country and grip on the institutions and networks that I built up over three decades. Many active workers of the Rationalist Association could feel orphaned. Together with my closest friends and colleagues, in long Skype conferences, we developed personal and public strategies to turn the blow that we suffered into constructive energy and fighting spirit. It worked, and slowly, the challenge started turning into a great chance. We worked hard to keep all networks alive and active. This was finally so successful that I sometimes feel, I am more present in India now than I have been before.

And then, our work got a new dimension. Having the opportunity to travel across Poland, Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain etc., I am talking to great new audiences, sharing our views and having fruitful discussions with so many wonderful people. It is as if a new era of international rationalist cooperation has begun.

Having said all this, I feel a strong desire to return to India. Not so much for private reasons – many close friends are visiting me here - but because my place is in India. I have to accomplish an important mission in my country, whatever it takes.

What were the reasons for choosing Finland?

The reason was very simple: My friends in Finland were able to make the fastest offer. I was equally welcome in several countries in Europe and in the USA as well, but formalities would have taken some more days. Moreover, I have been a frequent visitor to Finland and like the country very much. I love the bright colours and the clean air and the very special, silent cordiality of the people there.

What is on your agenda now? What next?

My immediate next journeys are to Sweden, the USA and Spain. But on top of my agenda will always be India. My first aim is obviously to get this case quashed and to return home. But more than that: I want to see to it that the Indian Blasphemy Law is abolished. All blasphemy laws in the world have to be abolished, but let’s start with India. This old colonial law that contradicts the Constitution and violates the universal human right of freedom of expression is being kept since many decades for no other purpose than to serve as a dirty back door solution to settle political conflicts and private revenge. This law is unworthy of our secular democracy.

Could you tell us about the reactions, responses and support you've been getting? Will you be formally appealing to governments in Europe to press India to drop charges?

When I reached Dublin, I was taken straight from the airport to the Parliament, where politicians of all Irish parties were waiting to meet me. There was a great debate about my case and about blasphemy laws in general, especially also about the Irish Blasphemy law introduced two years back by the previous government there. That law as well as the Indian blasphemy law are serving Islamic countries as justification for harassing their own religious dissidents. At the end of the discussion, senators from all major political parties - including the Catholic parties – agreed to sign a formal petition in my support.

Some days before, I was invited by Index on Censorship and the British Rationalist Association to speak in London’s Free Word Centre and discuss the implications of my case for the future of blasphemy in India and beyond, with eminent experts, among them the High Court Judge Sir Stephen Sedley, the historian Professor Richard Sorabji and the journalist and novelist Salil Tripathi. This was on the day, when the infamous Facebook case made headlines. There is grave concern in Europe about the current state of freedom of expression in India. As an Indian, I feel very embarrassed about this. But as a victim, I may have to call for international support to press for my right to live and speak freely in my country.

Two girls from Mumbai were arrested over a comment on Facebook after being charged with Section 295 (a) among others. Your comments on the relevance of such a law in India today.

The Facebook case is a scandal and yet another blot on the Indian democracy. The impunity with which innocent citizens are meantime arrested in India is alarming.

What is your appeal to the people of India?
Visualize your country as you wish it should be and see to it that it becomes like that.

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