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.
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.