In 864 CE, the great physician Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria al-Razi committed this thought to paper: “prophets are imposters or belong to the domain of pious legend. The teachings of religions are contrary to the one truth: the proof of this is that they contradict one another. It is tradition and lazy custom that have led men to trust their religious leaders. Religions are the sole cause of the wars which ravage humanity; they are hostile to philosophical speculation and to scientific research. The alleged holy scriptures are books without values”.
Following a rich scholarly life, al-Razi died quietly at his home in Rey, surrounded by his students.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni—the closest India has to a living god—is discovering the world has become somewhat touchier in the millennia since. Earlier this week, a Bangalore court took cognisance of a case against him under the notorious Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, which allows for the punishment of anyone who “destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons”. The complainant, Jayakumar Hiremath, was offended by magazine graphic parodying sports stars hungry for endorsements, in which Dhoni appeared as Vishnu, but armed with Lays chips, Pepsi, Boost and a sneaker.
Perhaps we should ignore the case as the work of a publicity-seeking crank. Dhoni is, however, having going to fork out money on protracted litigation. He can perhaps afford it—but not others who are in the dock with him.
In recent years, the god squad has been doing an exceptionally good job of choking the freedoms on which all cultural and scientific progress is founded. Last year, the fraud-buster Sanal Edamaruku was charged with blasphemy by Mumbai church-goers, after committing the sin of pointing out that the little drops of water dripping off a statue of Jesus on Irla Road weren’t holy tears, but leaking plumbing. A Hyderabad fashion designer was prosecuted for having Quranic scripture on clothing—which, if it's blasphemous, would criminalise centuries of classical tiraz work in Persia and central Asia. Gayatri Mantra and Navkar Mantra have been targeted for putting Hindu scripture on their clothes; Ravi Shastri for eating beef.
The law is being used with increasing indiscrimination: to silence writers who spoke in defence of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival; against bloggers who didn’t think Bal Thackeray was a great guy; to shut a television soap claimed to be offensive to Sikhs. There are crazies who think these laws aren’t enough, and want heretics to be prosecuted for murder.
If India hopes not to end up like Pakistan—where blasphemy laws have created a culture in which dissenters fear for their lives—this needs to be challenged.
Indians have grappled with these issues since at least 1924, when Arya Samaj activist Mahashe Rajpal published the pamphlet that led the state to enact several of our anti-offence laws. Rajpal’s Rangila Rasul—in Urdu, ‘the colourful prophet’—was a frankly anti-Islam polemic. Lower courts condemned Rajpal to prison. Lahore High Court judge Dalip Singh demurred: “if the fact that Musalmans resent attacks on the Prophet was to be the measure [of legal sanction]”, he reasoned, “then an historical work in which the life of the prophet was considered and judgment passed on his character by a serious historian might [also]”.
In 1927, when pre-independence India’s central legislative assembly debated the Rangila Rasul affair, MR Jayakar likened religious fanaticism to a form of mental illness, and suggested that those who suffer from it be segregated “from the rest of the community”.
This eminently sane suggestion was, however, rejected.
Islamic neo-fundamentalists have since regularly used the state to defend their faith—while at once resisting any state effort to regulate the religious and personal domain. The relentless hounding Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen are the best known cases, but not the only ones. In 1995, the writer Khalid Alvi reissued Angaarey—a path-breaking collection of Urdu short works banned in 1933. The collection’s most incendiary passages were censored out. India’s media barely murmured after the magazine India Today was proscribed by Jammu and Kashmir in 2006, for carrying a cartoon with an image of the Kaaba as one among a metaphorical pack of political cards.
Hindu reactionaries have done the same thing. In 1993, the New Delhi-based progressive cultural organisation Sahmat organised an exhibition demonstrating that there were multiple versions of the Ramayana in Indian culture. Panels in the exhibition recorded that, in one Buddhist tradition, Sita was Ram’s sister; in a Jain version, she was the daughter of Ravan. Even though the exhibits drew on the historian Romila Thapar’s authoritative work, criminal cases were filed against Sahmat for offending the sentiments of traditionalist Hindus.
Punjab’s Sikh fundamentalists have been just as active. In 2007, police filed cases against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the syncretic Saccha Sauda sect, for his purportedly-blasphemous use of Sikh iconography. Earlier, in 2001, similar charges were brought against Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, after released the Bhavsagar Granth, a religious text suffused with miracle stories.
India’s courts have, regrettably, shown a lamentable lack of spine on this issue. In 1958, the Supreme Court heard litigation that grew out of the politician EV Ramaswamy Naicker’s decision to break a clay idol of Ganesha. Lower courts had held, in essence, that an idol was not a sanctified object. The Supreme Court differed, urging the lower judiciary to be “to pay due regard to the feelings and religious emotions of different classes of persons with different beliefs, irrespective … of whether they are rational or otherwise”. Little has, legally speaking, changed since.
Now, as a result, the state decides on our behalf whether we may nor may not read The Satanic Verses or Aubrey Menen's irreverent retelling of the Ramayana. It chooses not to prosecute the vandals who block stores from stocking DN Jha’s Holy Cow, James Laine's history of Shivaji, or Paul Courtright’s explorations of oedipal undertones in Hindu mythology.
There’s no doubt religion-driven stupidity is a global epidemic. Islamists demanding death for blasphemers have led loose carnage in Bangladesh. Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old mother-of-one was stripped, tortured with a hot iron rod, and burned alive on a pile of rubber tyres in Papua New Guinea—this because she was accused of being a witch. In Tanzania, they’re slaughtering albinos, because witch-doctors say their body-parts have magical powers. Fundamentalists in the United States are trying, less lethally but just as energetically, to tear down the separation of church and state. Eminent Turkish pianist Fazil Say received a 10-month prison sentence for tweeting “you say that the rivers flow with wine, is heaven a tavern”; the great 11th century Persian poet who wrote that passage, Omar Khayyam, is mercifully beyond the god-squad’s grasp.
Even challenging this rising tide of madness is dangerous: scientist Richard Dawkins is being hounded by New Left trendies for daring to suggest that that the journalist Mehdi Hassan’s religious belief that the Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse is just as silly as Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies.
This problem isn’t going to end until people learn to keep god out of the public life—just as France did, learning from centuries of religious wars that cost the lives of tens of thousands. France’s laïcité have been controversial and difficult to negotiate—but, as the scholar Patrick Weil has argued, repeatedly shown to create the “best interaction between people of different faiths and beliefs among western democracies”.
India’s half-baked secularism won’t cut it. It’s sometimes argued that secularism is an import alien to our soil. This is nonsense: materialism and atheism have been alive in India for millennia. It’s more important than ever, though, as Indians grapple with a changing world, to understand that freedom of thought and expression matters. “It is no coincidence” Kenan Malik has noted in a stellar essay, “that the modern world has been shaped by the ideas and technologies that have emerged from Renaissance and Enlightenment”. Enlightenment values weren’t superior because they happened to arise in Europe, but because they worked better.
Pick a faith, pick a nation: there’s no shortage of examples of the carnage blind faith can inflict on civic life and civic lives. Frankly, given that this is piety is in practice, I’d go with Suraj Singh Thakur’s world-view any day: drunken nudity might be a bit gross, but its never killed anyone.