By A Surya Prakash
20 January 2015
In a country as diverse as ours, it is imperative that religious identities especially dissolve within the greater crucible called the Constitution of India. Only then can our democratic and free way of life survive
The deadly assault on cartoonists and other editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamic terrorists has once again brought to the fore the debate on the compatibility of Islam with the modern democratic framework. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is not the first such assault on the freedom of expression in Europe. Just a decade ago, Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch film maker who produced the film Submission, which was critical of the treatment of women in Islam, was killed by a Muslim fanatic. Since then, the threats to journalists, writers, film makers, cartoonists and satirists has only grown, but citizens of democracies, who are keen to preserve the free, liberal spirit that their Constitutions guarantee, have been running around like headless chickens, groping for answers.
While the dastardly terror strike on Charlie Hebdo and at other locations in Paris has drawn global condemnation and resulted in the unprecedented coming together of world leaders during the million-march in the French capital, some religious leaders have preferred to put in a caveat. For example Pope Francis has said that while freedom of expression must be defended, religions must be treated with respect, so that ‘peoples’ faiths were not insulted or ridiculed.
From a distance, it appears freedom is unbridled in the European context, whereas it is subject to reasonable restrictions in the Indian context. For example, Article 19 of our Constitution says all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression but, this is subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency and morality, among other things.
This provision is further backed up by Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code which declares deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, as a criminal offence. It says one cannot outrage the religious feelings of any class of citizens by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise insult or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class.
Hindus who felt outraged by MF Husain’s paintings depicting Hindu gods in the nude and in sexual acts, used this very provision to file cases against him in criminal courts. The Pope’s views on the assault on the French publication bring his views closer to the Indian constitutional and legal scheme.
However, despite these nuances, there is no running away from the fact that no democracy can survive if citizens take to the machine gun to assert their points of views. Hindus who felt outraged by MF Husain’s paintings, therefore, did the right thing by pursuing their agitation within Constitutional parameters.
This then leads us to the larger question: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? India’s ‘soft state’ has often yielded to pressures from religious hotheads rather than assert the supremacy of the liberal, democratic Constitution and its core principles over all else. That is why, among democracies, India was one of the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. But, the point is how much should it yield? If the state cannot stand up to such pressures, we may soon reach the tipping point when radical religious elements begin to override the central idea of the Constitution. After that, it will become impossible to reverse the trend.
Some years ago, Samuel P Huntington advanced the theory of clash of civilisations. Although many felt that his theory was flawed, he seemed to get it right in regard to his assessment of Islam and its compatibility to modern nation states. He argued that the structure of political loyalty among Arabs and Muslims generally has been the opposite of the modern West.
In the West, the apex of political loyalty is the nation state. “Narrower loyalties are subordinate to it and are subsumed into loyalty to the nation state”. However, “throughout Islam the small group and the great faith, the tribe and the Ummah, have been the principle foci of loyalty and commitment, and the nation state has been less significant…
In addition, the idea of sovereign nation states is incompatible with belief in the sovereignty of Allah and the primacy of the Ummah. As a revolutionary movement, Islamist fundamentalism rejects the nation state in favour of the unity of Islam just as Marxism rejected it in favour of the unity of the international proletariat”, says Huntington.
This was more or less the conclusion that BR Ambedkar had drawn decades ago when he discussed the Muslim demand for Pakistan. He had then said: “The allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his, but on the faith to which he belongs. To the Muslim Ubi Bene Ibi Patria is unthinkable. Where ever there is the rule of Islam, there is his own country. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin”. This is probably the reason why Maulana Mohammad Ali, a great Indian but a true Muslim, preferred to be buried in Jerusalem rather than India.
Strange as it may seem, we will have to work overtime to disprove Ambedkar if we are to save the Constitution of India that was drafted under his leadership. This can happen only when religion dissolves into a great crucible called the Constitution of India. We may not go so far as the French in permitting people to castigate or laugh at the religious beliefs of others but let there be no doubt that our Constitution and democratic way of life can survive only if we ensure that religion yields to the Constitution and not the other way round.
Should there ever be a conflict between a religious text and the Constitution, the latter must prevail. In other words, the Constitution is supreme. We cannot allow any other text to have a perch above it. This is the prescription for establishing a secular democratic society. In other words, we will have to be ‘people of the book’ — that book being the Constitution of India!