India should use its new bonhomie with Iran to crusade for the Baha'is
By Prem Shankar Jha
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Delhi this week will go a long way in correcting the impression that the Left has assiduously fostered—that by signing the Indo-US nuclear deal the Manmohan Singh government has virtually sold India into bondage with the US. This was never on the cards and the US had no illusions on this score. Although India voted against Iran twice at the IAEA, it made clear in its explanation of the vote that it did not agree with the view promoted by the US that Iran's nuclear programme represented a threat to international security. It has also consistently maintained that differences over Iran's nuclear programme and suspicions about their objectives should be dealt with by the IAEA.
It is true that Iran was deeply upset by India's first vote against it at the IAEA board meeting in '05. But that was as much a product of surprise, caused by the suddenness of India's decision and the lack of forewarning, as the vote itself. India has more or less mended its fences with Iran since then: Iran has understood India's position. Ahmadinejad's visit bears testimony to this.
But Iran's suspected nuclear ambition is not the only issue that divides our countries. A more fundamental, albeit philosophical, divide exists over the treatment of minorities. India's unity, indeed its extraordinary success in nation-building, has been based on the State's virtually fathomless willingness to accommodate religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences. The India this has created may be somewhat chaotic, but in no country do citizens feel more free. Iran by contrast has been seeking to impose a cultural and to some extent religious homogeneity. While this was easier to understand immediately after the revolution, it is far less easy to comprehend why it should be ratcheting up pressure on minorities three decades later.
A bill to amend the Islamic penal code is currently being proposed for passage by the Iranian parliament. This will impose a statutory death penalty on anyone who has been born of at least one Muslim parent and has declared himself/ herself to be Muslim, but later renounced Islam. The bill confines this penalty to only those who do so in full consciousness. There are thus a variety of loopholes, such as blasphemy in ignorance, error or under the influence of alcohol. But reduced to its essence, the bill intends to punish those who convert to another religion knowingly and out of genuine conviction, not with the loss of or disqualification for a government job, not with fiscal penalties or denial of educational or other opportunities, but with the loss of life itself.
Laws can, perhaps even should, be judged not by what they decree but by the effect they are intended to have on society. The proposed revision of the Islamic penal code in Iran is clearly intended to stop religious conversions by means of extreme deterrence. That such a bill should be contemplated three decades after the revolution reflects how severely the theocrats, the ultimate guardians of the Islamic state, consider themselves to be under siege. But even after allowing for that, the bill goes too far, for it violates human freedom in the most fundamental way possible.
Among the most immediately affected will be Iran's roughly 300,000 Baha'is. Despite the beautiful temple in Delhi, Indians know relatively little about the faith. In fact, India is home to no fewer than 2.2 million Baha'is. A large number are fugitives from Iran, drawn here by proximity and the millennium-old reputation for religious pluralism. But many more are local converts drawn to the faith by its universalism and sheer humanity. Unlike the Zoroastrians (Parsis in India) whose religion antedates Islam and who mostly left Iran to avoid persecution, the Baha'i faith is relatively new, dating back to the 18th century. While post-revolution Iranian law contains provisions that offer minimal safeguards to Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities, it treats the Baha'is as apostates. Within months of coming to power, the Khomeini government unleashed a reign of terror on the Baha'is.
As a result, over three decades since the revolution, the regime has executed more than 200 Baha'is, nearly all of whom were local spiritual leaders or members of its National Spiritual Assembly. The vast majority were killed during the first years after the revolution, for no other fault than being Baha'i spiritual leaders. In '06, the Baha'is came to know of a secret letter issued on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini to the police and intelligence services to identify and monitor them. The community now fears this is the beginning of another reign of terror.
The international community has brought pressure to bear on Iran before and is likely to do so again. India does not need to join the chorus publicly, but should not shirk moral responsibility to urge charity and restraint upon the Iranian government.
From Outlookindia.com, May 6, 2008
Source: Outlook India