Essay: The history of the politics of blasphemy in the Indian subcontinent

Writer Salman Rushdie’s phone rang on Valentine’s Day in 1989. It was a reporter BBC, A woman. “How does it feel”, she asked him, “to know that you have been executed by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was sunny on Tuesday in London, but Rushdie wrote in his autobiography, Joseph Anton, that the question was closed to the light. “It’s not good,” Rushdie replied.

Author Salman Rushdie poses for the film during a visit to the HT House in New Delhi on 22 January 2013.  (Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times)
Author Salman Rushdie poses for the film during a visit to the HT House in New Delhi on 22 January 2013. (Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times)

Maybe they are a little better these days. After all, more than 33 years have passed since that memorable day and there have been somewhat similar protests around the Muslim world, the aim of which is not his but the now dismissed Hindu spokesman. Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

For years now, every evening, on several TV channels across India, political propagandists dressed as journalists have been loudly persecuting Muslims and their voices on Islam. Campaigners have managed to escape, so far, the kind of reaction Rushdie has encountered, perhaps because of sheer luck – and political propagandists jump at every opportunity to attack writers and artists, but give up their own kind.

Even in the dog-eat-dog world where politics serve propaganda, dog-eating is avoided.

The problem that sparked responses to Rushdie’s artistic novel The Satanic Verses The brutal comments of former BJP spokesman Nupur Sharma in 1988-89 and more recently have been blamed for blasphemy. This is an important issue in the history of the Indian subcontinent.

Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma (Manvender Vashist) / PTI
Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma (Manvender Vashist) / PTI

The rage on blasphemy was the source of the popular politics of the new book, Hindu and Muslim, which led to the partition of India in the 1920s. Revenge, Politics and Religious Abuse in Pakistan Published by Hurst reminds readers of Adele Hussein.

The type of public reactions that now accompany blasphemy accusations do not always exist.

“In the first instance, the Indian Muslims saw the insults against the Prophet as sins punishable by Allah in heaven,” writes Hussein. “In the second stage, roughly from the 1880s, they considered it a sin that Allah would punish in this world, and not in heaven. In the third stage, early in the twentieth century, South Asian Muslims began to see the vengeance of insults against the Prophet, especially when those insults came from non-Muslims, as a measure of personal moral duty and their faith.

Anger on blasphemy was a source of popular politics, Hindu versus Muslim, that led to the partition of India in the 1920s, reminding readers of Adele Hussein's new book on revenge, politics and blasphemy in Pakistan.
Anger on blasphemy was a source of popular politics, Hindu versus Muslim, that led to the partition of India in the 1920s, reminding readers of Adele Hussein’s new book on revenge, politics and blasphemy in Pakistan.

In the undivided Punjab, at least two religious groups played a crucial role in shaping the public attitude of Muslims towards blasphemy on the one hand, and Hussein’s commentary on Hindu nationalism on the other.

The first famous case involving undivided India was a book by the prophet Muhammad Rangila Rasool Case This Pamphlet – This is only 24 pages published in 1924 in Lahore by a publisher known as Mahashaj Rajpal or Arya Samaj member Rajpal Malhotra. The author of the text, Pandit Chamupathi, worked in the Gurukula run by Swami Shraddhanandan, a prominent Arya Samaj leader of the time.

The pamphlet is dedicated to the unnamed “pure soul,” who “became a martyr after being stabbed,” according to the author, a man who shone a light on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The man who matched this description was Indy Ram, the leader of the Arya society’s “Mahatma” or militant vegetarian wing, who was stabbed to death in 1897 while trying to “re-convert” a Muslim to his Hindu home in Lahore. By performing a “purification” or ritual of purity.

Years before his death, Reich Ram engaged in a public war of mutual abuse with the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, in which Ahmad had targeted Hindu gods and goddesses, including Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. Ahmad, the Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad. Many abuses revolve around the sex lives of holy persons.

Punjabis insult one another and this is quite a routine occurrence, but unfortunately the colorful insults involving the personal lives of the gods and the Prophets by these two, the Aryan society’s attempts to convert Muslims to Hinduism, eventually resulted in death. Stay tuned for Ramesh Ram. It promoted publication Rangila Rasool, Meaning “colorful prophet”. The book derogatoryly refers to the age difference between the Prophet Muhammad and his first wife, Khadijah, who was several years older than him and his third wife, Aisha.

Cases have been filed under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code against publisher Mahashay Rajpal for spreading hatred among communities. When he was acquitted by the District Magistrate’s Court and the Sessions Court, a young Kapurthala royal member, a young judge, who was hearing the case in the Punjab High Court, said it was nothing more than a “hard satire”. And acquitted the accused.

Immediately there was heavy controversy. There were riots. Top lawyers and politicians – usually the same people in those days – got involved. A new section of the Indian Penal Code, Section 295A, regards blasphemy as a crime. It is still legal in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan, not satisfied with such a section, added the legislation. There is now Section 295C which condemns the death penalty by directly or indirectly desecrating the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

Not at all.

View of the Darul Zikr Mosque in Ghari Shahu, Lahore, Pakistan on 28 May 2010.  Another mosque was attacked in Baitul Noor Mosque, a model town.  94 devotees were killed and 125 wounded.  (Nadeem Ijaz / Getty Images)
View of the Darul Zikr Mosque in Ghari Shahu, Lahore, Pakistan on 28 May 2010. Another mosque was attacked in Baitul Noor Mosque, a model town. 94 devotees were killed and 125 wounded. (Nadeem Ijaz / Getty Images)

In 1974, Pakistan declared non-Muslims the Ahmadiyya sect, which led the charge against the Aryan society by inciting blasphemous politics that contributed significantly to the Hindu-Muslim tensions in the 1920s. There is now section 298 too. In the Pakistan Penal Code, Ahmadiyya calls himself a Muslim and is guilty of imprisonment. The reason is that the Ahmadiyya doctrine that Muhammad was not the last of the prophets is regarded as heresy and blasphemy.

In a twist on both irony and ritual, the blasphemous politics once claimed by the sect’s founder and his son and successor returned to claiming his followers as victims.

Samrat Chaudhuri is an author and journalist. His latest book is The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra

The opinions expressed are personal

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