Tuesday 17 February 2009
Source: Independent forum
Posted by Jerome Taylor
The editor and publisher of The Statesman, a highly respected Kolkata based English daily, have been arrested on charges of “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims because they printed a piece written last month by Independent columnist Johann Hari.
Hari, a liberal atheist, penned the comment piece: «Why should I respect oppressive religions?», at the end of January and it was later syndicated by The Statesman. In the article, Hari (somewhat prophetically) lamented how the right to criticise a religion is being steadily eroded around the world.
Muslim protestors in Kolkata, West Bengal, have been causing havoc outside The Statesman’s offices since it ran the article on Feb 5th and police have even used baton charges to disperse them. Staff at The Statesman have had to barricade their front doors for much of the past three days and rely on police escorts to get them to their workplace, which is situated just opposite the Tipu Sultan Masjid, Kolkata’s largest mosque.
In his piece Hari defends the right to criticise all religions, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But the Muslim protestors in Kolkata appear to have been particularly upset by a paragraph that talks about the sexual history of the prophet Muhammad.
All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.
Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, The Statesman’s editor and publisher, appeared in court today and were granted bail.
On two separate occasions Mr Kumar, The Statesman’s editor, issued statements standing by his decision to publish the article. But he also said he had not meant to cause offence to any religion.
A note published on the 8 February said The Statesman had reprinted Hari’s article because “it mourned the marginalisation of the middle, liberal path in modern society.”
The Statesman has always upheld secular values and has a record of providing space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones. If we were unable to fulfil this role, we would rather cease publication with honour than compromise with our basic values. The publication of Johann Hari’s opinion was not intended to cause hurt, or defame any community or religion. Nor was it intended to provoke societal tension. If unwittingly we have aggrieved any section of society, we deeply regret it.
As the world’s largest democracy freedom of speech is guaranteed in India’s constitution but “outraging religious feelings” is technically illegal under section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code.
In a country where inter-communal tensions can often spill over into horrendous violence, 295 A is seen as a way of heading off tension between religious communities and stopping firebrands from inciting violence. But it is often also used by religious hardliners, including both Hindus and Muslims, to stifle open criticism and discourse of religious matters in a country where religion plays an incredibly vital role.
The fact that protests broke out in Kolkata will probably be surprising to many. Traditionally Kolkata has been one of India’s liberal heartlands. Bengalis are staunchly proud of their literary heritage and being the homeland of Tagore, India’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature.
Have just spoken to Johann Hari and he has defended his article. «I wrote in defence of the right to criticise religion — all religion — and it is vitally important to keep that right alive in the world’s largest, and in many ways most admirable, democracy», he said
There will be more details about how the protests unfolded in tomorrow’s paper.
It’s worth noting that since the arrests earlier today there have been no more protests outside the Statesman’s offices.