On Valentine’s Day 1989, the writer Salman Rushdie’s telephone rang. It was a reporter from the BBC, a woman. “How does it feel”, she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light, Rushdie wrote in his memoir Joseph Anton. “It doesn’t feel good,” Rushdie had replied.
Perhaps he’s feeling a bit better these days. It has, after all, been more than 33 years since that memorable day, and there is also of late a somewhat similar spectacle of protests around the Muslim world of which the target is not him but a couple of now-dismissed spokespersons of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
For years now, every evening, on numerous TV channels around India, political propagandists including some thinly disguised as journalists have been hurling abuses at Muslims and Islam as loudly as their vocal cords permit. That the propagandists managed to escape, until now, the kind of reaction Rushdie faced is probably down to sheer luck – and the fact that political propagandists jump at every opportunity to attack writers and artists, but tend to leave their own kind alone.
Dog avoids eating dog, even in the dog-eat-dog world where politics meets propaganda.
The issue that had sparked the reactions, both to Rushdie’s artful novel The Satanic Verses in 1988-89 and to the crass comments of BJP’s former spokesperson Nupur Sharma recently is alleged blasphemy. It is an issue that has played a significant role in the history of the Indian subcontinent.
Anger over blasphemy was at the genesis of the popular politics of Hindu versus Muslim in the 1920s that led to the Partition of India, as a new book on Revenge, Politics and Blasphemy in Pakistan by Adeel Hussain published by Hurst reminds readers.
The kind of public reactions that now accompany charges of blasphemy have, however, not always existed.
“In the first stage, Indian Muslims viewed insults against the Prophet as sins that Allah would punish in the hereafter”, writes Hussain. “In the second stage, roughly from the 1880s onwards, they regarded it as a sin that Allah would punish in this world, and not just in the hereafter. In the third stage, beginning in the early twentieth century, South Asian Muslims started to view the avenging of insults against the Prophet, especially when those insults came from non-Muslims, as an individual ethical duty and a barometer of their faith”.
Two relatively marginal religious sects in undivided Punjab played a crucial role in shaping the public attitudes of Muslims towards blasphemy on the one hand, and of Hindus towards Hindu nationalism on the other, in Hussain’s telling.
The first celebrated case in undivided India involving a book deemed blasphemous of the Prophet Muhammad was the Rangila Rasul case. This pamphlet – it was a mere 24 pages had been published in Lahore in 1924 by a publisher known as Mahashay Rajpal, or Rajpal Malhotra, a member of the Arya Samaj. The author of the text was a Pandit Chamupati who worked in a gurukul run by the most prominent Arya Samaj leader of the time, Swami Shraddhanand.
The pamphlet was dedicated to an unnamed “pure soul” who “became a martyr after being stabbed”, a person who according to the author shone a light on the life of Prophet Muhammad. The person who fit this description was Lekh Ram, a leader of the “Mahatma” or militantly vegetarian wing of the Arya Samaj, who was stabbed to death in his home in Lahore in 1897 while trying to “re-convert” a Muslim to Hinduism by performing the ritual of “purification” or Shuddhi.
For years before his death, Lekh Ram had engaged in a public battle of mutual vilification with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, in which Ahmad took aim at Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Hindu gods and goddesses while Lekh Ram abused Ahmad, Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad. Many of the abuses revolved around the sex lives of holy figures.
Punjabis abusing one another was and is a fairly routine occurrence, but unfortunately the hurling of colourful insults involving the personal lives of gods and prophets by these two, combined with the efforts of the Arya Samaj at converting Muslims to Hinduism, led eventually to the fatal stabbing of Lekh Ram. This spurred the publication of Rangila Rasul, meaning “colourful prophet”. The book made disparaging reference to the age difference between Prophet Muhammad and his first wife Khadija, who was several years older than him, and his third wife Aisha, who was several years younger.
Cases were filed under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code against the publisher, Mahashay Rajpal, for spreading enmity between communities. While he was found guilty by the District Magistrate’s Court and the Sessions Court, the young judge who heard the case in the Punjab High Court, a member of the Kapurthala royal family named Dalip Singh, held that it was nothing more than “scurrilous satire” and acquitted the accused.
Immediately a huge controversy had erupted. There were riots. Top barristers and politicians – who in those days were generally the same people – got involved. A new section, Section 295A, which criminalises blasphemy, was added to the Indian Penal Code. It is still there as law in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan, not satisfied with merely one such section, has added to the legislation. There’s now a Section 295C there which makes defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad directly or indirectly a crime punishable by death.
That’s not all.
The Ahmadiyya, the sect whose leaders led the charge against the Arya Samaj, thus provoking the politics of blasphemy that contributed greatly to Hindu-Muslim tensions in the 1920s, were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan in 1974. There is now also a Section 298 in the Pakistan penal code that makes it a crime punishable with jail time for an Ahmadiyya to call himself or herself Muslim. The reason is that Ahmadiyya doctrine that Muhammad was not the last of the prophets is considered heretical and blasphemous.
In a twist both ironic and karmic, the politics of blasphemy that the sect’s founder and his son and successor had once championed had returned to claim their followers as victims.
Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist. His most recent book is The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra
The views expressed are personal
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