February 8, 2013

Will India Bow to Censorship by Fatwa?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Two events occurred here last week that could foreshadow India's future -- and perhaps ours as well. In one, Indian film star and filmmaker, Kamal Hassan bowed to Muslim groups in the South India state of Tamil Nadu after they claimed his film Vishwaroopam "targets Muslims and their beliefs." The state responded by banning the film; and although Hassan was initially defiant (the film was well-received elsewhere in India), he eventually agreed to delete seven scenes that the groups deemed offensive. The action was even more egregious since the film had been approved by India's Board of Film Certification, which screens all films for possible offense, primarily to Muslims, and cleared Vishwaroopam. Indian activist Amitabh Tripathi told me that the groups' action was part of an effort "to test us [and] determine how we will react."

Others echoed his remarks and attribute the situation to a decades-long pattern of "appeasing Muslims" in an effort to secure their political support. Things have reached such an extreme level of timidity that in at least two instances I have observed personally, individuals were charged with "hate speech," and few people found out what they said because news outlets claimed the remarks were "too offensive to repeat." What they did not say is that India's laws are written so if they did replay them -- even as news -- they, too, could be charged with hate speech.

In last week's other high-profile event, three teenage girls were forced to go into hiding after Kashmir's Grand Mufti Bashir-ud-Din issued a fatwa against them for performing in an all-girl rock band. After their group, Pragaash, placed third in Kashmir's annual Battle of the Bands in December, the girls started receiving threatening emails and internet posts for acting "un-Islamic." They and their families were forced into hiding in Delhi, where they remain. Speaking incognito, however, one of the girls recently claimed that it was the cleric's action not the threats that drove them to scrap their dreams.

While there has been an outpouring of moral support for the girls, politicians are afraid to act in any way that might offend the Mufti. Kashmir's Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at first expressed public support for the girls but later noted the mufti's authority. When pressed by the media to take action against the clerical "intimidation of the girls," he had his police issue a case -- but against the unknown bloggers, leaving the Mufti and his minions untouched. One political insider told me that Abdullah "is very clever. He always tries to play sides, placating the radicals but trying to sound liberal."

So, in what are only the most obvious consequences of excessive political cravenness, both the Muslim pressure groups in the south and the Grand Mufti in the north have been allowed to impose their demands with impunity. And recall that this is not Wahabi Saudi Arabia or Muslim Brotherhood Egypt; this is India, a military and economic giant that will surpass China as the world's most populous nation in 2020.

The impending nomination of nationalist and conservative Narendra Modi for Prime Minister and the excitement surrounding it suggests that India is ready for a change in direction. Will he be successful, and will the rest of us take heed?

UPDATE: Almost a month later, the girls and their families remain in hiding, the band is no more, and there are no other girls playing music in Kashmir. The big stars who offered their "undying" support for the girls have gone back to their lavish lifestyles and not offered words or deeds of encouragement since those few days following the incident. And Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has long forgotten these girls and on to his next political gambit, is openly courting the Islamist vote by leading the charge in demanding that the body of executed terrorist Mohammad Afzal Guru (he attacked the Indian parliament and killed 14 people) be returned to his family on "humanitarian grounds."