Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Taking on the miracle-mongers: Sanal Edamaruku and blasphemy in India

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Sanal Edamaruku at Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni
in Vile Parle, Mumbai, 10 March 2012
A large audience gathered at London's Free Word Centre this lunchtime for a free event organised by the Rationalist Association and Index on Censorship in support of Sanal Edamaruku, the Indian rationalist facing blasphemy charges after he debunked a supposed miracle involving a dripping crucifix at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. The event was a panel discussion featuring Sanal alongside the retired appeals court judge Stephen Sedley, the distinguished philosopher Richard Sorabji, and the journalist Salil Tripathi, who has written widely on free speech and Hindu nationalism in India.

First to speak was Sanal Edamaruku, who began by saying that his main aim is to go back to India. He is currently staying in Europe as he faces arrest without the guarantee of bail back home, but he said he wants to go back because he has started a job that he wants to complete. There are two Indias, in Sanal's view – the modern, progressive India, and the India controlled by holy men, astrologers and tantrics, underpinned by the caste system. The modern India has to win, because an India with a prominent role on the world stage must not be controlled by the forces of reaction.

Sanal said that his aim has always been to promote the "scientific temper" in India, fulfilling one of the "fundamental duties" outlined in the country's constitution. For decades, Sanal and his colleagues in the Indian Rationalist Association have done this by promoting reason and humanism, and by going out and demonstrating the science behind supposed miracles through what they call "Rationalist Reality Theatre", which involves travelling to villages, posing as holy men, and performing "miracles" before pulling back the curtain and revealing their scientific basis.

Sanal strives to remove the fear of astrologers and holy men held by many in India, and he is able to carry out his work because the constitution protects the right to free speech, as well as the country's status as a secular state.

However, he has recently fallen foul of another aspect of India's legal system, namely the penal code established by the British colonial authorities in 1860. On 10 March this year, Sanal was invited to attend the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, in order to investigate water that was dripping from a crucifix statue. After establishing that this was water from a nearby leaking pipe that was travelling up the statue by capillary action, Sanal appeared on prime time Mumbai TV, where representatives of the church, three local Catholic groups, and the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai Agnelo Rufino Gracias attacked him over his debunking of the miracle. Sanal suggested to the Bishop that the Church has a long history of "miracle mongering", and laughed when the Bishop argued that science would not have spread through Europe were it not for the Catholic Church.

The next day, Sanal heard that 17 complaints had been filed against him at various police stations, all invoking Article 295a of the Indian penal code, which covers "Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs". Having been denied "anticipatory bail", which would have allowed him to stay and fight the accusations without fear of pre-trial imprisonment, Sanal has been forced to come to Europe, where he must currently remain in order to avoid arrest.

The second of the panel to speak was Stephen Sedley, who began by pointing out that we are not so far removed from India's legal situation here in the UK. We have abolished our blasphemy law, but that has effectively been replaced by the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act. So far this has not been used in an intolerant way, but it is not impossible to imagine it being used in such a way in the future.

With reference to India, Sedley outlined some relevant articles of the constitution. Article 19 guarantees freedom of speech and expression, while Article 25 guarantees freedom of religion. However, the wording does not suggest a comparable right to propagate atheism, which is a common problem around the world – freedom of religion can often imply freedom only for those who have a religion.

Regarding the Indian Penal Code and Article 295a, Sedley pointed out that one of the problems with a law protecting "religious feelings" is that those who claim to be insulted are often able to define the terrain, which puts those accused of blasphemy and giving offence on the back foot.

Next, Professor Richard Sorabji examined some of the philosophical problems around free speech. He spoke of the American case, where many believe in the uninhibited right to free speech, and asked whether there does need to be some restriction in order to protect weak groups. Can we find a balance which would prevent the misuse of the law in order to prosecute someone like Sanal, whose intention was clearly to speak out against fraud, while protecting weak groups from oppression by the majority?

Sorabji said he previously thought "malicious intent" could be a sufficient protection, but in light of Sanal's case (Article 295a refers to "malicious acts") he is now unsure whether that is enough. Perhaps there needs to be a clause in hate speech laws which protects "reasonable argument"?

The last of the panel to speak was Salil Tripathi, who talked about what he described as a "bleak scenario" surrounding Hindu nationalism in India. He referred to an incident that occurred this week following the death of the Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray, when a girl was arrested for posting an innocuous Facebook status update criticising the closing of businesses for a day because of his death. (Staggeringly, her friend was also arrested for "liking" the status.) Tripathi said that the limits of free speech in India are no longer defined by the law, but by bullies and thugs. There is a problem with the supposed "reasonable restrictions" on free speech, because they are no longer applied in a reasonable way.

Finally, Sanal Edamaruku spoke again to outline where his case goes next. He said that he has two options. The first is to reach an agreement with the Catholic complainants. The Archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, has said that if Sanal apologises for the "offence" he has caused then he will see to it that the complaints are withdrawn (the Catholic authorities in Mumbai have denied that they have had any involvement in the complaints, but Sanal sees this as evidence of their influence).

However, Sanal will not apologise, because he has done nothing wrong. He wishes to fight the complaints, and would like to go to the Indian Supreme Court, where he can demonstrate that Article 295a is in direct conflict with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in India's constitution. He will continue to push for anticipatory bail, which would enable him to return to home to Delhi and fight the case, while continuing his wider work of advancing rationalism in India.

Please sign our petition in support of Sanal Edamaruku, and consider donating to his defence fund
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