By Anupama Katakam
March 6, 2015
Shirin Dalvi, the editor of an Urdu daily, is the latest victim of religious bigotry in the country.
OVER time, freedom of expression has been severely tested in India, with attacks on it from different corners. The most insidious attacks come when it supposedly offends religion. Shirin Dalvi’s case indicates the threat to the very core of that fundamental right.
Trouble began for Shirin Dalvi when she, as the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Lucknow-based Urdu newspaper Awadhnama,published a cover of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that was attacked by Islamist fundamentalists who were offended by its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Shirin Dalvi reproduced its cover depicting the caricature of a bearded man lamenting that he was “loved by idiots”.
As soon as this issue of Awadhnama hit the stands, some sections of the Muslim community expressed outrage over the caricature, saying that depictions of the Prophet are never published. Six first information reports (FIRs) were filed against her in various parts of Maharashtra. She was arrested on February 4 by the Thane police but was granted bail.
In hiding now, Shirin Dalvi has to wear a burqa, which she had never worn earlier, to move around in order to avoid being recognised because of the relentless threats against her. A widow and single parent, she has not seen her teenage children since the arrest. Her employers have sacked her, saying they do not want to have anything to do with the case. Additionally, the Mumbai edition of the newspaper has been shut down and an entire team of journalists and workers has been put out of work.
There are various versions of how and why Shirin Dalvi published the caricature. In an apology she wrote in a blog, she says: “I, Shirin Dalvi, begin with an apology for having printed the title cover of Charlie Hebdo. It was a mistake and I had no intention to hurt the feelings of my community. Like any other Muslim, I deeply respect Prophet Mohammed—sallallahu alahi wa sallam —Peace be upon Him…. We juxtaposed it with news of the Pope’s statement where he criticised the Prophet cartoons and said freedom of expression was not absolute and religious beliefs should not be mocked in the name of this freedom.” She also says that she does not understand French and hence it was a case of bad judgment on her part.
Before she went into hiding, Shirin Dalvi said to the groups attacking her that she had no agenda of her own and was hoping that her apology in the media would make them drop the cases against her and let her move on with her life. If the cases are not dropped, she faces a long legal battle ahead, not to mention the constant threat to her and her family.
The Bombay High Court extended Shirin Dalvi’s bail application until February 10 and gave her interim protection from arrest. In spite of the opposition from the Maharashtra government, the Bombay High Court directed the police not to take any coercive action against her.
Most activists and organisations Frontline spoke to believe that Shirin Dalvi’s move was perhaps irresponsible journalism given how sensitive the Charlie Hebdo issue was, but she does not deserve this treatment.
“You can choose not to read a paper or watch a show if it offends your sensibilities. Why subject the entire country to censorship and weaken the foundations of a democracy,” says a novelist in Mumbai. “Half the time many of these people who feel ‘offended’ haven’t even read what it is about,” he says.
“I think what Shirin Dalvi did was perhaps a bad editorial decision. She seemed to have realised that and clarified the same in her newspaper almost immediately. What is important to understand is that her intention was not malicious or devious. It was her way of explaining to the readers what had happened in the Charlie Hebdo case,” says Sameera Khan, a journalist and writer, who teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “While on the one hand I believe in freedom of expression with some sense of responsibility, I also realise that ‘sense of responsibility’ may be understood differently by different people,” she says. “Similarly, what one person finds offensive, another may not. So I think it’s important that we recognise that something or the other is going to offend us. If Charlie Hebdo or Awadhnama (or any other book or publication or even film) offends our sensibilities, we don’t have to buy it or read it or advertise in it. We could write letter/s of protest, write our own articles, create our own cartoons and even launch our own publications. But we don’t have to hound or attack journalists, writers, filmmakers, etc. That doesn’t get us very far. A reasoned debate and discussion is more important.”
The human rights activist Ram Punyani says it is an absolute violation of the freedom of expression. “The Muslim community is in the grip of insecurity due to which there are intolerant responses to her publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. We should not have intolerance in whatever religions name. She should be given every protection,” he says.
The FIRs against Shirin Dalvi have been registered under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for “outraging religious feelings”. Any cheeky remark can be taken out of context, and the IPC allows the authorities to charge a person with supposed offence towards religions, says a lawyer.
An axe to grind?
Interestingly, it is not the maulanas or religious heads that are baying for Shirin Dalvi’s blood. She says she has been let down by her own tribe. Zubair Azmi, who heads the Urdu Markaz, an organisation that promotes Urdu literature, was the first complainant.
He told the media that he did it because no one should publish pictures of the Prophet and that he complained against Shirin Dalvi to make an example of her. Azmi is part of the Forum against Blasphemy, and it appears there is quite a history between this group and Shirin Dalvi.
Izhar Ahmed, president of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, who helped a Mumbra resident register one of the six complaints, said that under Islamic law, Shirin Dalvi had committed “a crime that can never be forgiven and the punishment for which is death. We are not asking for that. We are only asking that she be given the strictest punishment under Indian law.”
Shirin Dalvi’s repeated argument is that people such as Azmi and Ahmed are doing this out of personal jealousy and to prevent her from succeeding as a woman.
Sameera Khan is of the opinion that these so-called Muslim intellectual men are extremely irresponsible. They tend to influence the community, and this leads to even bigger and more complex problems. Sameera Khan, who has taught Muslim women journalism, says it is an extremely hard profession for them to be in. “Any growth is completely squashed. I understand what Shirin is saying.”
Several journalists say Shirin Dalvi actually broke the glass ceiling at an astonishing speed. Hailing from a modest family in Kausa, a northern Mumbai suburb, she was the only girl to finish graduation in an area where families permitted their daughters to study only up to class four. She began writing as a student, and what she wrote was published in Urdu journals.
Encouraged by her husband, Abdullah Kamal, an Urdu poet, she continued writing under the pseudonym “Umai Wajdan”. After his death, she began writing as Shirin Dalvi, and her rise was meteoric. She became an associate editor at the Urdu daily Sahafat under the late Sajid Rashid, a dynamic editor and intellectual known for his liberal views. Rashid died quite suddenly. His funeral was boycotted by the Forum against Blasphemy led by Azmi.
Shirin Dalvi now became editor of Awadhnama. To be a woman editor in the Urdu language press is no small feat. Obviously, she had her detractors and they finally had their say.
Shirin Dalvi believes she was let down by one of her own editorial staff members. Nihal Sagir, who apparently felt slighted by Shirin Dalvi becoming his boss, was quoted in Urdu Times as saying, “I had warned her not to use the Charlie Hebdo cover, but she brushed it off saying: ‘We should be broadminded. At the most, a few hundred copies will be burnt.’” When Sagir realised the situation had blown out of proportion, he claimed he was not in the office on January 17 when the issue went to print.
Shirin Dalvi countered Sagir’s comment by writing, “No one said a word in the office…. Had they done so, I would have heeded their advice, because to me, my DTP [desk top publishing] operators represent my paper’s readership.”
Hum Azaadiyon Ke Haq Mein, a human rights group, has extended support to Shirin Dalvi. The group, consisting of well-known activists such as Irfan Engineer, Javed Anand and Hasina Khan, issued a statement saying, “Shirin Dalvi is a respected journalist with more than 20 years of experience in Urdu journalism…. The manner in which she is being hounded bodes ill for free debate and discussion and for peaceful resolution of controversy. Besides, the incident is also being used as a pretext to ratchet up polarised public opinion, which is a dangerous game and detrimental to freedom of speech and expression in a democratic society, besides causing immense personal harm and a threat to her life and safety.”
In support of Charlie Hebdo, NDTV and the economic newspaper Mint had published pictures of the magazine. No one appears to have taken offence against the English language press.
Shirin Dalvi’s is yet another example of intolerance by the religious Right and its ability to get away with a moralistic agenda that has little basis or depth. Few seem to have the courage to take it on. Not only is Shirin Dalvi’s constitutional right to the freedom of expression under threat but her case also highlights several disturbing trends, for instance, the use of Section 295 of the IPC itself. Also, Shirin Dalvi repeatedly says she is targeted because she is a woman.
While the controversy over a television comedy show hogs prime time on national television, Shirin Dalvi’s case has been relegated to the background. Observers say this is a sad reflection of the media, women’s and human rights groups, and liberals who have not stuck their necks out for a case that requires immediate and aggressive help. “It needs to be understood by the larger population that this is not just about Shirin Dalvi,” says a close associate of her who requests anonymity. “It is about a fundamental right being taken away.”