ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Offenders and the Offended

By giving in to bigots we are nourishing the soil of intolerance.

India has now had its own Charlie Hebdo moment – or rather moments. The first over the reprinting of one of the covers of the French satirical magazine, and the other over a group specialising in ribald satire where public figures are “roasted”. In neither instance has anyone been gunned down but the police complaints, threats and hounding are ominous. The two recent incidents remind us, yet again, that the right to freedom of expression in India remains at best ambivalent and at worst a bracketed, highly restricted one. As a result, whether it is “citizens” who take offence and move the law, or those tasked with implementing the law wilfully misinterpret it, we are witness to a farce that would be funny if its consequences for some were not so dire.

On 17 January, when Shireen Dalvi, who happens to be India’s first woman editor of an Urdu newspaper, the Mumbai-edition of Avadhnama, decided to reprint one of the covers of Charlie Hebdo to illustrate an article quoting the Pope’s remarks on the limits to freedom of expression, she probably never imagined the consequences. The next day, she was compelled to issue a front-page apology for using the cartoon. Inadvertently, she had picked the wrong magazine cover off the internet depicting a bearded man in tears saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots” and a caption, “Muhammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”, in French, a language she does not know. Dalvi has lost her job and is struggling to get bail as multiple cases for hurting religious sentiments are filed against her under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in various police stations in Maharashtra. A widow and mother of two teenage children, Dalvi is hiding, as she knows the consequences are not just legal but could be extralegal by way of physical attacks against her and her children.

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