Beware of the Blasphemy Trap

Free speech in India has been under siege for decades, but Indians face a new and far more dangerous threat with the unchecked rise of religious nationalism​. As major politicians endorse a Hindu Rashtra, there is a danger of the imposition of backdoor blasphemy laws. We must fight it now before it happens.

Countries pay a far higher price than they realise when they assume that free speech is somehow an elite right, to be installed in the republic only after other rights have been sorted out. This has been the case in India, where for some decades, it’s been assumed that free speech is this generation’s tin of Kraft cheese: strictly Western, to be imported in small quantities, not really a native staple.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A better way of thinking about free speech is to imagine it as a public good, like clean air or clean water. When pollution enters the system, it doesn’t play favourites. Once you have vitiated the air, everybody breathes in the same pollutants, or pays extra in order to gain immunity.

Religious offence laws in India

Despite growing curbs on free speech over the last few decades, and the imposition of regressive laws such as Section 295A  in the Indian Penal Code that make it a crime to deliberately or maliciously insult religion or religious beliefs, India has so far not imposed draconian blasphemy laws. This, after so many years of Independence, is a significant achievement for the republic.

Laws are not abstract – they are foundational rules that govern, and also change, people’s behaviour. One of the ways in which you see this over and over again, across many countries, is that a law making it a crime to offend any religion can also embolden and empower those who want to make it a crime to criticize religion, or to put forward atheist views, or to avoid one religion’s rituals and observations becoming mandatory for all.

The offence industry: laws and human behaviour

In countries where blasphemy laws have been retained without sufficient curbs, or introduced with sweeping provisions or loosely-worded language, you see a clear pattern. We’ve seen in India and elsewhere that offence laws can create a thriving “offence industry”, allowing political parties and religious groups to claim valuable publicity and position themselves as defenders of faith, at very little cost to themselves. At one extreme, stringent offence laws can and have easily empowered mobs, or give political parties an incentive to enter into orchestrated performances of violence.

The courts may have intended that these laws would only be used as and when civil society was deeply (and deliberately and maliciously, as a form of incitement) offended, but in actual practice, since we’re only human, this operates the other way. If you can convincingly act offended, you create first, a media opportunity, and second, a situation where the law swings into operation. Over time, people forget that the law was intended to be invoked only in specific cases – in situations of deliberate and malicious incitement – and it becomes more and more common to see cycles of performative violence followed by an automatic self-censorship from civil society.

The doctrine of “responsibility” and what it masks

The growing invocation of the idea of “responsibility” supercedes the earlier, democratic hope that the republic would give all of its citizens reasonable and extensive freedoms. “Responsibility” is invoked in several ways: it’s very visible when writers and artists are told to censor themselves, or to be prepared to be held responsible for other people’s acts of violence. But that’s hardly the only way.

Invoking “responsibility” over freedom becomes actively dangerous to the health of a thriving republic when majority groups – religious, but also caste and community-based majorities – fuse offence and responsibility, declaring for instance that a minority group’s food habits, or praying rituals, offend them, and therefore the minority group is responsible for changing their practices.

In times of rising nationalism, “responsibility” might be invoked to silence or dismiss specific groups of citizens asking for reasonable rights – the right to question the state, or local political leaders, or major institutions such as the courts and Parliament, for instance, or the right to decide what should be done with community land that belongs to Dalits or tribals, or even more basic rights to live without fear of attack from security or military forces, whether private or state-controlled. In these circumstances, an aggressive nationalist might demand that the citizen asking for rights silences himself or herself out of “responsibility” to the nation, or to key leaders, or to a particular party or religious head.

The high value placed on freedoms and rights

Many of these issues – offence versus the right to express oneself freely, responsibility versus the invocation of rights – were fiercely discussed in the 1930s and 1940s. It is remarkable that India emerged from these debates to place a fairly high value on rights, freedoms and the principles of justice and equality when it might have gone down other, less democratic routes. At least that was the intention of the men and women who fought for independence.

In that sense, the rights laid out in the original Constitution, including rights that guaranteed freedom of speech on the subject of religion, are not to be taken lightly. They are foundational to the republic, and should be defended strongly. (The Constitutional debates, and also the little magazines of the 1920s-1940s are good places to start if you’d like to research this.)

A crumbling defence

Over the last twenty years, neither the liberals nor the then-emerging right wing were able to stand fast to the core principle of free speech. Right-wing thinkers tend to follow the party line, much like communists, and seldom defend the values set down by an emerging Republic. The Left has made many assaults on free speech; liberals have been a house divided, arguing among themselves, unwilling to take the kind of strong, absolutist line on free speech that the American Civil Liberties Union takes, for instance.

Despite pockets of resistance, by and large, liberals have given in to the offence laws, and have been unable to protect writers and artists from MF Husain and Rushdie down to Perumal Murugan. These attacks have grown more common over the years, and have widened to include students, citizens hauled up for social media posts, lawyers, and other sections of civil society at risk of legal threats or actual violence.

The dangers of blasphemy laws

Without a history of robust opposition to offence laws, we are at far greater risk of giving in to the imposition of blasphemy laws soon, especially with related laws such as the recent cow-protection law being enforced. As a rule of thumb, any law that gives religion greater rights than those enjoyed by the individual citizen should be viewed with great caution.

If a law is an enacted principle that ends up changing human behaviour, blasphemy laws are the steroid-enabled version of ordinary offence laws. In countries as divergent as Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the entry of blasphemy laws has led to attacks, often murderous, on citizens held guilty of some form of religious offence or the other, to the growth of unrestrained and unchecked mobs, and has led to a rise in violence.

Empowering mobs

Laws work by enabling groups of people – either in the direction of greater rights, or in the direction of greater punitive force. In that sense, blasphemy laws give at least two groups of people – clerics and politicians – an inordinate amount of power over the rest of the citizenry, which is why many countries refuse to have blasphemy laws. It has also empowered mobs – many who join or organise mobs fully understand the seductive power of social control.

Blasphemy laws are very easy to spring on a public that doesn’t know how they work. Ask most people:

Do you resent it when someone desecrates your religious icons?

Shouldn’t people be made to respect religious sentiments?

Shouldn’t it be a crime to hurt anyone’s religious beliefs?

Most people would agree to all of these. Congratulations – you’ve just imposed blasphemy laws, because these questions were posed without a due consideration of consequences.

Ask the same group of people:

Is it wrong to kill someone for not holding the same religious beliefs that you do?

Should you be forced to observe religious practices and rituals you don’t subscribe to?

Would you like to see rampaging mobs or the religious police on the streets of your neighbourhood?

Most sane people would say a resounding no. But these consequences come automatically with the territory of blasphemy, and over the last few years, the possibility of blasphemy laws existing in India has shifted from impossible to highly possible.

Resisting blasphemy laws

There is still a chance that we could head off this threat to India’s basic fabric. The present laws are more than sufficient to protect religion from deliberate or malicious insult – indeed, they need reform so that they don’t continue to chill legitimate questioning of religious institutions.

We should also be aware that such laws will not be brought in as “blasphemy laws” – they might come in under the guise of preventing vilification or defamation of religion. Some might argue that it should be a crime to hold religion in contempt (a position that cuts directly at the rights of atheists and freethinkers). Such laws might be introduced after an incident that has high emotional impact, or be backed by powerful figures in the media or by celebrities, factors that make it difficult to take a calmer and more rational call on the future consequences of these laws.

Blasphemy laws can also be imposed under the guise of laws that impose cultural conformism. As Justice AP Shah wrote recently, “A common theme linking these topics is the idea of ‘cultural nationalism’, where cultural conformism is being foisted upon the entire nation, without consideration of people’s personal choices, values and regional differences.”

I would go further. When the offence laws were tightened, a small minority among us argued that this was dangerous, that we would edge closer to bringing in blasphemy laws – with all the societal upheaval that entails, sparking off inter-religious wars among other things. At that time, many dismissed these fears, arguing that it was impossible – India would never be a religious republic – and to be fair, it did seem far-fetched.

This doesn’t seem far-fetched any more. If imposed, blasphemy laws could dramatically change the republic – you only have to look to Pakistan and Bangladesh, our near neighbours, to see the damage caused by concentrating this much power in the hands of religious institutions. If we act across partisan lines, we could foresee and resist the imposition of further laws on blasphemy that would open the door to religion-sponsored violence on a scale we haven’t seen in free India. There is much to be gained by preventing these ills, but we are running out of time.