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A Curious Silence and an Un-Crossed Line: In the Wake of A Disbanded Exhibition

November 14, 2011

A news item from some weeks ago, which has gone curiously unremarked and un-commented upon has made me think about the limits that the freedom of expression debate and the discourse on secularism in India unwittingly or knowingly does not seem to be able to cross, despite repeated provocation.

We all know that when the Hindu right comes to town –  declaring that this or that text should not be taught in the university, or this or that painting should not be seen, or this or that film should not be shown – the secular left-liberal intelligentsia in India automatically gets outraged, signs petitions, holds press conferences and generally vents it righteous anger. I know this because I do all these things, along with all my friends. I sign the online petitions, attend the demonstrations, express my anger and do some (or all) of that which needs to be done, that should be done. We should never give an inch to the hoodlums of Hindutva.

However, when it comes to responding to the equally aggressive, reactionary and utterly arbitrary actions of sections of the Muslim clergy and other self appointed leaders on the ‘Muslim Right’ a strange inertia seems to take hold of the best and boldest foot-soldiers of secularism in India.

At best, there is an embarrassed looking away, a mortified silent wish that the troublesome objects and subjects of a specifically Muslim variety of intolerance would just melt away. Substantially, this pained reticence amounts to a secret hope that there were no living differentiated Muslims in our midst to actually engage with (to stand with and stand against, depending on context and circumstance) as opposed to simply undifferentiated dead Muslims that can be elegantly mourned forever.

As any dedicated watcher of the great secular institution of the Hindi cinema will attest –  generally – a good Muslim dies sometime after the interval. That is how we know he is good. And so, curiously, a broad swathe of the left-liberal intelligentsia and Hindutva hoodlums arrive at the same conclusion, in a roundabout fashion. Both their worlds would be better off without the troublesome Musalman.

The Indian left-liberal’s critique of Hindutva amounts to an engagement with the presence of a Hindu way of life. It is in the end affirmative of something in Hindu life-worlds that is beyond Hindutva. Correspondingly, The Indian left-liberal’s refusal to develop a robust, concrete critique of Muslim fundamentalism (and its consequent denuding of the Islamicate cultural space) is symptomatic of a profound apathy regarding Islam and what happens to Muslim people. Which is why some liberal commentators have even found it possible to say that whatever is wrong with Hindutva is because of its ‘semitization’ – betraying thereby their profound prejudices against the ‘semitic’ (Judeo-Arabic) peoples and their cultures and beliefs.

Actually, lets face it, as long as Muslims are not being torched by Hindu mobs, the Indian left-liberal could not care less about what happens to Muslims. And when people who call themselves Muslim are sat upon by Muslim hegemons, the Indian Left-Liberal really does not give a damn.

A few weeks ago, an exhibition centered around translations of the Quran organized by the Ahmediya Community was being held, peaceably, at the Constitution Club in New Delhi – (a mere few minutes away from the office of SAHMAT, the self appointed guardian of secular values). This exhibition was then forcibly shut down by a posse of ’eminent’ Muslims who threatened to come to the venue and create a general ruckus. They included prominent clerics (including the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid) claiming to represent mainstream Islam in India who were angry at the fact that Ahmediyas were ‘masquerading’ as Muslim, and displaying Quranic texts in public. The Shahi Imam and some of his retinue were briefly detained at the Darya Ganj police station. They were let go after being reassured that the exhibition had been closed. (it would be interesting to know how the administration prevailed upon the organizers of the event to shut down the exhibition). The incident was reported in the press. But no one seems to have found the time or the inclination to react to it.

The Ahmediyas (also known as Qadianis) who think of themselves as devout Muslims, are denounced by the leading lights of other Muslim denominations as apostates because of perceived differences on the interpretation of the role and limits of prophethood within Islam. Ahmediyas are a small minority, mainly active in South Asia. There may or may not be doctrinal reasons for mainstream Muslim clerics to express their distaste at the details of Ahmediya belief and practice. But that is of no interest to me. Exactly as the ‘sincerity’ or otherwise of Hindutva’s irritation with Ramanujan’s reading of the Ramayan is  a non-issue for me. What is crucial is whether or not some people will go unchallenged if they decide to prevent others from reading, looking at, or talking about something that happens to touch upon the questions of a shared world of faith and belief.

If this is a secular polity, as we claim it is, then what the Ahmediyas believe or do not believe, and how they interpret or translate a scriptural text is their business, and should not be anybody else’s. They can be criticized for it (in the severest possible terms if necessary, by those who feel obliged to do so, or by those who are offended or put upon), but they must not be silenced. And no call for their silencing should be tolerated. By no means should the state allow a powerful group to dictate terms to a less powerful group  about what it should or should not be doing. And if any organ of the state does succumb to this form of egregious blackmail,  it should be held to account for its failure of nerve.

No one is compelling, let alone asking an orthodox Deobandi to attend an Ahmediya event, or to read an Ahmediya text or translation. Precisely for that reason, the orthodox Deobandi, (or Shia, or Barelvi, or Ahle Hadis) personage has absolutely no right to prevent anyone else, Ahmediya or not, from attending an Ahmediya event, or reading an Ahmediya text or translation.

If we concede that Ahmediyas should not be allowed to peaceably assemble and disseminate their views, we have no right to protest against the hijacking of our cultural space by Hindutva. Then, we might as well anoint the Sangh Parivar as the rightful custodian of all that pertains to Hindus, Hindu belief and Hindu practice.

I was dismayed at the non-existent or at best lukewarm response that the Indian left-liberal establishment could offer up when Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie’s books were attacked by the Muslim right, and I remain dismayed at the utter indifference to yet another attack on the freedom of expression that has just occurred in broad daylight at the very heart of New Delhi, simply because the source of that attack came from a nominally ‘Muslim’ quarter of public opinion. I understand this as being a patronizing indifference and a lack of serious engagement with Islam and with people who call themselves Muslim. It is what prevents many (thankfully, not all) amongst the left-liberal intelligentsia from taking a strong stand against the misogynist, homophobic and downright reactionary tendencies that continue to go unchallenged amongst the self declared ‘leaders’ of the Muslim communities of South Asia. Ultimately, those who suffer because of this indifference are Muslims, including Muslim women, including minorities within minorities,because they are left to deal with the diktats of their ‘leaders and elders’ without any effective solidarity.

If we (and I have no hesitation in including myself) are to seriously challenge the nomenclatural assault of ‘pseudo-secularism’ that Hindutva hooligans hurl at us, we have to take a far tougher stance about intolerance, regardless of where it comes from.

Someone needs to say, and say very loudly, that Ahmediyas can and must be allowed to hold as many exhibitions and publish as many translations as they see fit. My ‘sentiments’ as a citizen have been grievously injured by the fact that some thug who calls himself a religious eminence has taken it upon himself to decide whether or not I can go and see a painting by M. F. Husain or an exhibition of translations of the Quran by a small religious sect.

Should my doubting self now feel compelled to threaten to commit arson, murder and unleash general mayhem and terror in order to have my ‘sentiments’ taken seriously? Or is that a privilege that our ‘secular’ polity only affords those who are more demonstrative in their piety?

POST SCRIPT : I recently came across an excellent article on the Outlook webste by the always illiminating Prof. C.M.Naim on the harrassment of Ahmediyas in India – here is a link to the article –

33 Comments leave one →
  1. Bobby permalink
    November 14, 2011 8:14 AM

    There lies the problem with how the “secular left-liberal” patronizes the “minority”. In a strange exercise in circular logic; Ahmadiyas are accorded minority status in such an imagination as Muslims (Sunni, Shias….. ?) – but Muslims (who?) do not recognise Ahmadiyas as part of them!! It boils down to homogenizing aversion. Thanks for pointing this out Shuddha

  2. amita kanekar permalink
    November 14, 2011 8:15 AM

    Very true. The same embarrassed near-silence (by the likes of me as well) was witnessed after that horrific incident in which Taslima Nasreen was attacked in Hyderabad, which was followed even more appallingly by a governmental apology to the attackers for inviting/allowing her to speak there!

  3. Jai permalink
    November 14, 2011 10:03 AM

    It is the lack of objectivity when it comes to challenging minority prejudices that provided the space for a ‘Hindu right’ to grow and gain mainstream support in the first place. If Rushdie offends somebody’s sentiments, and the Da Vinci Code offends somebody else’s, then so does Ramanujan. Where does it end? We have reached a stage of competitive intolerance. There are people just waiting to pounce on someone for ‘offending their sensibilities’. Husain deserved to die in India – just as much as we all deserve to read Rushdie’s book.

  4. Prabhakar permalink
    November 14, 2011 12:44 PM

    Kudos to Shuddhabrata Sengupta for writing this piece in Kafila! Other regulars in Kafila who are guilty of exactly the same attitude Sengupta is writing about should introspect why their credibility is low. Objectivity is paramount for establishing credibility.

  5. geeta seshu permalink
    November 14, 2011 1:21 PM

    Thanks for the piece – and the information about this too. I do agree we need to be totally even-handed in responding to all such eforts to silence differing points of view (irrespective of whether they are from the far right, the casteist, the anti-casteist, the left-liberal, feminist, secular, pseudo-secular and other permutations and combinations).

    So, while this silence is disturbing, the noise generated by protests from the Hindu right is also something we need to examine more carefully. I refer to the inordinate mainstream media coverage accorded to any protest from the Hindu right against any perceived attack on their cultural traditions. At some level, this media accepts the contention of these janjagruti groups that their traditions are under attack and the coverage ensures more currency to these views and more support to them.

    • Karumadikkuttan permalink
      November 18, 2011 1:22 PM

      how a insane comment is yours! Even a fool could grasp how hell bent is our msm in demonising and defaming hindu organisations.

  6. shama zaidi permalink
    November 14, 2011 1:54 PM

    there has been a lot of anguish in sites like understanding islam. unfortunately the government and the media always supports the fundoos amongst the muslim community as in the the shah bano case. lemon, a right wing television channel covered this exhibition in great detail by interviewing bokhari (i refuse to call him imam) the self-appointed keeper of the jama masjid in delhi. he was allowed to make blanket statements about the beliefs of the ahmediyas without any proof whatsoever. and no ahmediya was asked to rebut these statements or explain their actual beliefs either.

  7. Anwar permalink
    November 14, 2011 4:49 PM

    last september the same happened
    ‘Koran Exhibition in Delhi Shut Down By Indian Islamic Clerics; Ahmadi Muslims Accused of Distributing ‘Distorted’ Koran’.

  8. Syed Mohd Bilal permalink
    November 14, 2011 7:23 PM

    Completely agree with the post. One who does not approve of the ideology should not attend the events but no one has any right whatsoever to resort to violence.

  9. Dr.Mohan Rao permalink
    November 14, 2011 7:46 PM

    Just to say, this Left-Liberal was there at the exhibition, pleading that the organisers not close the show. They shut it down not in deference to the Muslim protestors who were there but because the Delhi police more or less ordered them to.
    Incidentally too there were protests about this in the online site moderated by Siddiqi – Muslim voices protesting. But of course the media and others do not hear these voices.

    • November 15, 2011 1:14 PM

      Thank you, Dr. Rao, for your comment, good to know that you were there. The point is not of individual voices protesting. (although that is of course important). It would be good if, say, an oranization like SAHMAT were to put out a statement condemning the threats, and the role of the Delhi police in shutting down the exhibition. I am sure that a strongly worded SAHMAT statement condemning the closure of an Ahmediya exhibition would get adequate press coverage.

  10. Varun Shekhar permalink
    November 14, 2011 7:58 PM

    Sengupta raises a legitimate issue, but as with most of the Left, tries to indulge in a little equal-equal to start the process. There is no equivalence in the threshold of tolerance, between the “Hindutva” groups, and the Moslems in general. Hindutva is offended by the more gratuitous anti-Hindu portrayals in the media and academia. Whereas Moslems in general, and of course even more so the outright fundamentalists, are against even a little criticism of Islam, including its history. Hindutva has no issue with different theologies, or non-theologies like atheism and agnosticism, or their open expression. Moslems have traditionally strongly disliked these stances and outlooks.

    • Ghulam Mohiyuddin permalink
      November 15, 2011 7:55 AM

      Sengupta is inadequately informed about Muslim reaction to Imam Bukhari’s thugs attacking the Ahmadi exhibition. Several comments condemning that attack were posted in at least two major Muslim websites. The dialogue has been extendded now to articles followed by comments denouncing the ostracization of Ahmadis especially in Pakistan, but also by the conservative clergy in India. For those who do not know the degree to which Ahmadis have been rejected and reviled so far, this is a major step forward, and it promises to lead to further liberalization in Muslim attitudes. This is not to minimize the fact that the Muslim right is very regressive and rigid and has a long way to go in understanding and accepting secularism.

      • November 15, 2011 1:11 PM

        It is good to know that what the author of the above comment calls ‘Muslim’ websites have published comments condemning the attack. Links would be appreciated. In any case, my criticism is not so much about a lack of ‘Muslim’ response as it is about the inertia of the left-liberal constituency when it comes to the question of being alert to Muslim and Hindu Fundamentalism on an equal footing.

  11. Ingersoll permalink
    November 14, 2011 11:39 PM

    Varun Shekhar, regardless of the theological differences between Hindutva groups and their extremist Muslim counterparts, they are both just as brutal and quick to violence. The supposed theological tolerance of the Hindutva movement hasn’t diminished its tendency to resort to violence.

    People are free to criticize, to be offended at or find blasphemous whatever they wish, but we must draw the line at physical harm and coercion regardless of who’s doing it.

  12. Mukul Dube permalink
    November 15, 2011 7:34 AM

    Bringing up this matter was necessary; and it is to be hoped that this will be the beginning of a substantial debate.
    I can vouch for the fact that Hindutva, as well as “Moslems in general”, do not take kindly to atheism. Why does this man paint Hindutva as tolerant?

  13. shama zaidi permalink
    November 15, 2011 10:27 AM

    actually the contrast should not be between an organic set of beliefs and practices which come under the name of hinduism and religions founded by a personality. the comparison should be between religions which are founded by an inspirational personality:jainism, buddhism, sikhism which are indian based with west asian religions like christianity, islam and zoroastrianism. how much freedom do these faiths give for the type of criticism which a lot of muslims object to?

  14. November 15, 2011 5:10 PM

    Varun Shekhar writes, “Whereas Moslems in general, and of course even more so the outright fundamentalists, are against even a little criticism of Islam, including its history.”

    And Ramanujam’s Ramayan essay is not even a criticism of Hindus or the religion!

    • bigboss permalink
      November 15, 2011 7:38 PM

      Anybody see any irony here about Shivam not commenting on an entire essay on about the left-liberal silence on Muslim fundamentalism and instead latching on to a single isolate comment to criticize Hindutva? Delicious!!!

    • Ghulam Mohiyuddin permalink
      November 18, 2011 11:16 PM

      “Bukhari and Friends, will say they are “non-Muslims””

      Both sides claim to be Muslims, hence it is a sectarian dispute. The dispute is about how to interpret one line in the Quran. Hindus who claim to be Muslims can join in (just joking!). Non-Muslims can certainly make contributions by pointing out how they deal with similar conflicts. But as to whether left-liberals should see this dispute as a mirror image of Delhi University’s purging of Ramanujan, Jyoti Punwani probably has a point.

  15. Varun Shekhar permalink
    November 15, 2011 7:25 PM

    “Varun Shekhar, regardless of the theological differences between Hindutva groups and their extremist Muslim counterparts, they are both just as brutal and quick to violence..”

    Again, note the word ‘threshold’. It takes much more to rile a ‘Hindutva’ supporter than an Islamist or common Moslem. Hindutva has no issue with the freedom to be atheist or agnostic, provided there is no gratuitously insulting or demeaning portrayal of Hindus or Hinduism. Hindutva is far less prone to be critical of eclecticism and syncretism, than Islamists, or for that matter, Christians. You hear several reports of Christians and Moslems strongly denouncing anyone from their ‘flock’ attending Hindu ceremonies( as in the US recently, or in Mizoram or Maldives) but nothing from the Hindu side.

  16. Ghulam Mohiyuddin permalink
    November 15, 2011 11:27 PM

    On another blog, Jyoti Punwani comments on Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s article thus: “i agree with the writer that this was a show of intolerance, but i am not sure that non-muslims should have commented on it, as it involved 2 muslim sects.”

    Since Sengupta, responding to my previous post, asked me for links, here are a couple:

    The twelve comments on the second article are noteworthy. They could not even have been imagined a few years ago.

    • Jai permalink
      November 18, 2011 2:26 PM

      While these links are helpful – they do not address Shuddhabrata’s point – which is about the hypocrisy of people claiming to be ‘liberal’ or subscribing to left-wing values. It is not meant to be targeting of the Muslim community.

  17. November 18, 2011 12:15 PM

    “but i am not sure that non-muslims should have commented on it, as it involved 2 muslim sects.”

    Hasn’t the exhibition provoked precisely that – who is a muslim and who is not? Why, then even the Ahmadiyyas should not comment, because Bukhari and Friends, will say they are “non-Muslims”

  18. C. M. Naim permalink
    November 19, 2011 6:43 AM

    Mr Sengupta’s excellent essay came to my attention when I was struggling with an essay of my own. It helped me find my way to the end. And I should thank him. The new essay entitled “The Deadening Silence of Good Intentions” is now up on the site. The proper link is:

    It is good to see the issue is being taken seriously. I should mention that at least in the English press in India several people have taken strong stand against the violence and persecution directed toward the Ahmadis. Despite what happened to Salman Tasir.

    • Ghulam Mohiyuddin permalink
      November 19, 2011 12:25 PM

      Prof. Naim article in Outlook is very informative and insightful and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

    • Shuddhabrata Sengupta permalink
      November 22, 2011 2:43 AM

      Dear Prof. Naim,

      Many thanks for your comment, and the link to your exceptional article in Outlook. Thank you also for your very welcome note on the history of Quran translation in South Asia in that article. I hope your voice makes it possible for many other voices to speak up. This is a very serious matter, and the fact that someone like you, who I have read with great regard, affection and respect for many years is speaking up on this matter is very heartwarming.


    • Syed Sohail Ahmad ,New Delhi permalink
      November 26, 2011 10:28 PM

      Janab CM Naim and Shuddhabrata Sengupta , I would like to Thank you both for highlighting this widespread discrimination and prejudice against the Ahmadi Muslims,

      May Allah Bless you.

      For more information about the ongoing persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Please follow the below link.

  19. jaki ahamad permalink
    November 20, 2011 11:37 AM

    Dear Shuddhabrata Sengupta Sir, I am grateful to you for raising voice against atrocities against the Ahmadiyya Quran Exhibition. If you go through the Urdu newspaper coverage it indicates Syed Ahmad Bukhari and his followers want to implement the anti Ahmadiyya ordinance passed by the Pakistan National assembly, it clearly indicates there distrustful attitude towards there motherland(India) and it is against Hadith of Holy Prophet Hadrath Muhammad(SAS)
    The Hadith is” Loyalty to Mother Land is Part of Faith”

  20. November 24, 2011 6:48 PM

    I fully endorse Shuddhas views, but I have another ‘off topic’ point to make…and I quote from one of the exhibition panels as shown by the picture in the Outlook article: “The concept of the expanding universe has been universally accepted by the scientific community as fact. This discovery was first made by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s. Yet some thirteen centuries before this, it was clearly mentioned in the Quran: and the heaven we built our own powers and indeed we go on expanding it. 51:48”

    I mean puhleezze…We need placards outside this exhibition for sure, but for very different reasons! :)


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