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Why protecting Nupur Sharma is the duty of every Indian who believes in the rule of law and democracy

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Nupur Sharma’s remarks about Prophet Mohammed in a TV debate have gone viral on social media and even attracted diplomatic fury of Middle East (ME) countries. In India, exchanging the crass remarks in the overheated TV debates is not unusual. But, the recent phenomenon of issuing death and rape threats to her is a dangerous trend that should worry everyone who believes in the rule of law and the existence of civilized society. Equally and if not more concerning is the summoning of Indian diplomates by a group of ME countries seeking an explanation that tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of the democratic, plural and multi-faith society of India, a like of which never existed in the ME nation-states for several centuries and not even till today.

India has a constitutional framework which empowers institutions to protect the rights of citizens. Freedom of expression with reasonable restrictions is spelt out in the Indian constitution, which gives right to anybody who finds the comments of Ms Sharma insulting, can challenge them in the court to ascertain if she has hurt the sentiment of followers of the Muslim faith.

Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India states that, “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. The philosophy behind this Article lies in the Preamble of the Constitution, where a solemn resolve is made to secure to all its citizen, liberty of thought and expression. The exercise of this right is, however, subject to “reasonable restrictions” for certain purposes being imposed under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. Source: LegalServiceIndia.

Centuries of living under monarchies founded on religious precepts, ME countries are naturally blind to the ethos of India, where millenniums old dharmic traditions foster questioning the religious texts, challenging the contradictions, and not accepting a unipolar interpretation of god, god’s word or god’s book. Even Islam thrived under this system but same can not said of patronage to other religions in Islamic ME countries. One can not blame them but one could expect them to be mindful of the Indian culture and traditions.

It is a reasonable guess that the people presently living in the middle east will not live long enough to see a participatory democracy like India taking shape in the region, where people’s ballots choose the representatives who frame the laws that evolve unlike the laws frozen in time. Discussions and debates play a vital role in a democracy like India and the laws define the limits of expression and the courts interpret them. No such system exists in the middle-eastern world.

India and ME countries have centuries-old economic and cultural ties that can only hold together by the imperative that both sides respect each other’s internal matters and not be swayed by the local matters that get blown up at the international level by the power of social media. Despite of having serious concerns on the restricted rights of minorities, beheadings of Indian citizens and mandatory imposition of religious practices like veil on non-muslims, India shows restraint by not interfering in their internal matters.

For example, Hindus and Buddhists can not practice their religions as freely as they can in predominantly Christian countries. Non-Islamic Religious charitable fundraisers are restricted and even attract heavy financial penalties if get caught. Archaic practices like blood money (A practice that legally permits a murderer to skip a death sentence or imprisonment for monetary compensation to the victim’s kins) are prevalent. Recently in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic organization offered to pay the blood money on behalf of a Sikh murder convict under the condition that he converts to Islam. India has over 300 thousand mosques but three million Hindus in the ME have less than five temples and no Hindu temple in Saudi Arabia, which is home to half a million Hindus. Conversion to other faith attracts death penalty which Indians will find unthinkable.

The audacious act of Qatar and other small countries in the region summoning Indian diplomats just before the state visit of the Indian vice president to Qatar is typical of knee-jerk reactions, like boycotting French products in 2020, these nation states undertake, which is unlikely to be seen in the mature democracies like India. India will have to deal with reaction by reminding them about the abhorrent beheadings of Indians, ill-treatment of migrant workers and lack of religious freedoms, which are unacceptable in the modern world before they put India under spotlight for an insult that has no internationally accepted definition. We need to ask – did they consult the religious scholars before reaching the conclusion or it is just a game of coercion? Predominantly Sunni, ME countries even ban the Islamic Shia sects that have thrived in India for centuries. India need not be apologetic about the statement of Nupur Sharma and ‘speedpost’ a befitting reply to the countries that are yet to be adopt the ethos of tolerance and justice as the India and liberal democracies take for granted.

The right to life is the most fundamental human rights that liberal democracies bestow upon the citizens. However, the most liberal democracies have failed to uphold it in the wake of radical threats. The British author Salman Rushdie was forced to withdraw from the public life due to fatwa on his life. An Islamist murdered a French school teacher, Samuel Paty, in Paris for showing an educational graphic in school. A film maker Theo van Gogh lost his life under a knife in Amsterdam for making a movie critical of Islamic practices. A group of people inspired by religious extremism killed Kamlesh Tiwari in India. The list of the names is long and it is punctuated by the failure of liberal democracies to protect its citizens and letting the legal system to decide the punishment.

It will be a colossal failure and shame for the modern nation of India if Nupur Sharma or her family gets harmed in any manner by the same ideological extremists. They are leaving no stone unturned to turn a lonely person to take revenge and be blessed in return. Therefore, the political system and the people of India must protect her even if a political party has disowned her. And it is not for what she has said, it is for what we are.

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