On Sunday, November 29, the Marathi daily Lokmat published an article on the Islamic State (ISIS) with the headline “ISIS cha paisa”, which roughly translates into “ISIS’ money”. What happened next will not blow your mind away, but will surely enrage and infuriate you if you care even slightly about freedom of expression.
Muslims across the state of Maharashtra took to the streets, burnt copies of the newspaper and vandalised the paper’s offices in Akola and Jalgaon. They had taken umbrage to a caricature of a piggybank that accompanied the article. The caricature, which resembled a pig – as piggybanks, one would assume, are supposed to – had the Prophet’s signature inscribed on it. The signature, called the seal ring of the Prophet, reads, “Muhammad Rasul Allah”, or Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
In the wake of the protests (read, hooliganism) the Lokmat group issued an apology on its website, a copy of which it carried in today’s paper too.
So, what pissed people off so much? The article in question spoke of how funds are being poured into ISIS, across nationalities and currencies. The piggybank, therefore, does come across as a reasonable, if slightly provocative, accompanying image.
One of the people leading the protests was the Member of Legislative Assembly from Malegaon, Shaikh Asif Shaikh Rashid. The Congress politician, speaking over the phone, said that it was unacceptable that the paper used the Prophet’s signature along with an image of a pig. “The media is supposed to be a justice delivery mechanism, not a propaganda vehicle against a community,” he insisted. When it was pointed out to him that the ISIS too used the signature on its logo, Rashid said that he had organised multiple protests against the IS and he didn’t subscribe to their world view.
What about freedom of expression? “We won’t tolerate misrepresentation of the Prophet.” Rashid, who was responsible for one of the First Information Reports (FIRs) being filed against Lokmat’s illustrator and editor, said the apology wasn’t enough and he would press for investigation against the newspaper. “Today one newspaper published something and then apologised; tomorrow other publications will follow suit. I appeal for some kind of action,” he asserted.
Incidentally, the Lokmat group is owned by Vijay Darda, a veteran Congress leader.
Lokmat’s group editor Dinkar Raikar said it was a “goof-up” on the newspaper’s part. “An illustrator who didn’t know much about things picked up a random image and used it. We should have checked,” he said. Raikar insisted that the newspaper didn’t want to hurt anyone’s sensibilities and so an unconditional apology was issued. Raikar, curiously, doesn’t see it as a freedom of expression issue.
The Lokmat group has decided to play it safe. It is well within its right to do so. In the process, though, it – and, indeed, the Indian media – has lost a great chance to push the envelope. When staffers of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were gunned down by fanatics, it stood defiant. The few surviving people at the magazine refused to apologise and continued to do what they do: make mockery of religious extremism and challenge status quo.
The Lokmat group has cowered down without even putting up a semblance of a fight, giving the likes of Rashid yet another shot in their sorry arm.
That a media house, with the wherewithal to fight a good legal battle, gave up so easily on their freedom of expression – one of the fundamental tenets of a press and independent press – serves to only embolden people who think it’s alright to physically intimidate if they don’t like something.
Make no mistake: people have the right to feel offended, just as there is a right to offend. Vandalism of property and physical violence, however, are what thugs and goons do to register protest. This was a great opportunity to set the record straight for once and all: if you don’t like something, you ignore it or you contest it with your own constitutionally legitimate counter-narrative. Not only is that chance gone now, a horribly wrong precedent has been set.