On December 11, The Times of India reported that close to one hundred thousand Muslims had gathered in the communally-sensitive town of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh the previous day, demanding death for a certain Kamlesh Tiwari.
Tiwari, it is alleged, called the Prophet the world’s first homosexual. Just to give you an idea of how large a congregation that is: the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement during its peak in August 2011 clocked a daily average of around 15,000 footfalls.
But was the spectacle more of an orchestrated show of strength than a voluntary mass objection to Tiwari’s remarks? The size and timing of the gathering (Tiwari had already been arrested almost a full week before the protest) suggests as much. Because let’s face it: no Tina, Diksha and Henna can mobilise one lakh people just like that.
While local journalists reporting on the story believe that the Samajwadi Party (SP) played its part, there is near unanimous consensus that the party wasn’t the driving force. It was an organisation few people outside western Uttar Pradesh would have heard of: the Ittehad-e-Millat Council.
Ittehad-e-Millat’s mission, according to its website, is “to make every citizen of Bharat feel that he/she is not inferior in any respect, particularly loyalty to his/her motherland, to anyone”. “Our vision is to create the atmosphere of pre–Independence era where each and every son and daughter of this soil joined hands – be it a Ashfaq Ullah Khan, Bhagat Singh, a Chandra Shekhar Azad or an even a Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – to irrigate the plant of freedom with their sweat and blood under the farmer-ship of Gandhi Ji, Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad,” the organisation’s website proclaims.
Rather noble and innocuous, then? The rhetoric yes, but not so much its track record. Ittehad-e-Millat was founded in 2001 by Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan – the man widely believed to be behind the fatwa against Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen.
Speaking over the phone from Bareilly, Khan is reluctant to talk about Nasreen: “This is an old issue now.” Old enough for him to withdraw the bounty of Rs 5 lakh on the author’s head? “She is a criminal; the government will decide that,” he says. (Just for the record: no Indian court ever found Nasreen guilty on any account.)
Khan, however, is more than willing to speak about last week’s happenings. So what upset Khan so much that he wants the government to hang Tiwari? “It’s not about Kamlesh; people who say such stuff are hurting our country’s Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb [secular ethos]. They want to destroy our country’s image,” he explains. Tiwari’s intentions, Khan claims, are not to hurt the Muslim community, but to gain cheap publicity. “He just wants the media to cover him since he’s a nobody. Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Hindu Mahasabha have disowned him.”
While Khan maintains that this is not a Hindu-Muslim issue, he insists that Muslims have always been more considerate towards Hindu’s sentiments. “Have you ever heard of any Muslim making fun of Hindu gods or talking ill about them?” Well, what about a certain gentleman called Akbaruddin Owaisi? “He didn’t make fun of any religious sentiments, though, what he said wasn’t correct either.” Then MF Hussain, perhaps? “He is an artist; he did it out of ignorance – and he paid the price for it. No pious Muslim advocates what he did.”
But then should that price have been paid at all? The old man couldn’t even visit the city he loved so dearly once before dying. What about that thing called freedom of expression? Wasn’t Hussain massively wronged? Khan’s deep-set baritone suddenly develops an edge: “Freedom of expression doesn’t mean you hurt someone’s religious beliefs.” The urgency and agitation in his voice suggest freedom of expression is an old enemy.
But what is the problem, really? That some dude called the man Khan believes to be his God, gay? “We will not tolerate any insults to the Prophet. He hurt our sentiments.” Tiwari, it seems, managed to hurt some sentiments (although that may not have been his intention if you were to believe Khan) too on his way to publicity and prison.
So what do Khan and his organisation want now? “A sedition law so strong that no one will ever dare to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments.” How strong is strong, though? “The law should have the provision for the harshest punishment.” How harsh? “Kade se kada [harsher than harsh] – the government will decide that. A lesson has to be taught,” says Khan.
Although the congregation at Muzaffarnagar, according to all accounts, was largely peaceful many in the mob did want a less than peaceful beheading. So does he condemn the violence Muslim protesters indulged in while demonstrating against a cartoon published by the Marathi daily Lokmat recently? “Absolutely not! They did the right thing. How could they draw a cartoon of something that has no form? Did they learn no lessons from the Danish cartoon controversy?” Again, just for the record: the episode Khan wants Lokmat to draw a lesson from involves a bunch of satirical cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005. The cartoons led to at least one fatwa being issued against the cartoonist apart from some people demanding for his hands to be chopped off.
“If there is freedom of expression to draw cartoons, we should also be given the freedom to punish the cartoonist”. There is nothing in Khan’s tone and tenor that suggests he doesn’t mean what he is saying.
Khan, by the way, is not part of that enigmatic group popularly referred to as the “fringe”, like most people who are supposed to be part of the fringe. Till very recently, he was an adviser to the Uttar Pradesh government, and had a position equivalent to that of a Minister of State. He quit following what he calls disappointment over the Samajwadi Party’s failure to contain the Muzaffarnagar riots. Political grapevine in UP, though, has it that he fell out with the SP because he was denied a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Following that, he warmed up to the Aam Aadmi Party, even meeting Arvind Kejriwal. When Kejriwal came under fire for the meeting, he said he had “no idea about charges levelled against him”. For a veteran Right to Information activist, Kejriwal seems to carry very little information about people he interacts with. (His party spokesperson Ashutosh, on a television debate on Times Now last night, seemed to imply that the Chief Minister had no idea that there were serious corruption charges against his Principal Secretary.)
Just to check how deep-rooted Khan’s love for religious sentiments and disdain for personal liberty is: Should people be hanged for eating beef since it hurts Hindu’s religious sentiments? “There are no two ways about it – they absolutely must be. The cow is holy to Hindus, so I’ve always said the government should ban its sale and slaughter.”
You’ve got to give a man the credit he deserves: Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan is a secular bigot par excellence.