The arrest of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra by the Odisha police in New Delhi is a wake-up call which highlights how dysfunctional the state of Indian democracy is. It spotlights how major reforms are needed in favour of the freedom of the citizens, as are major restrictions are on the arbitrary authoritarianism of government.
Earlier this year, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)—which holds the government in Odisha with Naveen Patnaik as chief minister—suspended former Member of Parliament Baijayant Panda, who then resigned from the BJD. Iyer-Mitra, a friend of Panda’s, provided the BJD with an opportunity to “fix” the former MP when he posted a video taken from the Konark Temple. In the video, he called the temple a “humple”, slang for sex.
This gave the BJD an occasion to burn effigies of Panda and Iyer-Mitra in big protesting crowds, calling for FIRs against Panda for illegal overflights of the temple, and complaining of hurt to religious sentiments. Soon enough, Iyer-Mitra was arrested. The following should be pointed out: No one suffered violence. No one suffered monetary loss. No physical damage occurred. No act of terrorism was committed. The pilot is accused of violating an environmental rule, and Iyer-Mitra is accused of having said something rude. Yet we’re looking at a scandal in Delhi and an uproar in the Odisha Assembly.
If India is a free country where its citizens are free—free of rulers and imperial overlords—that means its citizens are free to speak their minds, free to believe what they choose and not what they are forced to, and free to tell others what they think. But if citizens are aggressively persecuted by the State for things they say, then Indian citizens are not free.
The Naveen Patnaik government’s persecution of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra shows that 70 years after independence, Indian citizens must remain fearful of crossing powerful sahibs who have enormous and arbitrary power. The promises of freedom and the end of arbitrary authority of officials over the people are as yet largely unmet. We have exchanged one set of rulers for another set, foreign for domestic, who have taken over the old imperial institutions of government and continue to treat citizens the same as before.
From here on out, India’s journey is going to be about whether Indians are heading towards freedom or not. Section 295A—“deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”—of the Indian Penal Code has to go. Freedom of speech must be strengthened in laws, and the powers of government and the courts to impinge upon it must be reduced. The powers of politicians and officials to use the powers of the courts and government to persecute political opposition and dissent must be curbed.
In a country as religious as India, with citizens, as shaped by their religious identity as Indians are, it’s anomalous for a law criminalising offence to religious sentiment to co-exist with democracy. The nature of democracy is public discourse and discussions of the issues that shape or plague society. This discourse is the basis of which political moods are built, elections are decided, laws are changed, and the future of the people changed.
In India, any commentary on socio-religious attitudes can be silenced by political opponents on grounds of offence to religious sentiment. People are encouraged to silence discussion on their religion, instead of empowered to engage in exciting, transformative public conversations about it. Religion is made into a prison for the people, instead of a vehicle to salvation and transformation.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra has become a case in point. If he is not allowed to argue that Hindus were more sexually liberated before than they are today—and that this is a result of the imposition of conservative, shame-infused moralities—how will Hindus be able to have a conversation of what they were, what they want to be, and how they’re doing towards reaching that ideal? Hinduism has a theology of discourse but is subject now to laws that silence and persecute those who dare to challenge or criticise religious thought.
It’s a law that dates from 1929, triggered by the infamous Rangeela Rasool case. The author of that work had been convicted under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code for writing in bad taste about the private life of Prophet Mohammad. The Lahore High Court set aside the conviction on the grounds that the author and objectors both being Muslim, the author did not cause enmity between different religions. The author was then murdered by Ilm-ud-Din and the British enacted Section 295A, making it illegal for anyone to insult anyone else’s religious feelings. Section 295A is so draconian that it does not even allow for a defence by the accused. You are guilty by the very nature of being charged.
Hindu society’s openness to discourse on religion was legislated out of existence because of Muslim intolerance for free speech on matters of religion and British imperial interests for managing occupied people. It has historically been a defining characteristic of Abrahamic faiths to treat religion and religious doctrine as absolutes dictated by God to his chosen prophets, to be saved from desecration and profanity at the pain of death. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have history and doctrine full of the vicious persecution of people charged with blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy.
The Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance in Europe allowed Christianity and Judaism both to enter a revolutionary new era of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and the primacy of democratic will, as opposed to the authority of totalitarian religious and ideological paradigms that allow no criticism, dissent or satire. This cannot be truly said about Islam; indeed in many Islamic countries even today, violence, persecution and murder are commonplace for words and actions that cause offence to Muslims.
All Indians have to ask whether British style authoritarian powers of present-day government to arrest and persecute the citizens will remain, or whether Indians are to achieve true freedom of mind and body from the clergy and the sahibs.
The persecution of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra underlines the failures of the Republic of India and the oppression of citizens’ freedoms. If these things do not change, India will remain in the third world, no matter what financial and economic indicators say in the present.