“I want to ask the English media, should the community not have gone to the police station? Not adopted a democratic approach?” A month after the Hebdo killings and its repercussions here with the Shirin Dalvi case, Urdu newspaper editors talk to GEETA SESHU.


Posted/Updated Monday, Feb 09 19:46:59, 2015

A month after the dastardly attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine that left 12 people, including two police officers, dead, the world is still grappling with its implications for freedom of expression. Closer home, as the debate in the Urdu media over the cases lodged againstAwadhnama editor Shirin Dalvi indicate, the issue becomes enmeshed in a complicated cocktail of religious sensitivity, media freedom and responsibility.

Despite an apology printed the very next day after Dalvi published one of the covers of the magazine on January 17, multiple cases were lodged against her on the charge of outraging religious feelings and insulting a religion under Sec 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). She was arrested and granted bail in one case, secured anticipatory bail in another and has a summons for another case pasted on her door as she had fled home. She has filed a petition before the Bombay High Court which is to come up today, February 9, seeking the quashing of the cases and, pending this, the clubbing of all the cases and bail in all the cases.

Last week, a press conference called by a newly formed journalists committee comprising ex-staffers of the newspaper to ‘expose’ her, came to nought when no evidence came forth on the allegations against her. Police, under pressure from complainants, filed cases against two newspaper vendors for selling copies of the newspaper though they only operated a stall selling a number of newspapers, and had no idea about the contents of Awadhnama or had sold it separately. Roundly criticized, police are now planning to drop the cases against the vendors.

Dalvi says the matter could have rested with the apology, but a controversy was fuelled by the coverage the issue got in local Urdu newspapers. Some sections of Urdu media alleged that she was a supporter of Bangladeshi writer in exile Taslima Nasreen, that she was a member of the women’s wing of the right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and that she went ahead with publication of the cartoon cover despite being dissuaded from doing so, all of which she categorically denied.

However, the editors of the two leading Urdu newspapers The Hoot spoke to believe that they actually behaved responsibly. “I don’t think the criticism against Urdu media is correct. There are two major Urdu newspapers (Inquilab and Urdu Times) and both handled the news very sensitively and sensibly,” says Intiyaz Ahmed, editor of Urdu Times. He added, “Our newspaper got a lot of calls but I told the people who protested that they must follow the law of the land. If some responsible NGOs lodged an FIR, then, it’ll make news. Then, the fight will be between the state and the journalist.”

Ahmed believes that the Urdu media didn’t hype the matter at all, instead it was the English media, specifically the reporting in Times of India and Mumbai Mirror, that did the ‘mischief’. “They said she was hounded and that an injustice was being done to her. But tell me, shouldn’t an FIR be registered if an offence is lodged? Shouldn’t we report that? Where is the victimization in this?”

The editor of Inquilab, Shahid Latif, concurs: “The English language newspapers are trying to make out that she was hounded and threatened. But this is an attempt to malign the community and urdu journalists. Nobody came out on the streets or protested. We have this image of a ‘thod-phod’ community but we adopted a very peaceful and democratic approach and went to the police station. I want to ask the English media, should the community not have gone to the police station? Not adopted a democratic approach?”

But it was Ahmed’s newspaper, the Urdu Times, that published a former staffer’s statement that he had dissuaded her from publishing the cartoon but she went ahead. The statement was later disproved as the staffer, Nehal Sageer, was not even in office at the time and had resigned a few days before. “He had a grievance and he called us and we reported it, just as we would report anything else, “ said Ahmed. Sageer had admitted in the press conference last week that he was not in office then. But the damage was done by the unsubstantiated reports.

Interestingly, the Urdu daily newspaper Hindustan, edited by Sarfaraz Arzoo, chose to suspend its publication for a day rather than be forced to report the issue! “I remained silent. Even letters sent to the editor were not printed. We don’t want to make a controversy where there is none.”

Arzoo, who believes that Dalvi is a victim of a witch-hunt, feels the issuance of an apology ‘finishes the matter.’ “The issue is now between her and her conscience. Why should others feel an apology is not enough?” he asks.

Ahmed, who said that Dalvi should have issued a proper press release with her apology and sent it to all the Urdu newspapers. “Now, the court will decide if it was given in good faith and the Muslim community should accept the court’s verdict. The Quran says that those who accept apologies are very big people,” he added. Not so Shahid Latif, who believes Shirin Dalvi’s apology lacked seriousness. “An apology should seem like one, not like a justification,” he said. A sorry, he added, means sorry, it should express deep regrets.

Latif’s referencing of the ‘apology’ as a ‘justification’ stems from Dalvi’s explanation in her editorial that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should not be taken as a representation of the Prophet Mohammed, merely because the magazine claimed so.

But for the editors of these two leading newspapers, any discussion on the contentious cartoons, leave alone their captions or the context in which they appeared, stops short at the cartoon reproduction of the Prophet, a figure that is, for them, beyond representation.  Dalvi also rejects any representation and assumed that her act of re-publishing it was a way of robbing the cartoons of the power of representation, but she regretted that her point in rejecting the cartoons was simply not understood.

Charlie Hebdo, freedom of expression and Urdu media

While the attack on the magazine was universally condemned, it has fuelled intense debates over the limits of satire and the reaction to offence. Attempts have been made to explain the two-level approach in using cartoons lampooning conservative politics and the uniquely French approach to such satire have been made amidst vociferous charges of racism and Islamophobic stereotyping of Muslims. Besides, the ongoing tension in France over discrimination towards immigrants and the ban on the veil last year, the debate also raged over the wisdom of Charlie Hebdo’s persistent ridiculing of religion and faith when it becomes, in the words of Charlie Hebdo chief editor Gerard Biard, entangled in politics.

In the Urdu media in Mumbai, the response to the attacks was uniformly condemnatory. “We believe the attack was un-Islamic. However, the argument of freedom of expression cannot be made when religious sentiments are hurt. These are our cultural values,” Ahmed said. On his part, Arzoo cautioned that the freedom of expression was not absolute, nor was the freedom to react. Shahid Latif, who believed that Urdu media was responsive to freedom of expression, said, “It is healthy but must have limits. Urdu media doesn’t say that we must limit freedom of expression in a way that people are silenced. But we should not hurt sentiments. People are exchanging ideas, there is inter-faith dialogue”.

Satire was not alien to Urdu literature, he said, adding that there was a long tradition of satire by poets and writers and subjects lampooned were political leaders or social attitudes. But some subjects are taboo.

“For Muslims, there exists no image of the Prophet Mohammed, so there is no question of drawing it. For Muslims, the image of the Prophet is lodged in memory,” says Javed Anand, the co-editor of Communalism Combat and founder member of the Musims for Secular Democracy.

Anand, who observes that the denial of the image makes it all the more powerful, says there is evidence of representation in Shia Islam for instance. But it is very difficult to even find Muslims who will speak on whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be published or not. “No one even discusses this as an option. There is no question of a rational discourse on this issue,” he said.

The Muslim community felt it was on the receiving end of the freedom of expression issues. “They do feel beleaguered. They don’t own media, they are constantly being lectured on how to behave and what to think. So yes, they discuss Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen but are generally very abusive towards them. They are routinely referred to as ‘enemies of Islam’ or agents of the West,” says Irrfan Engineer, director of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism.

As Anand says, any space for discussion is also limited by fears of being charged with blasphemy or, in the case of Muslims, of apostasy. “The space for liberals and atheists like me is completely eliminated. I was invited to a discussion on the problems of Muslims a while ago and people were saying that Muslims respect their religion and the Hindu community respects our faith. There is myth-making in terms of ‘you protect my religion, I’ll protect yours’ as communal harmony. But they also attacked liberals and kept referring to me in my presence as ‘yeh Irrfan jaise log’,” laughs Engineer.

Questions of larger issues of Muslims and development, education, employment, of riots and violence, or the radicalization of youth simply don’t figure. As Hasina Khan, feminist and activist on the rights of Muslim women says, “Urdu media discusses issues which fit into its larger world view. Issues of women for instance will be discussed in terms of the duties of Muslim women towards society,not the problems they face.”

When social organisations in Mumbai issued a statement on the Supreme Court judgement on Sec 377, for instance, Urdu media refused to publish it. “They said it was not part of their policy,” said Khan.

Latif believes the Urdu media does raise a voice on free speech issues. “We supported PerumalMurugan. He wasn’t known outside of Tamil media but I wrote an editorial ‘Murugan ke difa mein’ (In defence of Murugan).  There are misconceptions about Urdu media, that we only speak of our victimization and our problems. We do write on social issues, not on the freedom of the Togadias and the Singhals. I do believe the expression that my freedom to swing my arm ends where the other man’s nose begins,” he said.

Concurring, Ahmed says that Urdu media addresses issues of freedom of expression differently. “We tell people not to use loudspeakers on the Prophet’s birthday as it is un-Islamic. In Islam, photography is not allowed but the maulvis have said photography is allowed for passport applications. We do take up women’s issues. If you do a survey, you’ll find out how many women wear the hijab voluntarily,” he says, adding that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and, when new converts enthusiastically adopt its modes of dress and practices, BBC and CNN term these people ‘radicals’.

In a situation where religiosity is protected above all, freedom of expression becomes a project of the ‘enemies’ of Islam. That’s the prism with which they discuss it, not as a free speech as a democratic rights issue, Engineer adds. Given the prevailing chasms on free speech issues, where is the room for debate and discussion?