Shirin Dalvi, the editor of Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, was arrested in Mumbai for publishing a cartoon of the Charlie Hebdo cover. She is upset at efforts to defame her, she tells GEETA SESHU.

Posted/Updated Saturday, Jan 31 15:13:56, 2015

For a media that represents a predominantly Muslim readership or audience, articulating a different point of view is fraught with danger and misunderstanding,  as Shirin Dalvi, the editor of Avadhnama, a small Urdu newspaper in Mumbai, found to her detriment. She was arrested for publishing a cartoon of the cover page of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo

Shirin, who published the cartoon in the newspaper along with a news item of the statement of the Pope on January 17 this year, apologized the next day after protests broke out. Cases have been lodged against her in different police stations in Mumbai, Thane and Malegaon. The publication of the newspaper has been suspended indefinitely.

On January 28, Dalvi was arrested by Thane district police on charges of violating Sec 295 of the Indian Penal Code (outraging religious feelings by insulting a religion with malicious intent) on a complaint filed by Zubair Azmi, the Director, Urdu Markaz, and Ahmed Ejahar, the president of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh. She was granted bail immediately.

Dalvi, along with the newspaper’s Publisher Yunus Siddiqui, proprietor Taquadees Fatema, based in Lucknow and Managing Director Deepak Mhatre, have obtained anticipatory bail in another case filed against them on the same charge by the same complainants in N M Joshi Marg police station. The bail has been extended till February 4.

Dalvi told The Hoot, “Ilm ka jawab ilm se dena chahiye, maarne se nahi (knowledge must be answered by knowledge, not by killing). I apologized immediately for hurting people’s sentiments and even wrote a detailed editorial explaining my postion.” Earlier, she wrote in the newspaper condemning the killings of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, that a mere cartoon cannot be taken for a representation of the Prophet.

“When there is no photo of the Prophet, how can we accept this cartoon as a representation,” she argued. Her newspaper had always held the greatest respect for the Prophet and, on Eid this year, on the occasion of his birthday on January 4, a contest held amongst readers on what the Prophet meant to them was immensely popular, Dalvi said.

She decided to use the cartoon only to illustrate the point that the magazine’s circulation went up after the attack but this was misconstrued, she rued. Dalvi, who has been working in Urdu media for the last 25 years, is upset at the manner in which efforts were made to defame her. “There were reports in Urdu newspapers that a junior colleague had objected to the publication of the cartoon and that I told him that it would push up the circulation of my newspaper. This is a total lie! This colleague was not even in the office that day. One report said I was joining the women’s wing of the RSS. And another report says I was a follower of Tasleema Nasreen. This is the kind of propaganda being made against me, ” she said.

Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor, Hindustan daily spoke out against the treatment meted out to Dalvi. “This is witch hunting and motivated by animosity towards Shirin, not by love for The Prophet. These multiple cases are harassment. There is no substance in the allegations that she was dissuaded (from printing the cover of the magazine),” he said.

Shirin hasn’t done anything illegal, Arzoo said, as the cartoons were published by so many newspapers and were on so many websites.  Using the cartoon was an inadvertent, not intentional, mistake, She didn’t defy any law and she has apologized. That finishes the matter, he felt.

Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo issue within the Urdu media were divided, Arzoo said. “Everybody believes freedom of expression is not absolute, but freedom of reaction is also not absolute and there should be restraint.  Asked about the involvement of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh in the cases against Dalvi, Arzoo clarified that it was not the entire body, only one individual was against her.

When contacted by The Hoot, a few members of the Urdu media and literary fields privately admitted that life would be made very difficult for them if they spoke up as this was a ‘religious’ issue and a sensitive one. Shireen Dalvi, one of them asserted, had made a name for herself as a very good and learned editor but it was clear that business rivalries had played a role in the cases against her.

Dalvi, who has had to temporarily leave home and seek shelter elsewhere with her two teenaged children, rues the effect the controversy has had on her family. Her family was threatened and her children have not been able to attend college. Despite this, her family has been very supportive of her and is concerned about her safety.

“I have built up a very good reputation as a journalist and was the first woman editor of an Urdu newspaper. I have spoken up on women’s issues. I am well versed with the Quran and believe we must study the religion and interpret it correctly according to what is laid down. But these people are trying to distort all my work and defame me for my thinking and understanding,” she said.