“Hum kisi deen ke hon qael-e-kirdar to hain, namleva hain Muhammad ke parastar to hain” (Whatever religion we belong to, we respect nobility of character. We revere Mohammad and are among his devotees) . This verse was composed and publicly recited many times by a prominent son of our homeland, the late Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar.
Respect by the followers of one religion for the sages and seers of another is part of Indian culture. In the 1920s, the eminent poet-philosopher of the subcontinent Muhammad Iqbal described Sri Ram as “the Imam-ul-Hind” (India’s greatest spiritual guide), Mahatma Buddha as “Gauhar-e -yakdana” (dazzling jewel in crown of India), and Guru Nanak as “Mard-e-kamil” (seer par excellence). A little later, at a public event, Mahatma Gandhi described the Prophet as “a seeker of truth who today exerts an unquestioned influence on the hearts of millions of men” (Harijan, July 1934). It is unfortunate that an eminent religious figure whose nobility of character, a scholar of the stature of Admired Bedi, is now scorned, ignoring the words of the Father of the Nation about his “hold on the hearts of millions”.
The recent comments about the Prophet in televised debates, which have outraged the Muslim world, did not come out of nowhere. A few weeks earlier, during a religious event, monks had seen fit to say unpleasant things about the founder of Islam. If holy people see nothing wrong with vituperation, why would ordinary men and women hold back? But then, where did they find these stories about the Prophet? What they said about the Prophet must have been based on hearsay, but this hearsay came from some thoughtless statements in old Urdu books, some of them by Muslim writers. Of course, these claims have been forcefully refuted by modern scholars of Islam. But why would unscrupulous critics bother to seek the truth?
Many stories from ancient religious books – from all communities in fact – may not be compatible with modern concepts of human rights and gender justice. However, we are not old enough to indulge in the religious polemics of yesteryear. We are citizens of a modern nation whose Constitution is secular and subjects us to a fundamental duty – “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood among all the peoples of India”. We must live by these ideals and stop looking for controversial elements in outdated religious literature to fight us, to the detriment of the national interest.
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The Indian Penal Code contains a chapter on “Offences Relating to Religion”. It aims to ensure that the people of this multi-religious country respect each other’s faith. Originally it contained four sections (295-98) the last of which dealt with the offense of “uttering words with the willful intent to injure the religious feelings of any person”. A new section (295A) was added in 1927 to establish penalties for “willful and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. In the background, there was a defamatory blast incident against Islam and its founder. Commenting on the new provision two years later, Judge William Baker of the Bombay High Court observed that “a violently abusive and obscene diatribe against the founder or prophet of a religion or against a religious system will amount to an attempt to ‘stir up hatred or enmity against people who follow this religion’ (Ambalal Paragji, 1929). Significantly, contemporary international human rights law agrees with this position under Indian law. In a judgment handed down in 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the defamation of the prophet of Islam “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put in jeopardize religious peace”.
I was brought up in a family where the children were taught to respect the spiritual figures of ancient India, as they could be divine messengers corresponding to the Quranic verse proclaiming “God has sent prophets to all parts of the world, all of whom are not mentioned here”. However, I am not a religious person and I do not regard the Prophet as a superhuman figure performing miracles, as many Muslims do, but as a revolutionary social reformer who, in the words of the eminent Indian jurist the late Laxmi Mall Singhvi, was “a thousand years ahead of his time.” Yet I, too, am disgusted at how some brethren in our country freely use offensive language for the great reformer, whom the American scholar Michael Hart has ranked first among a hundred names in The 100: Ranking of the most influential persons in history (1978).
Indian law empowers its authorities to nip any such wrongdoing in the bud. The persistent lack of proper legal action in an overly sensitive issue is angering the public. The anguish of the Muslim masses over condemnable incidents of insulting their Prophet is understandable, but its violent expression also tarnishes its fine reputation. Such a reaction to his denigration by a few misinformed individuals cannot be justified on the touchstone of what is called in law the “choice of evil”. The remedy for the abominable social evil of religious conflicts lies more than in the codes of law, and in the renewal of communal bonhomie.
At the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, the great Indian saint Swami Vivekananda said of the religion and the nation he represented: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught to the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We not only believe in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true. The world expects us to continue to honor his godly words in letter and spirit.
The author is a professor of law and a former member of the Law Commission of India