Statement by Indian intellectuals on Syed Shahabuddin's attempt to make the authorities impose a ban on the book Hindu View of Christianity and Islam by Ram Swarup

We strongly condemn all recent attempts in India and abroad to prevent free inquiry into the history and the doctrines of religions, whether

1. by intimidation and murder of the authors, translators, publishers and printers: as with the threats against Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Rachid Mimouni, Aziz Nesin; physical assault on Rushdie's Italian and Norwegian translators and on Prof. Mushir-ul Hasan; murders of Rushdie's Japanese translator and of numerous Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish and Algerian writers, including Farag Foda, Ugur Mumçu, Md. Boukhobza, Tahar Djaout, and the 36 secularist intellectuals burned alive in Sivas;

2. by their judicial execution or incarceration: as with Alaa Hamid and his printer and publisher incarcerated in Egypt, Sadek Abdel-Kerim Malallah beheaded in Saudi Arabia, and others sentenced in Pakistan (including a handicapped person and a child), Saudi Arabia and the UAE;

3. by government action to hurt them in their professional lives: as with the sacking of the French civil servant Jean-Claude Barreau to appease protesting Arab governments;

4. or by the imposition of a ban on printed or audio-visual documents or on free assembly and free speech: as with the ban on Taslima Nasreen's Lajja in Bangladesh, and on many other books and films throughout the Muslim world and India, ranging from popular TV serials such as Bible ki Kahaniyan (broadcast suspended on Doordarshan) to strictly scholarly publications such as R.M. Eaton's Sufis of Bijapur.

In particular, we condemn the attempt by Syed Shahabuddin to make the Indian authorities impose a ban on the book Hindu View of Christianity and Islam by Ram Swarup, published by Voice of India, New Delhi, 1992. This book is one of the first serious comparative studies of religion written from the Hindu viewpoint; banning it would be a direct attack on the right of Hindu society to develop an intellectual response to ideological challenges.

We also condemn the pending ban on Ram Swarup's earlier publication Understanding Islam Through Hadis, a faithful summary in modern language of the authoritative Hadis collection Sahih al-Muslim, banned in 1990 in spite of twice having been declared unobjectionable by the Delhi administration's screening committee.

We remind the Government of India and the public that an earlier book-banning petition by Syed Shahabuddin (The Satanic Verses, 1988) was not only the start of an international controversy about the banned book itself, including riots in which demonstrators and others were killed; but also signalled the start of a worldwide crackdown on freethinkers critical of the doctrine or the current performance of Islam (dozens of post-1988 cases have been mentioned above). A new concession to the attempts of fanatics to clamp an Emergency on India, in which only praise but no critical inquiry of their religion is allowed, could have equally serious consequences. Treating Syed Shahabuddin as the conscience-keeper of the nation is a dangerous game.

We are aware that the prohibition of critical inquiry into the doctrine and history of Islam has been an intrinsic feature of Islamic regimes including Medina, the Caliphate, the Sultanates and the contemporary Islamic Republics. In British India, the prohibition was sought to be imposed through direct action, e.g. the murders of Pandit Lekh Ram and Swami Shraddhananda. The British colonial rulers retained some of this prohibition in the more subtle from of Art. 295A and Art. 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which are still in force in independent India. Now that these laws are once more invoked to harass and intimidate a writer and his publisher, we call for a public debate on whether laws limiting the freedom of inquiry are compatible with the secular and democratic principles of our Republic.

We are also aware that the prohibition on critical examination of Christianity is a thing of the past even in Christian countries; that modem Christians are rather ashamed of this aspect of Christian history and have no desire to see this prohibition re-enacted in India. Christianity has been discussed threadbare, as has Hinduism; there is nothing about Islam that should make it immune against similar examination. We demand the same right of free inquiry which the citizens of Christian countries have come to enjoy under the impact of modernity. We insist all the more on this freedom of inquiry because it has always been a native endowment of Indian culture as well.

Delhi, 18 November 1993

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