Journalists arrested for 'offending Islam'
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta
The editor and publisher of a top English-language Indian daily have been arrested on charges of "hurting the religious feelings" of Muslims.
The Statesman's editor Ravindra Kumar and publisher Anand Sinha were detained in Calcutta after complaints.
Muslims said they were upset with the Statesman for reproducing an article from the UK's Independent daily in its 5 February edition.
The article was entitled: "Why should I respect these oppressive religions?"
It concerns the erosion of the right to criticise religions.
In it, the author, Johann Hari, writes: "I don't respect the idea that we should follow a 'Prophet' who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him."
Mr Kumar and Mr Sinha appeared in court on Wednesday and were granted bail.
Angry Muslims have been demonstrating in front of the offices of the Statesman since its republication of the article.
Police have broken up the demonstrations using baton charges several times this week.
Some Muslims close to the Jamiat-e-Ulema e Hind (The Organisation of Indian Scholars, a leading Islamic group in India) later filed a complaint with police alleging that the publication had "outraged their religious feelings", which is an offence under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code.
Mr Kumar has said he has already issued a public apology for reproducing the article.
"I admit it was an editorial misjudgement but it was never intentional," Mr Kumar told the BBC in an interview.
Editor arrested for 'outraging Muslims'
India too is struggling to cling to freedom of speech
By Subhajit Banerjee
13 Feb 2009
The editor and publisher of an Indian newspaper have been arrested on charges of "outraging religious feelings" after they reproduced an article published in a London newspaper.
Last week, Calcutta's 133-year-old English daily The Statesman reprinted Johann Hari's Why should I respect these oppressive religions? from the Independent, which caused outrage among a section of the city's significant Muslim population. In particular, they objected to a remark made about Prophet Muhammad having sexual intercourse with a minor.
Angry protesters clashed with police outside the newspaper's offices (which has Calcutta's largest mosque right in front of it), bringing the city centre to a standstill. Peace returned only after the arrest of the editor Ravindra Kumar and publisher Anand Sinha, who were subsequently released on bail.
Having grown up in Calcutta and worked briefly for the Statesman in the early 2000s, I feel greatly concerned by the way that religious intolerance is rearing its head in India's cultural capital and alarmed at the dangerous precedent this incident sets for press freedom.
Britain is grappling with these issues, but in India the backdrop is more volatile. In a country that has seen some of the worst communal riots over the past few decades - the Gujarat massacre of 2002 and Babri mosque demolition in 1992 claimed hundreds of lives - discussing religion in the media is a fraught business in which caution is the byword.
Religious leaders - often self-appointed - are easily outraged and mobs easily incited into action that sees them torch public transport, block crucial nerve centres of already chaotic traffic systems and even bring about total city shutdowns (locally called bandhs).
But does that mean bowing before the diktats of a handful of fundamentalists at the cost of curbing free speech?
Press regulation is almost non existent in India. Newspapers and television channels routinely get away with libellous and erroneous reports and journalists generally consider themselves above the law. But along with the pitfalls of excessive power being corruptive, this system at least ensures a fearless media that can campaign to reopen old murder cases conveniently buried to protect the powerful and force police commissioners to step down over the handling of a murder/suicide case (recent campaigns by a Delhi-based TV channel and a Calcutta-based newspaper respectively).
Then why draw the line only at issues to do with religion?
Calcutta has seen its share of religious tension over the printed matter. Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen had to be moved to an undisclosed location following protests over the Indian government's plans to extend her visa. Nasreen had sought refuge in India and was staying in the city after her book Lajja caused a backlash from Muslims similar to the furore over Salman Rushdie's work.
But there has hardly ever been such reaction over a newspaper article. This was the first time that an editor of a respected daily was arrested for "outraging religious feelings", which incidentally is an offence under the Indian Penal Code.
When I called The Statesman, they did not seem very keen to discuss the matter and pointed me to their and the Independent's website.
But a former colleague at a senior editorial position of another city English daily (who wished not to be named) provided some insight. Despite "liking the logic of the article", he admitted that his paper (with a significantly higher circulation than The Statesman's) would not have reproduced it because it was simply "not worth getting into the trouble". "Don't get me wrong, I'm all for press freedom. But when you know the possible outcome, it's best to be practical and avoid these situations."
He also assured me that very few if any at all among the protesters had bothered to read the original article or were expressing anger they genuinely felt. That job was left to the religious bosses who pulled their strings. The demonstrations had only started after local Urdu papers picked up the issue and urged fellow Muslims to take action over it. The result - protests, clashes with the police and the subsequent arrests of the Statesman duo.
It may also have nothing to do with religion. Calcutta has earned the notoriety of a city where nothing works and no one cares. Life is frequently brought to a standstill by protest marches and bandhs over issues no longer relevant to the common man. Investors are hard to come by and even harder to hold on to, as in case the case of Tatas, whcih was forced to ditch factory plans for the world's cheapest car. All of which leaves a large, unemployed, future-less and frustrated young population looking for ways to vent their anger. An easy target for politicians and religious leaders alike.
There is, however, some hope: the Statesman editor stands by his decision to publish the piece though he clarifies that it did not intend to "defame any religion" or "provoke societal tension". The paper also makes it clear that it would rather "cease publication" than fail to "provide space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones".