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“Hum kisi deen ke hon qael-e-kirdar to hain, namleva hain Muhammad ke parastar to hain” (Whichever religion we may belong to, we respect noble character. We revere Mohammad and are among his devotees). This couplet was composed and publicly recited many times by an eminent son of our motherland, the late Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi Sahar.
Reverence by followers of one religion for the sages and seers of another has been part of Indian culture. In the 1920s, the eminent poet-philosopher of the Subcontinent Muhammad Iqbal had described Sri Ram as the “Imam-ul-Hind” (the greatest spiritual guide of India), Mahatma Buddha as “Gauhar-e-yakdana” (dazzling jewel in India’s crown), 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 holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind” (Harijan, July 1934). It is unfortunate that a prominent religious figure whose nobility of character, a scholar of Bedi’s stature admired, is now being shown disrespect, ignoring the Father of the Nation’s words about his “sway over the hearts of millions”.
The recent comments on the Prophet in TV debates, that have outraged the Muslim world, have not sprung out of the blue. A few weeks earlier, at a religious event, some monks had thought it fit to say unpalatable things about the founder of Islam. If saintly persons see nothing wrong in vituperation, why would common men and women restrain themselves? But then, where did they find those stories about the Prophet? What they have said about the Prophet must have been based on hearsay, but that hearsay emanated from some thoughtless statements in old Urdu books, including some by Muslim writers. Of course, these statements have been forcefully refuted by latter-day researchers on Islam. But why would unprincipled critics bother to research the truth?
Several stories from old religious books — of all communities indeed — may not be compatible with modern concepts of human rights and gender justice. However, ours is not the age for indulgence in religious polemics of the bygone days. 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 amongst all the people of India.” We must live by these ideals and stop looking for controversial elements in outdated religious literature for fighting each other, to the detriment of national interest.
The Indian Penal Code has a chapter on “Offences Relating to Religion”. It is meant to ensure that people in this multi-religious country respect each other’s faith. Originally, it contained four sections (295-98) the last of which spoke of the offence of “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings of any person.” A new section (295A) was added in 1927 to lay down penalties for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” In its background was an incident of defamatory outburst against Islam and its founder. Commenting on the new provision two years later, Justice William Baker of the Bombay High Court had observed that “violently abusive and obscene diatribe against the founder or prophet of a religion or against a system of religion will amount to an attempt to stir up hatred or enmity against the persons who follow that religion” (Ambalal Paragji,1929). Significantly, the international human rights law of our time agrees with this position under Indian law. In a judgment pronounced in 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that defaming the Prophet of Islam “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.”
I was brought up in a family where children were taught to respect spiritual figures of ancient India as they could be divine messengers fitting in the Quranic verse proclaiming “God sent prophets to all parts of the world not all of whom are herein mentioned.” I am, however, not a religious person and look at the Prophet not as a miracle-performing superhuman figure, as many Muslims do, but as a revolutionary social reformer who in the words of eminent Indian jurist late Laxmi Mall Singhvi was “a thousand years ahead of his time.” Yet, I too feel disgusted at how some brethren in our country freely use abusive language for the great reformist, who the US scholar Michael Hart put on the top among a hundred names in The 100:Ranking of the most influential persons in history (1978).
The law of India does empower its enforcers to nip in the bud any mischief of this nature. Persistent lack of proper legal action in an oversensitive issue ignites anger among the people. The anguish of the Muslim masses on the condemnable incidents of insult to their Prophet is understandable, yet its violent expression also tarnishes his fair name. Such a reaction to his denigration by a few misinformed individuals cannot be justified on the touchstone of what is known in law as the “choice of evil defence”. The cure for the abominable social evil of religious conflicts lies more than in the codes of law, and in the revival of communal bonhomie.
At the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, the great Indian saint Swami Vivekananda said about the religion and the nation he was representing: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” The world expects us to continue honouring his pious words in letter and spirit.
The writer is professor of law and ex-member, Law Commission of India
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Tahir MahmoodThe writer is distinguished jurist chair and professor of eminence, In… read more

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