Wednesday, May 25th, 2022 03:52:28

Lessons For India From Paris

Updated: January 31, 2015 9:00 am

If radical jihadis subscribe to Voltaire’s ‘crush the infamous’ which led to the killing at Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, the surviving members of staff of Charlie Hebdo, showed the courage to try and crush what they believe is infamous

Voltaire declared that “Superstition sets the whole world in flames”. And he also urged his admirers “Ecrasez l’infâme,”—Crush the infamous. If radical jihadis subscribe to Voltaire’s ‘crush the infamous’ which led to the killing at Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, the surviving members of staff of Charlie Hebdo, about 25, showed the courage to try and crush what they believe is infamous. Both showed determination to uphold zealot spirit

At a meeting, this bunch of cartoonists and journalists: crying, snacking, laughing, breaking the rules against smoking indoors were trying to hold themselves together long enough to produce an issue. And finally, after large number of sketches by cartoonist Luz, one was approved for the cover of the first issue after the killings.

It was greeted with laughter and a round of applause, followed shortly by cries—joyous if ironic—of “Allahu Akbar!”

The first issue of the scrappy iconoclastic weekly after the killings was anxiously awaited. The sketch the Prophet Muhammad holding a sign saying, “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), with the words “All is forgiven” in French above it on a green background. Bold enough to cock a snook at jihadists.

“Habemus a front page,” Gérard Biard, one of the paper’s top editors, said with a smile. The phrase is used to announce a new Pope. Such spirit deserves praise. The intellectuals in India might deride it. But the spirit of the staff embodied the century’s old fight in Europe for free speech which includes free expression.

The journalists saying “We don’t know how to do anything but laugh,” produced the sketch which was funny as well as had the message for jihadis ‘we will not be cowed down’.

Tom Holland, noted Historian said, “For them the cartoons of the Prophet were apart from being infamous amounted to sacrilege.” Despite living in France where free speech is as much a religion as the killers interpretation of Islam, the two brothers who sprayed the bullets at Charlie Hebdo office did not subscribe to the West’s view that satire and cartoons about their Prophet came under the right to free speech. There lies the inherent contradiction.

31-01-2015Holland pointed out, “While under normal circumstances I am perfectly happy not to mock beliefs that other people hold dear, these are far from normal circumstances…the right to draw Muhammad without being shot is quite as precious to many of us in the West as Islam presumably is to the Charlie Hebdo killers.”

He added, that like Voltaire’s urging to his followers crush the infamous, “Islam, too, makes the same demand…The point of difference, of course, is over how “l’infâme” is to be defined…To the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, who in 2011 published an edition with a swivel-eyed Muhammad on the cover, just as earlier they had portrayed Jesus as a contestant on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and Pope Benedict holding aloft a condom at Mass, it is the pretensions of authority wherever they may be found—in politics quite as much as in religion.”

Why no umbrage was taken in 2011? It is difficult to give any reason. But possibly until then religion had not become the raison d’être of al-Qaeda. It was busy evading the West’s retaliations post 9/11. And it was at the same time engaged in frightening the US and tormenting UK. It was later that it aimed to attack un-Islamic countries, deciding what was unislamic according to its own interpretation, which experts say could be contrary to the sayings in the Koran.

Now, does India need to worry about the cause—any adverse comment on religion and its icons are blasphemous, free speech be damned— of the Paris killing becoming a dogma to some in the country? The Right to Freedom, which includes speech and expression is one of the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution. It also includes Right to Freedom of religion, which includes freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion, freedom to manage religious affairs.

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Yet no satirist or cartoonist in India ever touched any religious figure or made a joke or caricature of its religious icons. Pluralism in India for centuries meant taking care of the sensitivity of each other. Yet communal feelings have led to many riots and losses of lives. From 2005 to 2009 period, an average of 130 people died every year from communal riots, and 2,200 were injured. In pre-partitioned India, over the 1920–1940 period, numerous communal violence incidents were recorded, an average of 381 people died per year during religious violence, and thousands were injured over trivial issues.

Thus conscious that the communities, in particular, minority communities, except Sikhs, do not appreciate any light-hearted representation of their religious icons, famous cartoonists like Laxman, Sudhi Dhar, Vijayan and even the great Shankar refrained from any cartoons that could reflect on any religion, particularly Islam, or its iconic figures. There is a self-drawn Lakshman rekha which no one has crossed so far.

But, for how long such restraint would be maintained?

In Europe, cartoons and satires that outrage the radicals to the point that they commit murders started with vehemence only after 9/11. The bombing of the Inter-city Express in Madrid in which 200 people died angered Europeans and the caricature of the Prophet were published with a spirit of defiance. Could then the Lakshaman Rekha drawn by all famous Indian cartoonists be violated if terror attacks on India start? Just like the West where the anger at jihadists was expressed through satires and cartoons.

It is difficult to hazard whether satires and cartoons riling the murderous jihadists would have reaction in India similar to that of writers in the West, where Freedom of Expression is like religion unlike India where it has got entangled with vote-politics. In the US, while Bill of Rights ensures free speech, it follows with the right to arms to defend it. In India, most parties particularly Congress’s Gandhis maintained a deafening silence and refrained from commenting on the pros and cons of killings, simply because of vote-bank politics. This is the root cause of many political and social ills in our country.

In the UK or Western Europe freedom of speech or expression is linked with liberalism. A joke or cartoon on their faith and Jesus Christ is passe’. Pope could be shown holding a condom but any drawing of a figure of the Prophet is blasphemous, a sin that deserves death. That was the belief of the killers of 12 in the magazine’s office in Paris. The killers, two brothers when cornered, were dealt with the same passion as in the killers’ who massacred the magazine’s staff. Where is then the difference? And this also rules out any possibility of accommodation.

This is the crux of the problem in the West. Holland observed, “… I too feel that some rights are worthy of being defended—and among them is the freedom of historians to question the origin myths of religions. That was why, when I heard the news from Paris… I chose to do something I would never otherwise have done, and tweeted a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad.”

“These people—including one guest and one police officer—are dead. They were cartoonists and editors and humorists. People whose job in life was to point at hypocrisy and laugh at it; to ridicule hate; to make us all try to see our own failings as humans. And they were killed for it.” said Joe Randazzo former editor of Onion, a satirical magazine from Manhattan, New York.

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Her reaction typifies that of all Europeans. “For those who would trivialize the idea, this was what an actual attack on freedom looks like.

You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people—though you can nudge it toward suicide.”

The radicals do not understand that unlike India, Europe has been insular. They fought fiercely to throw out the Ottoman Empire because it trampled on human rights and free speech. Except England, where immigrants from India and later Pakistan started in trickles but became an exodus since 1963, the immigration to European countries is rather recent, but in huge numbers. And by now, in France alone, the immigrants from Midde East number six million. This is a huge minority. Yet no European country is pluralistic as yet. They are clinging to their culture and lifestyle. Most want the immigrants to adopt lifestyle and accept values of the countries they are settled. Wearing Burqa, for instance, in public has been banned in quite a few countries.

In India, the minority has lived for centuries but they conform to their social and religious values. They are Indians but have their own identity. The Left, the Congress party and the likes of Lalu, Mulayam Yadavs and Nitish Kumar because of their own political, apart from the intellectuals, saw to it that this separate identity is perpetuated and for that they gave the community various special privileges, concessions and alms.

The community was lured to remain separate, and some now consider the majority community adversaries. The fear expressed by Leftists and intellectuals that majorityism in India today due to the alleged Right-wing government could cause trouble to the minorities is fundamentally fallacious. A democracy means rule by majority.

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The outcome of such separatism and favouritism fanned for political reason is increased sensitivity. The minority community would not take any satire or caricature of anything it values. So far, this has been kept in mind by writers, commentators and the media. But subtle changes have been taking place. The wall protecting members of Lutyens’ Club from bourgeoisie was cracked last year and the Leftists during discussions on TV channels are now being challenged, disputed and in a few extreme cases shamed.

Wheels are turning. And sensitivity beyond a point could raise hackles. The so-called Rightists seem in no mood to turn the other cheek to those who try to slap them. There lies the danger. In case, a war of values start in Europe, India could be singed!

India has to note with utmost focus on what could follow in whole of Europe. What happened at Charlie Hebdo office showed that the terror oufit has now taken upon itself to ‘fix’ all those who under the right of free speech commit ‘blasphemy’. The ferocity of terror strike shook France. It seemed the whole country was targeted. But then the holders of Freedom of Speech hit back by reproducing a caricature of the Prophet saying I’m Charlie. This for the jihadis and Leftists, intellectuals and most Indian political parties is sacrilege of most condemnable proportion.

But for the West, it was the appropriate way to challenge the jihadis. Is a conflict between France’s values and the Islamic values as interpreted by the gunmen has started? Is this the beginning of the war of civilisations which Huttington had predicted?

If this is the onset of war of civilisations, it can spread to inflame most of the democracies. Can India escape the wrath of al-Qaeda which already has evil designs on the country. But, first one has to consider other possible manifestations of the shooting in Paris. The whole of Europe reeled because all the countries there have sizable minority population. Sooner or later the Paris killing a sort of “crusade” between Europeans and the huge number of immigrants from Muslim countries could start.. True many crusades for honour of one’s faith dot the history, but now world is globalised, happenings in one could start a chain reaction affecting all countries in Europe.

The danger lies in the fact that many movements in Europe for freedom of speech have made it into a sort of religion. Thus the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment is the credo there. And “Speech” is not limited to public speaking and is generally taken to include other forms of expression.

This is the crux of the problem in the West. The notion that someone might be put to death for criticising a religious dogma is likely to strike a majority of people in the West as blasphemy. The values of free speech and tolerance for which Voltaire campaigned all his life are enshrined as the very embodiment of’ civilisation, and which they prize most.

The radicals must understand this if they do not want to trigger a war of ideas and dogmas.

The news that a German newspaper was target of an arson attack for reprinting controversial cartoons from Charlie Hebdo read with the reported statement by al-Qaeda that attacks would continue frightens one. This is the fight over ideas and dogmas and whoever wins it, freedom of speech and religion could be the first casualty. Such a scenario could end in an upheaval in societies and countries.

In view of such a possible outcome, Europe is bracing itself to contain if not throw out the radicalised elements. In the UK, the Independent had a few years ago reproduced some of those cartoons. But nothing happened. According to the security intelligence over 3,000 sleepers are there waiting for order to strike. But no attempts were made against the daily. The reason was that the population and the government were as it is angry over the killing of 52 commuters by four suicide bombers, all immigrants from Pakistan. Immigration could have been stopped and the settled ones dealt with severely.

“The Charlie Hebdo killing will be framed by many as the latest salvo in an ongoing war between the West and Islam, when what this really amounts to is the slaughter of innocent people. These murderers don’t represent anyone but themselves, their own twisted view of reality. They don’t stand for an entire religion anymore than the Westboro Baptist Church stands for an entire religion or the Ku Klux Klan stands for an entire race,” rightly said a commentator.


Timeline Of Terror Attacks In Paris


Wednesday Jan. 7, 11:30 a.m: Two masked gunmen attack the Paris offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attack leaves 11 dead and at least 11 wounded. The victims include many of the magazine’s leading staffers and a police officer who was assigned to protect the publication after it had received threats and been firebombed for publishing images of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. During their escape the suspects kill a 12th victim, a Muslim police officer named Ahmed Merabet. In an online video (since removed), the Guardian reports a wounded Merabet can be seen holding his hands up and responding, “it’s okay, chief” to the suspects, before one of them shoots him in the head at point blank range. The gunmen crash their escape vehicle, but highjack another car and get away.

12:30 p.m: French president Francois Hollande visits the scene of the attack, labeling it as terrorism and act of “barbarism.” France goes on its highest terror alert level. Within an hour and a half, the hashtag #jesuischarlie begins to trend on Twitter.

8:30 p.m: Police identify three suspects as French brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad. One of the brothers was convicted in 2008 for planning to join Jihadists in Iraq. He said during his trial that he was motivated by the photos of prisoner abuses by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

11:00 p.m: The youngest suspect, Hamyd Mourad, turns himself into authorities. Police conduct a manhunt centered in the northeastern city of Reims.

Thursday Jan. 8, pre-dawn: A police officer is shot and killed during a traffic stop in Paris, and another victim of the shooting is in critical condition. It’s not clear if the shooting is related to the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

10:30 a.m: The Kouachi brothers rob a gas station in the northern French town of Villers-Cotterêts, reportedly armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They steal food and gas, but no one is hurt in the robbery.

6:00 p.m: A major road is closed and law enforcement operations are seen in the village of Longpont, near where the gas station robbery took place.

Friday Jan. 9, 9:30 a.m: Police report that the two suspects have taken at least one hostage in a town called Dammartin-en-Goele near Charles de Gaulle airport. Police begin what French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve calls a “major operation.”

10:00 a.m: Police reportedly enter into hostage negotiations with the suspects. Schoolchildren in Dammartin-en-Goele are told to stay inside. Reports emerge that the stand-off is occurring at a printing business. There are contradictory reports about casualties.

12:45 p.m: The AFP reports that an at-large suspect in the killing of the French policewoman has been linked to the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

3:00 p.m: Police release photos and names of the suspects in connection with Thursday’s police officer shooting as Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene. Coulibaly is alleged to be the hostage taker at the Kosher grocery store.

4:00 p.m: Paris police order businesses in the historic Jewish neighbourhood of Le Marais to close for the day.

5:00 p.m: Gunshots and explosions are reported in Dammartin-en-Goele, where the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack are reportedly holding a hostage.

5:10 p.m: Reports emerged that counter-terrorism police have launched an assault on the printing business in Dammartin-en-Goele.

5:15 p.m: Gunshots and explosions are reported at the kosher grocery store where Coulibaly is suspected to be holding hostages.

5:30 p.m: Media outlets report that the Kouachi brothers have been killed, and the one hostage that the Kouachi brothers were holding has been freed.

5:45 p.m: Media report that Coulibaly, the alleged hostage-taker at the Kosher grocery store, has also been killed.

8:30 p.m: France’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, confirmed that at least four hostages had been killed in the attack on the grocery store, in addition to the gunman.


The killing has created a dangerous situation in Europe where anti-immigrant feeling has been sweeping for some time. This will feed all anti-immigration groups including the France’s National Front. Peter Neuman of King’s College rightly said ‘This is a dangerous moment for European societies…with increasing radicalisation among supporters of jihadist organisations and the white working class feeling disfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head.”

This is what is feared. India cannot just say its the concern of Europe and sit back. It has a huge minority population, second to Indonesia only, some of whom would not like any backlash that might follow in Europe. Already one BSP leader and former BSP minister Haji Yaqoob Qureshi who after defending the attack in Paris announced a reward of Rs 51 crore prize to the men who killed 12 people. He has been hauled by police. But may be many Qureshis could surface if regressive laws are imposed on the immigrants.

The leader in Hindustan Times said attacks like in Paris can transform a nation by threatening to convert public shock into sharpened identities, strained social ties and a (likely) hardened State. In India so far no cartoonist or writers of satire have touched religion like those in Europe until terrorism hit it hard, could Indian counterparts do the same if India’s newspaper offices are attacked, may be not for blasphemous cartoons but for an ideology—mainly that of the Right-wing? India has to watch carefully the goings-on in France and be on alert for any resonance here. World is now so globalised that things like the killing in the state which has experienced the Age of Enlightenment, can cause tremors anywhere. The killers in Paris massacred there, faraway from India, but extremist world views are about all of us, and ‘they target us and they seek to determine what we think through force and intimidation.’ The Rightists too, suppressed for a long time, are now becoming aggressively intolerant. This will create a dangerous situation. The problem in India is rather complex. The country has two different shades of opinion. One which adheres to the Nehruvian concept of secularism would angrily condemn any joke or satire about the minority community, forget about their reaction to what Charlie Hebdo did. They are less in number but they are most vocal and have so far moleded public opinion being in control of the media.

But now as said before the Rightists have developed spine and are hitting back. This is evident during discussions on TV channels. India is getting into its own battle of views. The Leftists and intellectuals are apprehensive and losing all logic, they are trying to justify the indefensible. Like the terrorists would strike if their community members are killed, said one elite member of the intellectuals. When derided and ridiculed he came out to defend himself.

The lesson from Paris is thus more important for the Left. In the context of shooting in Paris must not forget what Justice Chinnappa Reddy of Supreme Court said in his judgement. “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”

We have to also remember that one criterion to determine whether a country is truly democratic is the extent of dissent permitted. A liberal democracy is one in which all groups in the country accept the fact that in a free country, people can have different opinions and beliefs and shall have equal rights in voicing them without fear of legal penalties or social sanctions. Right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society. But today we have zealots and radicalised elements even in the so-called intellectuals. They are most vocal and critical. The Left has dominated for decades, why can’t the Right be allowed to voice its views?

Extremism in any form is dangerous. India must be aware of the rising intolerance. A lesson has to be drawn. “Religion a medieval form of unreason when combined with modern weaponry (or external instigations, we may add) becomes a real threat to our freedoms,” pointed out Salman Rushdie.

We may not totally agree with him, but the society and the government must not let intolerance of any kind, in any community, drift or coalesce into hatred. To quote Soli Sorabjee, “Tolerance entails a positive attitude which permits and protects not only expression of thoughts and ideas which are accepted and are acceptable but also accords an accommodation as hospitable to the thought we hate as that assured to the orthodoxies of the day.

“Disagreements with the beliefs and ideology of others is no reason for their suppression because tolerance recognises that there can be more than one path for the attainment of truth and salvation.”

He laments, “Right to dissent and tolerance are the sine qua non of democracy. The hard fact is, tolerance cannot be legislated. We must develop the capacity for tolerance by fostering an environment of tolerance and culture of tolerance.”

Hope the parties creating separatism for their own political needs heed and stop favouring any community. India is at crossroads. The lessons from Paris are to be understood as an Indian, not as a Hindu or a Muslim, a Christian or a Sikh. Let Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas prevail, for the country’s good, even if some hate the one who coined it.

Gandhi’s projection of religion as a force of peace and harmony has been forgotten and instead it is being used by quite a few leaders for their own political gain by perpetuating communal divide through favouritism to minorities. But, these are dangerous times when al-Qaeda has declared jihad against democracies and ‘infidels’. Europe could be in long haul sensitising itself from jihadism.

In India, even those who have self-arrogated the guardianship of minorities for their political avarice beware. They wouldn’t be spared if the al-Qaeda fury strikes. So for their own self-preservation they should follow Gandhiji’s precept.

The lessons from Paris are a warning we must heed.

By Vijay Dutt

(The author was Europe Correspondent of Hindustan Times)

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