The first piece we carried on the so called 'cartoon controversy' on this website was titled Protest These Protests. It was obvious even then that no matter what the provocation, or how offensive the cartoons were, the violent 'protests' - burning down embassies and threatening violent retribution - were not expressions of spontaneous rage, but orchestrated to whip up religious frenzy for various political reasons. The heartening silver lining in India, till this Friday gone by had been that, despite the usual rhetoric by the usual rabble-rousers such as the redoubtable Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid and sundry others, the general response, even from those who found the cartoons offensive or in bad-taste, had been largely restrained.
Almost in all private conversations and correspondence, people expressed dismay that something published in foreign lands, which was best handled locally, had been sought to be whipped into a mass frenzy by various vested interests, as if there was no other problem facing the Muslim community in India. Various columns we have carried so far have addressed the many issues involved, pointing out how far more egregious crimes, for example, do not even elicit a murmur of protest and how those allegedly offended, and shouting the loudest, were not only ensuring that the controversial cartoons were disseminated widely, but had also been responsible for including a group of highly offensive pictures, that had never been published by any of the newspapers, in their propaganda material. Even if one could argue that the publication of the cartoons per se was blasphemous, should it not then logically follow that those responsible for purveying these far more outrageous images had been even more blasphemous?
And yet, in India, it was reassuring to note the line taken by most of the responsible community leaders that any violence indulged in by any such 'protester' was only reinforcing and reaffirming a stereotype that many of the moderate voices have been struggling to shatter, that any recourse to violent 'protests' was actually to fall right into the trap of those out to bait Muslims. The media too, at large, while mentioning the protests in India, wisely desisted from offering the oxygen of publicity such protests crave.
But just when the dust ought to have been settling and introspection begun, one Haji Mohammed Yaqoob, the hitherto unheard of Uttar Pradesh minister for Haj and Minority Welfare, decided to step into the breach and get his own 15 seconds of fame: "Any person who chops off the head of the cartoonist from Denmark who dared to make a caricature of Mohammad Sahib and bring it to me shall be rewarded Rs 51 crore in cash and given gold equivalent to his weight," he declared - no, thundered - to a large gathering at the Inter-College grounds at Meerut after Friday prayers. That was not all, much more goodly rhetoric about the US also followed.
Now UP politicians are not exactly known for their reasoned critiques or rational speech, but this here was a minister in charge of minority welfare. Surely his constituency needs more than a foreign citizen's head? If one expected that better sense would prevail soon and the trouble-shooters of the Samajwadi Party [SP] would move into damage control, one was sadly mistaken. Not only did the state government go into a funk, but the silence of all 'secular' political outfits was deafening. Perhaps one doesn't expect anything different from the politicians, and regardless of whether or not it was a well-scripted act by the SP, the response from the state administration has been even more galling. The Uttar Pradesh Principal Secretary (Home), Alok Sinha, shrugged off the minister's clear and resounding public incitement to murder with a blasé and bizarre logic: "There is no offence to make such an announcement about a person living in a distant foreign country." That was not all, as he went on to say, with nary a thought about the responsible position he is entrusted with, that "the announcement had been made taking into account the feelings of the people". And then came the clincher: "In a democracy such announcements are made in a normal way. It cannot be said to be a law and order issue". This, from the from the state's Principal Secretary (Home), the person in charge of law and order.
The agency reports had been suitably vague, but watching the tape of the minister's open incitement was even more chilling. The minister had invoked the state government's name, and later, when pressed in a TV interview, first expectedly tried to fudge the issue; when confronted with the tapes that were played back for him, he dissociated the state government but remained defiant and brazen enough in persisting with and repeating his offer. He went on to say that it was an open offer legitimate under the Shariat and need not be limited to Indians - anyone, anywhere in the world could be the recipient of his largesse as long as they could prove that they had done the needful. The minister, to prove that he was truly secular, after that went on also to expound on how his heart also bled when the Hindu gods and goddesses had been insultingly caricatured.
It took more than 24 hours for the SP to even find words to describe the minister's, to put it mildly, open incitement to murder, but the only words they could find were "frivolous" and "irresponsible" - after the news had created ripples across the globe. That the minister still remains a minister is bad enough, and only underlines the bankruptcy of Samajwadi Party brand of politics, but the noises from the so-called liberal sections have been at best token and tame murmurs. Significantly, given the competitive nature of the politics for a perceived vote-bank, some body even found it necessary today to release the Congress president's response to Shahi Imam's letter of Feb 9 (that had been replied to by the Prime Minister on Feb 13) sharing the "sense of outrage of the Muslim community". No words were considered necessary for the behaviour of the UP minister.
A similar pussyfooting was at display in Parliament where after stating that "these are very emotional issues and both the Prime Minister's Office and the government had condemned the regrettable and objectionable caricatures", all that we got in the end from the government was from the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, Suresh Pachouri, who, when pressed, came up with: "We expect all constitutional functionaries not to do anything that disrespects democratic principles".
The leading lights of the Congress party which never misses any opportunity to bait the SP suddenly developed cold-feet in condemning open, public incitement to murder. Far from any condemnation, there has been only an attempt to rationalise the minister's "frivolous" remarks. The UP minister, to be needlessly charitable to him, perhaps was only playing politics the way he understands it, but what is wrong with our pall-bearers of liberal and secular sections entrusted with law and order in the country? Is that the leadership they wish to provide the Muslims they claim to be sympathetic to?
Mercifully, community leaders such as Maulana Khalid Rasheed Firangi Mahali, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, were quick in condemning not just this but all irresponsible reactions to the publication of the cartoons. The All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB) was hearteningly more direct and forceful. After noting that the publication of the cartoons was "highly deplorable and condemnable", the AIMPWLB general secretary, Parveen Abdi, unambiguous stated that "such statements are made with an aim of gaining cheap publicity - why does the minister himself not perform the act of beheading?"
Indeed. Why does he not?
Don't the politicians still get it? Don't they understand that the public at large, when not whipped into frenzy by some zealot or the other, even when it finds something offensive or in bad-taste, has other important matters to wish for than someone's cold-blooded murder? The truly pious - and even the unbelievers, the agnostics and the atheists - are not the blood-thirsty lot these politicians somehow assume them to be. It is not just wishful thinking, but go around and ask the believers and almost all of them would tell you that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. It has been heartening to read, see and hear those brave few who have made it bold to say that their faith can survive not only some pathetic caricatures, but far worse. It is time this simple message was drilled into the politicians - and the bureaucrats.
The SP, the Congress and other "secular" parties clamouring for the real or perceived Muslim vote bank do the Muslim community a great disservice by assuming that their constituency would only be pleased with such bloody retribution, or calls for it, instead of listening to the voices of reason which are still muted, but only because blood-curdling bombast remains unchallenged by those who have the power to stand up and be counted. To leave it to Muslim liberals or urge them to speak up seems such a cop-out in light of the current provocation.
All of us need to demand this minister's head - politically speaking. He's the one who shouted, "off with his head!" His political head must roll. And now.
Is there no one among the political groupings that so pride themselves on their secular character who realise that moderate voices would get strengthened only when such outrageous criminality was nipped in the bud? Since they seem to be in a funk, it is up to the public - to we the people - at large - and not just for Muslims - to speak-out and demand action against this criminal minister. Only a sustained demand for action against this criminal minister cutting across community lines, it seems, would be able to make the four main political parties in the fractious and fractured polity of UP rise above the real and perceived faultlines of caste and creed.
If there is fear in those entrusted with maintenance of law and order that any action against this criminal minister might lead to public disorder, or loss of votes, here's a suggestion. Perhaps he can be persuaded to go on a short vacation, and put on a flight to Denmark? The Danes have given us plenty to discuss and debate in recent times, perhaps it is time we returned the favour, told them to have a reception committee ready and left it to them to discuss and devise ways to deal with him?
But more seriously, the minister, who certainly cannot be seen as speaking for any sizable fraction of Indian Muslims, has to not only be made to resign but charges need to be booked against him. This is the time to rise above petty politics and enforce the rule of the law. Law and order being a state subject, the SP government needs to be persuaded into doing it, and failing its duty, the central government needs to step in. A cursory glance at the recent newspapers would tell you what laws the minister has broken, and surely even the government would have a lawyer or two free from its plethora of prosecutors who can help it frame charges? (This is a very hurried piece, but here's a ready-reckoner: Section 115 for "abetment of offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life", 108 IPC - 108 A expressly covers abetment in India of offences committed or meant to be committed outside India" and then there is 120-B and 153A).
Not to do so would be helping the minister get away with murder. Not to strongly demand action against this minister makes us all complicit in this incitement to murder - and accessories to the virtual murder of law and order in the country.