October 15, 2014
Raid of Forward Press office is attack on freedom of expression
The police raid on the Nehru Place office of Forward Press is a deplorable attack on freedom of expression. The Forward Press, a progressive magazine aimed at marginalised and underprivileged sections of India society, had focussed on Bahujan-Shraman (roughly meaning the majority that lives off its labour and not by exploiting others) traditions. The issue carried articles reinterpreting stories in Hindu scriptures including one that reimagined the story of the killing of Mahishasur (buffalo demon) by Goddess Durga as a struggle between the Aryans and non-Aryans. The article was opposed by the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) unit of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for harming religious sentiments. On the evening of the 9 October, the protests had turned into a clash between ABVP members and other JNU students who were celebrating Mahishasur Martyrdom Day.
That same night, the Special Branch of the Delhi Police raided the office of Forward Press and detained four of its staffers. The police team also vandalized the office and confiscated all the copies of the October issue of Forward Press on the basis of a complaint filed in the Vasant Kunj Police Station. Evidently, the action was taken without any orders from a competent authority. Raiding the office of a reputed magazine and confiscating its latest issue without any court order reveals the increasing threats to the tolerant culture that allows intellectual debates. It shows that the government is planning to muzzle all dissent with force.
The raid also raises a pertinent question over the increasing use of the bogey of "hurt sentiments" as a weapon of silencing the dissenters. Deciding the veracity of such claims is strictly the job of the courts and not the police. The police, in fact, are duty bound to protect the dissenters from majoritarian bullying and protect their right to celebrate whatever they want (so long as it does not pose a genuine threat to public safety). Both the magazine and the students commemorating Mahishasur martyrdom day posed no such threat.
Additionally, India has a long tradition of engaging with religious symbolisms and myths and reinterpreting them for mobilising underprivileged communities. Further, Bahujan renditions of popular texts also have a long tradition, starting from Jotiba Phule and going up to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. Periyar, in fact, had publicly burnt down the idols of Hindu gods and used very harsh language for Hindu deities. Would Delhi Police have arrested him if he was around today? Hinduism itself has many sects whose religious beliefs are absolutely different from the mainstream version. There are communities who worship Ravana and not Lord Rama. There are communities which celebrate Bali Raja (king Bali) as their god and not Lord Vishnu. Can one banish such communities because they "hurt the sentiments" of some group or the other? Can one even think of banning polytheism on demand from minority communities as it might offend their monotheistic traditions? Does it sound absurd? It does and so do the police actions at the beck and call of ever ready to get hurt sentiments.
For its part, Forward Press has clarified that its October issue was a special number devoted to "Bahujan-Shraman tradition", has well researched articles from leading writers and professors of prestigious universities, and carries "absolutely nothing in the issue that can be described as objectionable under the Indian Constitution". It also argues that their objective was "not to humiliate or hurt the sentiments of any community or group" and they are merely trying "to identify and rejuvenate the symbols of Bahujan culture and civilization".
These claims may be challenged but the right place to do that is a court of law and the proper authority is a judicial magistrate, not the police. The AHRC strongly condemns the raid and vandalism, as well as the arrest of Forward Press staffers. It also is concerned for the security of the consulting editor and the editor-in-chief of the magazine. The two have gone into hiding fearing arrest and are demand that their rights be respected, not trampled upon.