Monday, April 22, 2024

Ever-looming question of what Indian Muslims should do; contextualising clerical statement

In contemporary Indian socio-political space, victim-blaming has become a common practice, especially regarding issues involving Muslims. In a recent example, the Vice-Chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband, Abul Qasim Nomani, made a statement in his Friday sermon on 15th April 2022 in which he addressed the prevailing conditions in the country and the relative strategy that the Muslim community should adopt to cope with it. The proponent of a chauvinistic creed, who have only sowed mayhem and chaos in society, and provoked violence with utter disregard for the Constitution, rule of law and even basic humanity, quickly resort to the language of constitutionalism, secularism, and rule of law when their views are called out. Thus it is not surprising that Mr Nomani’s statement was taken out of context by the popular media and portrayed as an incitement to attack the majority community with ‘optimum’ strength. The above allegation is completely baseless and frivolous when examined in its entirety. The statement/fatwa opens up to be very apt and relevant for Muslims and stands the test of legality.

The fatwa by Abul Qasim came after the recent surge of communal violence in religious processions outside mosques across India. This incident adds to the concerns of Muslims about their identity and freedom which has come under threat by virulent majoritarianism. On this particular matter, Abul Qasim Nomani urged the Muslim community to realign their spiritual and behavioural attitude in consonance with the Islamic teachings. His address stresses three important points, wherein:

  1. He urged Muslims to repent of their sins and live their lives in accordance with Islamic teachings.
  2. He asked Muslims to present the true picture of Islam to the world with their noble deeds so that the blemish that has been engraved on people’s minds can be erased.
  3. He asked the Muslims to stop being afraid of death. Death will arrive when it is due. And it will only happen once. The constitution and sharīʿah have granted them the freedom to defend their life and property. He further stated that God forbid, God forbid, if one’s life or property is threatened, one should not submit as cowards, but rather defend oneself. He also advised against taking any action that might be detrimental to peace, and reminded the addressee that they are caretakers of peace and harmony. He said that in a situation where there is a direct attack on life, property, honour and modesty mere shouting of Nara-e-Takbir from the roof-tops won’t suffice.

The statement/fatwa received widespread criticism and was tagged as warmongering and hate speech. Abul Qasim was accused of instigating violence against the Indian State. The major focus was on the third point which I contested, which spoke of self-defence and the right to life with dignity.

Firstly, it has to be noted that while delivering his address Abul Qasim Nomani was exercising his right to freedom of speech and expression which the constitution of India guarantees to every citizen under Article 19(1) (a). The caveat of Art 19 (2), (the grounds on which the right to freedom of speech can be restricted or curtailed) i.e., sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence obviously applies to this exercise of freedom. A close analysis of his statement in its entire context nowhere transcends the boundaries laid down by art 19(2).

Not a single sentence in the body of his entire statement suggests any kind of incitement or hate as alleged by the popular media. As far as the specific content of his address is concerned, it is demonstrative of his deep empathy for an oppressed community of his mother country to which he himself belongs. He seems extremely worried that our society is spiralling into chaos and violence.

Thus he appeals to the people of India, in general, to work together to annihilate the hate mechanism that has slowly crept into the Indian socio-political culture. He is hopeful with the common conscience of the nation that these tough times will surely wither away with the conjoint efforts of fellow countrymen but at the same time, he is not oblivious or ignorant of the current predicament in which lynching, arson, hate-filled and mob propelled crimes are at its peak. It is in this backdrop that he addresses the people of his community to guard themselves against an imminent threat to their life property or modesty with optimum strength given by Allah.

Of his three pieces of advice to Indian Muslims, the one that sparked major controversy was the third point which came under multiple interpretations, claiming that he is encouraging Muslims to fight with their full strength if they are assaulted. I contest that he is telling Muslims to use their legal right to self-defence in extreme circumstances to defend themselves, not to be aggressors. How can discussion on self-defence or even an act of self-defence be defined as provocative? Isn’t it the same thing that the law of this country requires of its citizens; not to surrender passively but to protect their lives or property when they are under attack?

The right of self-defence finds its place within the ambit of criminal law. Sections 96 to 106 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 deal with the right of private defence relating to person and property in Indian criminal law. These provisions protect a person in cases where he/she exercises reasonable force in order to protect his/her body and property as well as another’s body and property where either state machinery is not readily available or there is not enough time to take recourse to that state machinery.

This exercising of reasonable force also extends to causing death in some cases as mentioned under Section 100 of IPC in case of danger of body and under Section 103 of IPC in case of danger of property.

The Supreme Court in Amjad Khan vs. the State (1952) went to the extent of upholding the act of causing death while exercising the right of self-defence and held that the accused in the instant case had reasonable grounds for apprehending that either death or grievous hurt would befall himself or his family. 

Thus, even the apprehension backed by reasonable ground has been held to be a valid reason for the exercise of the right of self-defence. While Mr Nomani has in his address asked people to exercise their right to self-defence as a last resort that is, when an actual attack befalls them and not on mere apprehension.

The second sub-point that he raised was about the concept of a dignified life; the life without fear and death with dignity. Our constitution envisions and seeks to ensure the same to the people through its preamble, fundamental rights, DPSP and specifically through Article 21.

The Supreme Court gave Art 21 a new depth post Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India. The court determined that the right to life encompasses not mere physical existence but also the right to live and die with honour and dignity. If one is forced to live in constant fear of being attacked for practising their faith or asserting their identity, life cannot be described as dignified and free. Such a life would certainly be an utter embarrassment to the novel objects of the constitution of India. 

At these times when Muslims are being widely attacked for their faith and identity is it not natural for their patrons and peers to be concerned and instil their fellow community members with hope and moral strength?  I would certainly answer this in the affirmative. This is what, precisely, Mr Nomani was trying to do. This statement/fatwa by a religious leader of such stature is very critical and rescuing for the Muslim community. 

Darul Uloom Deoband has to its credit the honour of sacrificing its alumni in the Indian freedom struggle movement. I see this address of its incumbent Vice-Chancellor as a reiteration of its glorious past wherein, the unity and integrity of the beloved motherland were secured with martyrdom. Hate and prejudice have once again posed a similar threat to this country and it is indispensable to check this vicious flow immediately. As our country simmers with a perpetual cycle of low-intensity violence, polarisation and communal animosities, Mr Nomani is just advising his fellow countrymen to exercise restraint and at the same time be prepared to defend the motherland and its inclusive, secular culture.

Nayab Gauhar is a student of Law at Aligarh Muslim University.

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