Election Advisory

Stereotyping by Court

Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam on the urgency to delete the obiter dictum containing the “Talibanisation” remark of Justice Katju from court proceedings.

As the country is moving towards parliamentary elections we see a concerted move by certain organisations to raise communal temperature and cash in on the polarisation of society on religious lines.

Hate speech is one stratagem in the wider plan of these groups, another is throwing of carcasses of cows in Hindu localities, especially near temples. Yet another is surreptitious distribution of inflammatory anti-Muslim CDs.

In Pilibhit the offensive has been launched by Varun Gandhi, but a longer-term anti-Muslim campaign is being conducted by BJP MP Mahant Adiyanath of Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur and entire eastern UP for the last several months. Adityanath has been trying to stage communal violence in Azamgarh. His men killed a Muslim bystander during one of their rallies recently.

In Karnataka Anant Kumar Hegde is spewing anti-Muslim venom publicly, while in Mumbai Bal Thackray is repeating Varun’s words. Other smaller players are doing it in their own small, unspectacular ways. However, one thing is sure: BJP has always benefited electorally from communal polarisation, and today it is relently polarising society.

It is this dangerous context that escalates the significance of Supreme Court Justice Markandeya Katju’s “Talibanisation of India” remark, which he made rejecting a Muslim student’s plea to be allowed to grow a beard. Turning down the plea he remarked that Talibanisation of India could not be allowed. He was very much within his rights to order that an educational institution’s rules had to be followed. However, casting aspersions on a religious token and going to the length of associating it with extremism is certainly stepping beyond one’s judicial remit.

Can we imagine the Sikh beard and turban ever being associated with Khalistan? Or, Sikh extremism? Symbols are as important as substance: the symbol of a religion can in no case be sought to be clubbed with violence and bigotry. This trivialises judiciary and distracts attention from the gravitas of a judicial pronouncement. Such obiter dictum also introduces an unpleasant element of irrelevance in the judicial proceedings.

A particularly illogical, syllogistic premise on which Justice Katju based his rejection of the argument of beard as an Islamic symbol was the student’s Muslim lawyer being clean-chin. The judge asked if beard was so significant in Islam how come the Muslim lawyer did not have beard? Well, there are so many mona (beardless) Sikhs all over the world. But does that mean beard is not significant in Sikhims? Or, for that matter, if a lot of Muslims (or a few of them) start idolatry, does that mean monotheism is not part of Islam?

However, my basic point is not that. What worries me is the stereotyping of Muslim symbols and associating them with violence and bigotry. We must remember that hate crimes, including genocide, begin with hate speech, which takes its fodder from stereotyping and association of the target group with some of its symbols. For instance, a Muslim with a beard is from the Taliban, in this scheme of things.

Remember, all major crimes against humanity, like genocide, have this factor in common. It is important to remember that when the anti-Muslim violence of Mumbai in December 1992-January 1993 was at its height, police officers were recorded ordering their subordinates on wireless sets not to allow relief to reach the landhuras (a term of abuse for Muslims, referring to their circumcised status). The New York Times published a transcript of the police wireless tapes later.

In Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi was trying to refer to the circumcised status of Muslim males when he threatened the Katuas (the Muslims). All this is standard material in hate speech.

Such behaviour suits a certain section of the political class. However, stereotyping and maligning a large section of society is not the remit of the judiciary. We would request that a review of the judgment by a larger bench be instituted and the uncalled for obiter dictum be struck off the court proceedings. This is important in view of the grow shrillness of the anti-Muslim chorus in the poll campaign and the threat of a long-term polarisation. Not doing so would be strengthening the hands of people like Varun Gandhi and Parveen Togadia in their vicious schemes.
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