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1. A Government in Panic

CHAPTER 1

A GOVERNMENT IN PANIC

Muslims in India have often sought shelter under Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (I.P.C.) for preventing every public discussion of their creed in general and of their prophet in particular. Quite a few publications which examine critically the sayings and doings of the Prophet or other idolized personalities of Islam, have been proscribed under Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.) as a result of pressure exerted by vociferous, very often violent Muslim protests.  Little did they suspect that the same provisions of the law could be invoked for seeking a ban on their holy book, the Quran.

The credit for this turning of tables goes to Chandmal Chopra of Calcutta.  It was he who filed a Writ Petition in the Calcutta High Court on 29 March 1985 stating that publication of the Quran attracts Sections 153A and 295A of the I.P.C. because it �incites violence, disturbs public tranquility, promotes, on ground of religion, feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will between different religious communities, and insults other religions or religious beliefs of other communities in India�.  He also prayed for a rule nisi on the Government of West Bengal �to show cause as to why a writ of mandamus be not issued to it directing it to declare each copy of Quran whether in the original Arabic or in any of the languages as forfeited to the Government� in terms of Section 95 of the Cr.P.C.

The case had caused considerable excitement among the �believers� (Mu'mins) and interest among the �infidels� (KAfirs) in April-May, 1985.  The press in India and abroad gave many headlines to what was rightly regarded as an unprecedented event in the history of religion.  It was the first time that a Pagan had questioned the character of a document hailed as the very Word of God by a People of the Book.  The roles now stood reversed.  So far it had been the privilege of the Peoples of the Book to ban and burn the sacred literature of the Pagans.

The Petition was disallowed by the High Court.  But the issues raised by the Petition remain pertinent.  No law court can deny to �infidels� the right to know what treatment the Quran prescribes for them at the hands of the �believers�.

Law has its limitations, particularly in a country where its main corpus continues to be what alien regimes, Islamic and British, had devised for their own imperialist purposes.  Moreover, a law court is hardly the forum for framing final judgments on matters of grave moral and spiritual import.  A free and forthright discussion of the Quran cannot and should not come to a stop simply because the existing law is not competent to take cognisance of its contents.

The surAhs and Ayats of the Quran which Chandmal Chopra had cited in support of Ng plea, received scant or no attention at all in the heat of the controversy whether a book regarded as sacred by a large number of people can be the subject of a lawsuit.  Those who have not read the Calcutta Quran Petition, as it came to be known, cannot envisage the quantum and quality of evidence marshalled by Chopra.  Our people are entitled to know exactly the issues that were involved.  It is only a properly informed public opinion which can decide in the long run whether a book qualifies - rationally, morally, and spiritually - or not as a religious scripture.  This is the end we have in view while publishing verbatim the Petition as well as other papers relating to it.

A brief history of the case will help in placing the Petition in its proper perspective.  Most people do not know why the Petition was presented.  They also do not know how the case was politicised form the very outset and what powerful pressures were brought into play even before the High Court had a chance to consider whether the Petition could be admitted for adjudication.

Himangshu Kishore Chakraborty takes the Initiative

Before Chandmal Chopra came into the picture, Himangshu Kishore Chakraborty, also of Calcutta, had written a letter on July 20, 1984 to the Secretary, Department of Home, Government of West Bengal, pointing out that the Quran contains matter which makes its publication an offence under Sections 153A and 295A of the I.P.C. In three Annexures to his letter, he had cited quite a few sayings of the Quran - 37 sayings which �preach cruelty, incite violence and disturb public peace�; 17 sayings which �promote, on ground of religion, feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will between different religious communities in India�; and 31 sayings which �insult other religions as also the religious beliefs of other communities�.  He had requested that all copies of the Quran in the original Arabic as well as in translations be forfeited forthwith to the Government in terms of Section 95 of the Cr.P.C.

Citations made by Chakraborty showed that he had made a painstaking study of the Quran.  He had reason to do so.  As a former resident of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) which became a province of Pakistan in August 1947, he had witnessed at the time of Partition as well as later on, a peculiar pattern in the behaviour of the Muslim majority towards the Hindu minority.  He had also known how the renowned religious leaders of East Bengal Muslims had approved of that behaviour pattern as in keeping with the highest tenets of Islam.  Ever since, he had been searching for the belief system which inspired this behaviour pattern.  He felt sure that he had found the primary source of that belief system when he studied the Quran.

The Secretary of the West Bengal Home Department, however, did not even acknowledge Chakraborty�s letter.  He, therefore, wrote a reminder on 14 August 1984, enclosing a copy of his first letter along with the Annexures.  But six months passed and there was no response.  It was during this interval that he met Chandmal Chopra who also had been studying the Quran in order to understand why the Hindus in Bangladesh were being systematically uprooted from their ancestral homeland, even after India had made great sacrifices for securing freedom for Bangladesh.

Chandmal Chopra is an adherent of the ancient Jam tradition which has all along stood for the five principal virtues prescribed by all schools of Sanatana Dharma - non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and non-covetousness.  It was a puzzle for him as to how adherents of another religion could persist in practices to the contrary and that, too, with a good conscience.  His question stood as if answered when he came to the Quran.  He was in a position to confirm that the conclusions reached by Chakraborty were correct.

Chandmal Chopra now felt reinforced to do something about what he thought to be a matter of major public interest.  So he wrote a letter on March 16, 1985 to the same Secretary in the Government of West Bengal, drawing the latter�s attention to the contents of the Quran and referring to the demand made earlier by Chakraborty.  He requested that his letter be treated as �notice demanding justice� and made it clear that unless necessary steps were taken by the Government of West Bengal within 7 days from the receipt of his letter, he would take �such steps as may be advised to us�.

Chopra�s letter also remained unacknowledged.  He, therefore, filed on March 29, 1985 his famous Writ Petition in the Calcutta High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.  Sital Singh, another public-spirited citizen, joined him as a co-petitioner.  The grounds the Petition gave for seeking action from the Government of West Bengal were the same as provided earlier by Chakraborty.  But now they were couched in appropriate legal language and presented according to the correct legal procedure.

The Writ Petition came up before Mrs. Justice Padma Khastgir on April 1, 1985.  She directed that the matter would appear in her list on April 8. There were, however, two postponements before the matter could appear on April 12.  On that date, the learned judge gave directions for filing of affidavit-in-opposition by th6 Respondent (State of West Bengal) by May 3, 1985, and affidavit-in-reply by the Petitioners by May 17, 1985.  The matter then stood adjourned to May 27, 1985.

The affidavit-in-reply was duly filed by the Government of West Bengal stating that �as the Holy Quran is a Divine Book, no earthly power can sit upon judgment on it and no court of law has jurisdiction to adjudicate it� and that �from the time of the British Rule and since Independence, inspite of the Indian Penal Code being in existence, there had never been such an application in any Court in India�.  But for reasons unknown, Justice Khastgir released the matter from her list on May 2. On May 7, the Advocate-General of West Bengal requested the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court to assign the matter to another bench.  Finally, on May 10, the Chief Justice chose Mr. Justice Bimal Chandra Basak for hearing the Writ Petition.

The Union Government becomes Panicky

Meanwhile, all hell had broken loose.  The Telegraph of Calcutta dated May 9 carried a UNI report date-lined New Delhi, May 8. �The Union Government,� the report said, �has decided to intervene in the writ petition in the Calcutta high court praying for a ban on the Quran.  According to an official release, the law minister [Ashoke Sen] is proceeding to Calcutta immediately for giving the necessary instructions.  The government has decided to seek the outright dismissal of the petition, the release added.  It is also understood that the attorney-general [of the Government of India] is being briefed to appear in the case.�

A staff Reporter of The Telegraph added: �Justice Khastgir had asked the state government and the Union government to show cause as to why the Quran should not be banned.  The order created considerable resentment at the Bar Association [in Calcutta] where Muslim lawyers had called an extraordinary meeting and moved a motion for condemning Justice Khastgir for having admitted the case.  The motion was. however, defeated as the lawyers moving the motion could not muster enough votes.�

The Telegraph dated May 10 reported that the same sort of pressure was being mounted by the Government of West Bengal: �The Chief Minister, Mr. Jyoti Basu,� it wrote, �today [May 9] described the writ petition filed in the Calcutta High Court challenging certain portions of the Quran a �despicable act.� Mr. Basu who was replying to the Forward Block MLA, Mr. Anil Mukherjee, in the state Assembly also felt that the court should have dismissed the petition outright as the subject matter pertains to religion.  According to him, the Union government has already contacted the state authorities who had sought the former�s help in resolving the issue.  �I have also told the advocate general to talk to the chief justice of Calcutta high court in this regard,� Mr. Basu added.� It did not occur to Jyoti Basu that the matter being subjudice, he was committing contempt of court.  Nor did the court reprimand him for this breach of law.

The matter was also raised in the Lok Sabha at New Delhi on May 10 by two MPs, one belonging to the Congress(I) and the other to the CPI (M).  According to The Statesman dated May 11, �The speaker, Mr. Balram Jakhar, agreed with them that this was a serious matter.  There was, he noted, enough trouble in the country and there was no need to add anything which would stir up another conflagration.� What bothered Balram Jakhar was the fear of trouble and not the right or wrong involved in the case.  In fact, he was inviting Muslim mobs to take to the streets, and create trouble.  In his reply to the MPs, the Minister of State for Law, H.R. Bhardwaj, said that �when the writ petition had come to the Government�s notice, the Government had immediately considered measures to counter it� and that �the Government was deputing the Attorney-General to Calcutta to seek dismissal of the writ petition�.

The Government and politicians of Pakistan, however, were not impressed by the Government of India�s efforts to protect the Quran.  The Telegraph dated May 14 carried a PTI report datelined Islamabad, May 13: �Pakistan�s minister of state for religious and minority affairs, Mr. Maqbool Ahmed Khan, said today that the petition against the Quran moved in the Calcutta high court was the �worst example of religious intolerance.� The Pakistan President.  Gen.  Zia-ul-Haq, was quoted by an Urdu daily as saying that the facts of the case were being ascertained.  Mr. Khan alleged that religion and life and property of minorities were unsafe in India and urged the Indian government to �follow the example of Pakistan� in ensuring freedom of religion.  He said �if the Quran had been banned in the name of secularism, the religious books of Hindus should also be banned.� Maulana Kausar Niazi, a pro-Zia politician, asked the Organisation of Islamic Conference chairman, Mr. Sharifuddin Pirzada, to draw the attention of the Muslim world to �react against this heinous act.� He asked the government to make an official complaint to India and appealed to the Pakistani religious leaders to observe Friday as a protest day.� Thus the theocratic state of Pakistan made it an occasion for delivering lectures to Indians on the subject of religious freedom and the rights of minorities.  Nobody who was anybody in India at that time is known to have reacted to this assault from an Islamic state which had driven out most of its Hindu minority, and was treating the rest as non-citizens.

Contradiction in the Government�s Stand

The governments of India and West Bengal had panicked because of their presumption that the Writ Petition had been admitted by Justice Padma Khastgir.  But this was by no means certain.  The Telegraph of May 10 carried a report of the controversy which was raging in Calcutta round this point.  �There is a serious difference of opinion,� it wrote, �between Chief Justice Satish Chandra and Justice Padma Khastgir on the one hand and the advocate-general Mr. Snehangshu Acharya and a large number of lawyers on the other, on whether Justice Khastgir had admitted a writ petition demanding the banning of the Quran.  Justice Chandra and Khastgir maintain that the petition moved by Chandmal Chopra and Sital Singh was not admitted in the court.  However, the advocate-general and a large number of lawyers, are convinced that the petition was admitted by Justice Khastgir.  The significant fact is that the controversy has acquired a serious dimension only because Justice Khastgir �entertained� the mischievous petition, instead of dismissing it outright.  Justice Khastgir told The Telegraph that she issued directions on the petition as she would not turn down any petitioner.  Meanwhile, the registrar of the high court has informed The Telegraph that he has been directed to state that the petition under Article 226 had not been admitted by Justice Khastgir.� The accomplices of Islamic imperialism in India - Communists, Socialists, Nehruvian Secularists, Gandhians - were throwing all judicial proprieties and procedures to the winds in defence of Islam which they viewed as the most effective weapon against their common enemy - Hindu society and culture.

Spokesmen for the State and the Union governments could not or did not want to see the contradiction involved in their stand.  If, as they affirmed, the petition had been admitted, the matter was subjudice and their comments on it constituted contempt of court.  But if it had not been admitted, they should have waited for Justice Khastgir�s ruling regarding its admissibility.  Obviously, the panic created by mounting Muslim protests had paralysed all rational faculties in certain quarters.  According to The Tele-graph dated May 10, �The Union law minister, Mr. Ashoke Sen, informed the advocate-general that the Union government would make itself a party to the case as it would affect the Muslim community all over the country and that the case would have international ramifications.� Political considerations thus came to override legal proprieties.

A Mean Move

What was still more reprehensible, the Government of West Bengal set in motion its Intelligence Branch for digging up some information which could be used for a smear campaign against the Petitioners.  The Telegraph dated May 10 reported: �According to an intelligence report Chandmal Chopra and Sital Singh are not permanent residents of the addresses given by them.  Chandmal Chopra, who said he resided in 25 Burtolla Street, does not stay there.  According to the report, Chandmal aged 55 has a room in his name at the above-mentioned premises... The 50 year old Sital Singh is an ex-army man and resident of Hyderabad.  He occasionally comes to the city and stays at 1 Sadruddin Street in north Calcutta in Jorasanko area which is actually an Arya Samaj mandir.  Both of them did not have any police records nor were their names on the special branch files.� Obviously, police files had been rummaged in order to locate something which could compromise the character of Chandmal Chopra and Sital Singh.  No one from India�s public life stood up to ask the simple question whether checking the police record of someone was legal or legitimate just because that person had filed a Writ Petition in a High Court.

Muslim Mobs on the Warpath

The panic on the part of the State and Union governments could not but produce some more unsavoury results.  Muslim mobs in India and elsewhere had been incited by all those who mattered in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  They started taking to the streets and turning violent.  The Statesman dated May 13 published the following news date-lined Dhaka, May 12: �At least 12 people were killed and 100 wounded when Bangladesh police fired on a demonstration yesterday in the border town of Chepal Nawabgunj, 320 km. from here.  Some 1000 demonstrators, belonging to the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami, were protesting against a case filed by two Indian civilians in Calcutta High Court calling for a ban on the Quran in India.  The town chief administrator said today that the police opened fire in self-defence when the demonstrators went on a rampage throwing missiles and setting ablaze government property.  Yesterday�s incident followed a demonstration by at least 20,000 Jamaat-i-Islami supporters in the capital on Friday {May 10}.� The demonstrators in Dhaka, according to other reports, were trying to storm the office of India�s High Commission when they were stopped by the police.

The Statesman dated May 14 carried a report dated May 13 from Ranchi in Bihar: �Agitated over the writ petition concerning the Koran, Muslims here marched in protest for the second day on the main thoroughfare.  The marchers carried banners and black flags and shouted anti-Government slogans.  Yesterday some processionists threw stones at a few shops on the main road while asking the shopkeepers to pull their shutters down.  Following yesterday�s incidents, most of the shopkeepers today preferred to keep their establishments closed when the procession was taken out.�

On the same day, widespread violence was staged by Muslim mobs in Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley which was to become a centre of widespread Islamic terrorism four years later when V.P. Singh, an unashamed champion of Islamic imperialism, became India�s Prime Minister.  The Telegraph dated May 14 reported: �The police fired to disperse a mob which ransacked the CPI headquarters in Srinagar today in protest against the petition seeking to ban the Quran.  An attempt was made to set fire to a bridge.  There was violence in other parts of the city and demonstrators carrying black and green flags stoned the police.  Shops and cinema halls were closed and as a precaution the authorities shut down all educational establishments.  Slogans were raised against the West Bengal government.� There could be no greater irony that the Communist Party of India (CPI), a consistent defender of all Islamic causes, had been bracketed with �Hindu communalists� by Muslim mobs.  But mobs are mobs, and the responsibility for what they do rests on those who mobilize them ever so often.

It was in the midst of this mob fury that The Times of India published three articles by Dr. Rafiq Zakaria in praise of the Quran.  It was one of the many efforts being made by concerned authorities to mollify the Muslims.  According to knowledgeable circles, the articles were a command performance .

A High Court in a Hurry

The developments that took place in the Calcutta High Court were no less dramatic.  As stated earlier, Justice Khastgir had directed Chandmal Chopra to file his affidavit-in-reply by May 17. He was busy preparing it when he received a message on the midnight of May 12-13 that the matter would appear �to be mentioned� on May 13 before Justice Bimal Chandra Basak.  Next day, when Chopra appeared in the court, Justice Basak recalled the earlier court directions regarding filing of affidavits and directed him to move the Writ application afresh as a Court Application.  Chopra had no alternative and had to do what he was told to do by an august authority.

On the other hand, the Attorney-General of India and the Advocate-General of West Bengal had come to the court fully prepared as was obvious from the fat volumes they had brought with them.  Chopra requested for an adjournment on the ground that he had received notice only for �to be mentioned�.  But his request was rejected.  The Advocate-General of West Bengal and the Attorney-General of the Government of India were directed to proceed with their arguments against the Writ Petition, which they did with considerable confidence.  Ill-prepared as he was, Chopra tried his best to counter the arguments.  Justice Basak then dismissed the Writ Petition and reserved his judgement for a later date.

The judgment which Justice Basak delivered on May 17 is a lengthy document.  It quotes copiously from criminal and constitutional case law.  It also contains some passage about the profundities of Islam and India�s philosophy of Secularism.  In between, there are some observations about the eternal, the unknowable, the transcendental, and so on.  A layman�s summary, were are afraid, may mar the majesty of the learned judge�s performance.  Readers will do well to read the full document in Section H of this publication.

Sequel to the Judgment

There was, however, one point in the judgment which had a sequel even after the Calcutta High Court considered the matter as closed.  Justice Basak had criticised Justice Padma Khastgir for having admitted the Writ Petition.  He had pronounced: �The application was entertained and admitted without going into the question of prima facie case and the jurisdiction and power of the Court to entertain this petition.  In spite of the same, directions were given for filing of affidavits.  This by itself amounts to holding that there is a prima facie case though this question was not gone into.  The Court should be circumspect in such kind of matters and be very cautions about the same.  Otherwise though it might attract cheap publicity but may cause untold misery and disruption of religious harmony.  The petition should have been rejected forthwith and in limen as unworthy of its consideration as soon as it was moved.�

Some Muslim leaders pounced on this point to demand action against Justice Padma Khastgir.  A notable example was G.M. Shah, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.  He had returned from abroad on May 20 after a month�s stay in the U.S.A. On the same day, he addressed a mass rally at Iqbal Park in Srinagar.  According to a PTI report reproduced by Navabharat Times, New Delhi, dated May 22, Shah said that �action should be taken against the judge who permitted the petition to be filed�.

The mass rally itself was the climax of continued violence in the Kashmir Valley even after the Writ Petition had been dismissed on May 13.  Leaders of the Muslim community in Kashmir had widened their protest against the Writ Petition for voicing some permanent Muslim �grievances�. The Statesman dated May 18 had carried a news date-fined Srinagar, May 17: �One person was killed and at least three persons were seriously injured when the police fired and exploded tear-gas shells to disperse a stone-throwing mob at Fateh Kadal in Srinagar today, according to police sources, report UNI and PTI.  Srinagar and other parts of the Kashmir Valley today observed a bandh in response to a one-day hartal called by Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, chairman of the Awami Action Committee and other leaders.  Shops and commercial establishments were closed in the city and other towns of the Valley and vehicular traffic came to a standstill.  Banks and Government offices were open, but schools and colleges were closed for the day.  The hartal is being observed in protest against the �conspiracies against the Koran, interference in Muslim personal law, communal riots and the increasing cult of violence in the country,� according to a police spokesman.�

Another sequel to Justice Basak�s judgment may be mentioned briefly.  Chandmal Chopra filed a Review Petition on June 18, 1985 stating that the premises on which the judgment was based were not sound.  He gave eight grounds on which the judgement could be reviewed.  In violation of the normal judicial procedure, the Review Petition also came up before Justice Basak on June 21.  He dismissed it the same day for purely technical reasons without going into the grounds.  The only concession he made was that some of the grounds �may or may not be grounds for appeal�.  Papers relating to the Review Petition are also being published verbatim in Section II.

Footnotes:

The latest instance is provided by Syed Shahabuddin�s letter dated 20th August 1993 written to P.M. Sayeed, Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, demanding a ban �under the law of the land� on Ram Swarup�s Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, published by Voice of India, New Delhi, 1993.

Some of us approached Girilal Jain, Chief Editor of the daily at that time, and asked him if a rebuttal of Zakaria�s white-washing of the Quran would be acceptable for publication in the same columns.  He regretted his inability to do so for reasons, he said, he could not reveal.