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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On naming dogs, and intolerance

I've just received a letter from Naresh Fernandes, editor of that fine magazine, Time Out Mumbai, addressing an issue that I believe is of immense importance to all those of us who believe in individual freedoms. I'm reproducing the letter here, and I endorse especially strongly the last line. If you feel the same way, do take this issue up and spread the word.
Dear Editor

I’d like to call the attention of your readers to a cynical attempt by political workers to inflame religious passions in Mumbai over the last week, harnessing the eager assistance of the authorities to turn the press into the scapegoat. The chain of events went into play with the publication of a report on Feb 19 in the Times of India, detailing the arrest of one of its reporters under 295A of the IPC (deliberately injuring religious sentiments). The article says that the reporter, whom it does not identify, was arrested on the complaint of a local municipal corporator, who claimed to have taken offence at an article written one month ago about pets owned by Bollywood stars. It goes on to state that the arrest was carried out even though the paper had already apologised for details in the article that were later found to be inaccurate; the very details to which the complainant had taken offence.

A subsequent report in Mid-Day on Feb 21 casts more light on the episode. Though the Mid-Day report makes no mention of the arrest of the Times reporter, it says that the actress Manisha Koirala has been provided police protection “after her dog’s name sparked protests among Muslim fundamentalists.” The report says that “members of the community lodged a complaint at Versova police station saying that the dog’s name, Mustafa, was same as that of their spiritual head and had to be withdrawn immediately.”

While the Times management has forbidden the reporter from speaking to the press about the incident, her colleagues have identified her as Meena Iyer, a reporter on the Bollywood beat. They say that she was arrested by the plain-clothes policemen, who appeared at her home at 9 on the morning of Feb 18. At first, they even refused her permission to change out of her night-clothes and they jostled her, her colleagues say.

The episode raises troubling questions. To start with, since the report was published a month before the journalist’s arrest, the police have no real grounds for claming that it had inflamed communal passions. Instead, it is obviously the complainant who is seeking to stoke the fires. It seems baffling that the police would arrest the reporter, instead of the complainant. Considering that the police have in the past failed to act on complaints against hate speeches by such figures as Bal Thackeray, the alacrity with which they arrested Ms Iyer is perplexing.

This is further evidence the Maharashtra government’s willingness to cave in to the demands of fundamentalists, a sentiment that it demonstrated earlier in February by issuing a non-bailable warrant against the editor of the Mumbai Mirror under the same section of the IPC, for printing a photo of an allegedly offensive tattoo. The editor had to obtain anticipatory bail to avoid arrest. In January, the Maharashtra government banned the translation by American academic James Laine of a praise poem, “The Epic of Shivaji”.

Episodes like this greatly compromise our ability to effectively function as journalists, and must be countered with strong condemnation.

Yours faithfully

Naresh Fernandes
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