Mumbai: In an incident that raises serious questions not just about the fate of freedom of expression in India but also the rule of law, an elected official in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad has been sent to prison for a year for declaring that he would not be participating in a condolence meeting for former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Prior to his arrest, he was assaulted by fellow corporators but despite the violence getting recorded on video, the persons who attacked him have managed to avoid being taken into custody.
On August 17, a group of BJP corporators attacked a Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) corporator in Aurangabad after he refused to participate in the condolence meet organised for Vajpayee. Syed Mateen Sayyad Rashid, a 34-year old corporator elected from the Town Hall constituency, was attacked by several corporators including deputy mayor Vijay Autude and a lady corporator.
Curiously, Rashid was later booked and arrested under three different cases for rioting, inciting communal disharmony and also under the stringent Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Slumlords, Bootleggers & Drug Offenders (MPDA) Act, 1981, and sent to judicial custody for a year.
The City Chowk police confirmed that a case of rioting was registered against the five BJP corporators also, but they were all let off immediately on bail.
Soon after Vajpayee’s death, Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Mahatma Gandhi Central University in Motihari was also assaulted by a group angered by critical comments he had posted on social media about the former prime minister.
The corporators of the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation had assembled at the corporation office on August 17 to pay homage to Vajpayee, who had passed away a day before. Mateen, who was present at the meet, decided to register his protest in the standing committee meeting and announced: “I have not forgotten Babri Masjid. I shall refrain from participating in the condolence meet.” Mateen was hinting at the demolition of the Masjid that took place in December, 1992 and the alleged role played by BJP leaders in inciting the mob of Kar Sevaks and the subsequent demolition. Soon after his statement, several BJP corporators leapt on Mateen, punched him on his face and even beat him with slippers. The commotion was recorded on the house’s CCTV camera, and the footage was soon made public.
AIMIM’s MLA from central Aurangabad Imtiaz Jaleel told The Wire that Mateen was singled out and attacked. “Mateen had, without using any unparliamentary words, registered his protest against the standing committee’s decision to pay homage to Vajpayee. He was targeted by a mob of BJP corporators. But the police booked them under bailable sections and let them off within less than two hours but booked Mateen under three separate cases,” Jaleel said. City Chowk police said the five BJP corporators were booked under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 506 (criminal intimidation), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting) and 149 (unlawful assembly with common object) of the IPC.
Mateen was arrested soon after the commotion at the corporation’s standing committee meeting. He was initially booked under section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code for ‘promoting enmity between two groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, etc. and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’ and sent to police custody for a day. “That same evening, a few men went ahead ransacking a few private vehicles belonging to BJP leaders from Aurangabad. The next day, when Mateen was released on bail, he was booked again for the violence,” Jaleel said. Finally, the deputy commissioner of Police issued proceedings against Mateen under the MPDA sections and ordered for his judicial custody for a year. This law, mostly used in political cases, does not allow bail for a year, and the only appellate authority is the three-member advisory committee comprised of former high court judges. AIMIM plans to move the high court against Mateen’s arrest.
The Aurangabad police later issued a press statement, alleging that Mateen had been involved in several criminal cases including inciting mob violence. Police inspector Madhukar Sawant told The Wire that the proceedings under the MPDA were begun after taking Mateen’s behaviour into consideration and the several charges against him. “He has around nine criminal cases registered against him; some three of them were registered in last three months,” Sawant told The Wire. Jaleel claimed those cases were politically motivated and were mostly filed by BJP cadres and local leaders.
Mateen is not new to controversies, though. In the past, too, he has been vocal against the corporation’s stand to build a memorial in the name of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Mateen had objected to the decision and had pointed at the Sena’s “communal politics” and asked for the money to be spent in the welfare of common people from the city. He had also opposed to the singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ in the corporation office and sought to exert his right to ‘freedom of speech and expression’. His acts of defiance such as these have been construed as a crime and an attempt to incite communal disharmony in the city. “He has been unnecessarily taking difficult stand against the establishment. It has been his habit to disrupt the normal course of events in the corporation office,” Sawant added. Municipal commissioner Nipun Vinayak said a resolution has been passed by the corporators recommending to the government to disqualify him as a corporator.
Mateen’s move to oppose the condolence meet on August 17 did come as a surprise to his party too. “The party had issued a condolence note as soon as Vajpayee passed away. All 25 corporators of AIMIM were to participate in the condolence meet. I do not know why he decided to defy the party, but that is a separate matter. What happened to him was absolutely unfair and unconstitutional,” Jaleel added.
‘Wherever Muslims Live…’: Text of Vajpayee’s Controversial Goa Speech, April 2002
The speech generated a huge controversy in April 2002 not just because of its inflammatory contents but also because Vajpayee tried to mislead parliament by claiming an edited version issued by the PMO was the actual text.
Speech delivered by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Goa, April 12, 2002
I was in Cambodia just recently. It is the Kamboj state of the past, where magnificent temples that kissed the sky were built in the tenth and the eleventh centuries. It had Hindu states ruled by Hindu kings. There were others too among the citizens, but there was justice towards all. Sometimes the kings also used to fight among themselves. The wheel of victory and defeat rolled on. But during their centuries’ long history there isn’t a single instance of a Hindu king destroying temples or breaking idols when he attacked another Hindu king. The kings who were victorious used to build a new temple. If Vishnu was being worshipped there earlier, later Shiva began to be worshipped. If Shiva was being worshipped at one time, then other deities began to be worshipped later. Nevertheless, no king destroyed a temple or damaged the deities’ idols at the time of attacking another king. This is our culture. This is our outlook, which treats all faiths equally.
Yet, accusations are being hurled today that secularism is under threat. Who are these people accusing us? What is the meaning of secularism for these people? India was secular when Muslims hadn’t come here and Christians hadn’t set foot on this soil. It is not as if India became secular after they came. They came with their own modes of worship and they too were given a place of honour and respect. They had the freedom to worship God as per their wish and inclination. No one thought of converting them with force, because this is not practiced in our religion; and in our culture, there is no use for it.
Today the 100 crore people of India are engaged in creating their future on the basis of their own culture. Sometimes, minor incidents do take place here and there sometimes they take the form of major incidents. But if you go to the root of these incidents, you will find intolerance, you’ll find them to be a manifestation of growing intolerance. What happened in Gujarat? If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express, then the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen. People were torched alive. Who were those culprits? The government is investigating into this. Intelligence agencies are collecting all the information. But we should not forget how the tragedy of Gujarat started. The subsequent developments were no doubt condemnable, but who lit the fire? How did the fire spread? Ours is a multi-religious country, a multi-lingual country, we have many different modes of worship. We believed in peaceful and harmonious co-existence. We believe in equal respect for all faiths. Let no one challenge India’s secularism. I have read somewhere in newspapers that the Congress Party has decided not to try to topple my Government. Shall I thank them for this? Or shall I say that the ‘Grapes are sour’? How will the Government fall? Once they did topple it, but they couldn’t form one themselves. Then a fresh mandate from the people was called for, and the people once again gave us an opportunity to serve them.
For us the soil of India from Goa to Guwahati is the same, all the people living on this land are the same. We do not believe in religious extremism. Today the threat to our nation comes from terrorism. Wherever I went around the world, the heads of state or of elected governments complained to me that the militant Islam is sowing thorns along their paths. Islam has two facets. One is that which tolerate others, which teaches its adherents to follow the path of truth, which preaches compassion and sensitivity. But these days, militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. It has raised the slogan of Jehad. It is dreaming of recasting the entire world in its mould.
You will be surprised to hear this—indeed, I too was surprised—that some terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda were arrested in Singapore. The rulers of Singapore couldn’t even have imagined that Al-Qaeda would be active in their country, too; that Al-Qaeda would hatch a conspiracy in Singapore too. Some fifteen or sixteen persons were arrested, an investigation is underway, which will reveal the truth. The same is happening in Indonesia. The same is happening in Malaysia.
Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger.
As far as we are concerned, we have been fighting against terrorism for the past 20 years. Terrorists have tried to grab Jammu and Kashmir through violence, but we have countered them. Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, and will forever remain so. No other country’s dream will ever, come true. Now other nations in the world have started to realize what a great mistake they did by neglecting terrorism. Now they are waking up, and are organizing themselves. They are putting together an international consensus against terrorism.
We tell them through our own example that a large number of non-Hindus live in our country, but there has never ever been religious persecution here. We have never discriminated between ‘our people’ and ‘aliens’. The modes of worship may differ, but God is one. Only the paths to reach Him and realize Him can be different. It is for this reason that India’s prestige is growing, India’s reputation is rising. I have also had an occasion to visit many other countries. Everywhere Muslims live in large numbers. And the rulers in those countries are worried lest those Muslims embrace extremism, We told them that they should educate people on the true tenets of Islam, that they should also teach other subjects in madrasas. Islam too should be taught, but emphasise that people should live together and that it is necessary to accept that faith cannot be propagated on the strength of the sword.