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Book Review
Dangers of exercising freedom of expression

Secular Horror
by Mustafa Kamal Sherwani
Pharos Rs 80/US$10, 96 pp.
Order Now

It is a harrowing tale of an Indian citizen, Mustafa Kamal Sherwani, being hauled over charcoal for exercising his perfectly legitimate freedom of expression. Sherwani, who teaches law at Lucknow’s Shia PG college, was made to run from court to court over 15 long years for the "offence" of writing a piece on secularism.

Sherwani, whose piece appeared in Radiance weekly (published from New Delhi) in 1985 was charged with sedition. The editor, late Ameenul Hasan Rizvi, and the printer Iqbal Waraqwala, were the fellow accused.

After being made to run from one judicial pillar to another legal post for more than 15 years, they were "acquitted of the charges framed against them in the case", to use the words of the judgment delivered on July 25, 2000. Between the beginning of the proceedings and the acquittal, Sherwani was made to run from Lucknow to Delhi umpteen times. In the meanwhile, Waraqwala had gone to Dubai to work in the production department of the Khaleej Times daily. Naturally, he could not come as often as the case would have demanded.

The book provides an insight into the workings of the lower judiciary and how quite a few people are busy overtime making an ass of the law. One of the persons who specialises in the art is none other than former principal of the now defunct Scholar School in New Delhi, Safia Iqbal.

Safia, who is the wife of Iqbal Waraqwala, comes in for a mention quite a few times, the most important of them being for forging documents. Sherwani, being a teacher of law himself, does not seem to be unduly perturbed over this penchant for the illegal shown by the wife of a fellow accused.

Besides the working of the judicial system, the book also provides insights into the viciousness and internecine rivalries plaguing relations between Islamist individuals and organisations. He describes how one of the luminaries of the Jamaat-e-Islami once described to him the affable Ameenul Hasan Rizvi as a former Jamaat sympathiser who had joined munafiqeen (hypocrites masquerading as believers).

That was a reprehensible slur against a man known for his integrity. Coming from a Jamaat leader, it was an act that epitomised extreme viciousness and smallness of heart.

However, everybody in the Jamaat is not illiberal or irresponsible. Sherwani describes a meeting with the former Jamaat-e-Islami chief, the late Maulana Abul Lais, as a self-effacing, noble soul.

In this rather rambling account Sherwani has a few tales to tell, some of them unrelated to legal niceties. Sadly, quite a few Muslims don’t come off in too flattering colours. The fault here is not that of Sherwani, who turns out to be a formidable fault-finder. 

Sherwani is a fire-brand, which is evident from the periodic resolutions of the All-India Muslim Forum, of which he is the president. The forum is headquartered in Lucknow. His booklet in verse, Iblees and Maulanas is a biting satire on the state of affairs in Muslim religious life. 

At the end, one is tempted to ask a question: Suppose Sherwani was caught in Islamic horror, rather than its secular variant, would he have survived to narrate his experience? To be precise, had he been accused by Iran’s mullahs or Afghanistan’s Taliban for sedition, would he have lived to recount the episode? No prize for guessing.

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