“Our obscenity law is an awful leftover from British colonialism”

On 19 August 2016, ten years after a case was filed against him under a colonial-era "obscenity" law for his novel Nakhlistan ki Talash, a Mumbai court ruled that the charges filed against Urdu writer Rahman Abbas under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code were unwarranted. These 10 years have been an uphill struggle for Mumbai-based Abbas, who lost his job as a lecturer at a city college when the controversy erupted in 2004-05.

In this interview, Abbas, now working as a researcher with a think-tank, and with three more novels out since Nakhlistan Ki Talash, speaks about the vindication that was such a long time coming.

You’ve been an outspoken critic of Section 292, the law dating back to the 1800s that was used against you. What other outdated laws would you like to see repealed or at least debated by society?

On the day I was acquitted, I made it clear that I wish to struggle to abolish Section 292 of the IPC, which is in fact an awful leftover from British colonialism. This law was formulated in the year 1860, under the influence of Christianity. The outcome of European and Middle Eastern societies of the past, it is against our cultural history and civilization. Our ancestors have given the world the Kama Sutra, Khajuraho, and Sanskrit liberal poetic traditions where kama is a core aspect of human life, and eroticism a sacred experience. Across India, we can find [sculptures of] nude deities celebrating lovemaking as an eternal experience of being and living in this form. I wish this law be repealed also because in the past, it was misused by religious fundamentalists, opportunists, anti-art folks, and intellectually handicapped people, to torture and harass writers and artists like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, M. F. Hussain and recently, Arundhati Roy. In addition, I wish Section 377 and sedition charges be repealed, or amended. Section 377 is discriminatory, whereas sedition charges were designed by imperialist forces to subjugate occupied countries.

Your case was pending in the Andheri Metropolitan Court for 10 years, as your hearing kept getting deferred. What were these years like, for you?

It made me humble and strong simultaneously. It changed me from a self-indulgent modernist writer to a humanist and activist who tries to speak on every issue, including domestic violence, gender discrimination, or against politically motivated hate in the name of religion and culture. It made me more Indian, after my encounter with the journey of the Indian civilisation, understanding the history of cultural diversity and the significance of coexistence. It gave me courage to speak up against every Taliban – be it Muslim, Hindu or [belonging to] any other religion. Yes, I suffered as my job was snatched away, but that is a price one should be ready to pay for speaking their mind and living for the sake of the arts.

Despite the legal and personal struggles you were already facing because of your court case, you didn’t hesitate from returning, in 2015, the Maharashtra State Urdu Sahitya Akademi Award you won for Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Ankho Micholi. Did you ever feel apprehensive of adding, perhaps, a sedition charge to the obscenity one you were already battling?

No, I didn’t think about it. I was convinced by my conscience that it was my duty as an Indian citizen to speak against politically motivated hate and against the silence of the regime over the murders of our rationalist and humanist intellectuals. The continued pressure from writers and artists has forced the state to show some action and now, as you know, the CBI has filed a charge sheet in the Dabholkar murder case [naming] Hindu Janajagruti Samiti member Virendra Tawade, who had links with the Sanatan Sanstha.

To read the full interview, click here.