Monday, March 23, 2009

Jamia Millia and Islamic Liberalism in India

I thought I would share this brilliantly written piece by Martha Nussbaum with readers of this blog. Published in the somewhat obscure (at least for me), Boston Review, it tells the story of Jamia Millia Islamia -- that much misunderstood and under appreciated university in our nation's capital and its gallant and distinguished vice chancellor Mushirul Hasan. Nussbaum, who has written persuasively about religious fundamentalism and violence in India, especially Gujarat, paints a poignant picture of Jamia's misfortune in recent times, especially after the September 2008 police "encounter." In the most compelling section of her excellent piece, Nussbaum raises an important, and alarming question that we desperately need to confront: why does our legal system treat Muslims differently than those of other faiths (or of none)?

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Jamia case is the atmosphere surrounding those who provide legal counsel to people accused of terrorism. One after another, bar associations in different parts of the country are announcing boycotts of terror suspects. In Madhya Pradesh, two suspects were forced to hire counsel from a different state after all local lawyers refused them. A leading state BJP official supported the boycott, saying that “a distinction must be made between criminals and terrorists.” So much for the presumption of innocence. In Uttar Pradesh, lawyers have been faced with threats to their safety if they take on terror cases. Legal and social activists believe that the Hindu right has profoundly infiltrated the mechanisms of criminal justice making it very difficult for Muslims to get a fair trial. Often, moreover, Muslims remain in detention without trial for years. Muslims constitute 18 percent of convicts in Indian prisons, 21.8 percent of those whose cases are currently being tried, and 37.2 percent of those in detention awaiting either trial or specific charges.
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