Surveillance of Mosques and Profiling of Imams Undermines Democracy

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Soon after Mehbooba Mufti expressed her angst publicly on clerics and imams making sermons of a political nature, sections of the media in Kashmir reported that the CID was profiling Imams and taking note of their activities. In an unrelated development, Mehbooba Mufti praised India for individual freedoms and the choice thereof to “decide” for themselves. It may be stated here in a liberal democracy, the individual reigns supreme- he/he is the locus around which liberal polities/societies are predicated upon. From individual liberty and freedom flows the bedrock idea and concept of “freedom of speech”. This is a right enshrined in the Constitutions of liberal democracies- India being no exception.(India also, it needs to be said, recognizes group rights given the diversity that defines it).

What then is Mehbooba saying when she makes these assertions?

At one level, Mehbooba is indulging in a welter of contradictions. “India is great, according to the Chief Minister” because “ it accords freedom of choice” and individual rights(presumably freedom of speech too) but Imam’s and clerics in Kashmir should be monitored and their political statements checked. In one go, Mehbooba contradicts herself. If India is democratic, then it goes without saying that every individual is allowed to state what he/she thinks. But, if this freedom of speech is denied to people, then the very foundation of liberal democracy stands weakened.

Why then did Mehbooba make the cleric remark?

Whilst we cannot be sure of the motivation undergirding Mehbooba’s remarks, we can only speculate. Our speculation leads us to the conclusion that Mehbooba (and/or her advisors) fear the Mosque and its potency. Regardless of the proliferation of different forms of media in Kashmir- conventional, social, print and visual- the most potent medium for reaching out to the people, convincing them remains the Mosque. The reasons are both religious and idiomatic.

Kashmir is a Muslim dominated region and Muslims generally hold the Mosque to be a sacred abode with great sanctity accorded to it. The idiom employed in the Mosque is religious and people generally understand easily and follow vigorously what is said/ stated in the Mosque. Mehbooba, by proclaiming her angst about Imam’s making political speeches in Mosque and then the alleged surveillance of Mosques by the state appears to be fearing that the Mosque by becoming the domain of the political will damage her politically. This, among other things, suggests that Mehbooba feels threatened especially given that her party has chosen to ally with the far right party, the BJP. Given the potency of what is said in the Mosque, and given its impact on people in the context of the PDP-BJP alliance, Mehbooba’s fear might be genuine.

This, however, does not mean that Imam’s be profiled and Mosques placed under surveillance for it undercuts both individual freedom and freedom of speech. Mehbooba’s party, the PDP’s “battle of ideas” is also undermined here. If Mehbooba is confident about her ideas and politics, then she need not fear anything; what she could do is engage with counter narratives and ideas in any domain(s). But her angst and fear suggests otherwise.

Now if indeed the state places Mosques and Imams under surveillance, this would put the state at odds with society and drive dissent and discontent underground – as has happened in some authoritarian Middle Eastern countries. The consequences of this are for all to see. Moreover, even in Europe and other Western countries, in terms of effectiveness, Mosque surveillance has not really worked. So, all in all then, Mehbooba’s remarks are ill chosen and the putative/alleged course of action- surveillance of Mosques by the state- badly conceived. They not only undercut and undermine democracy but also could have, by circumscribing religious liberty, unintended consequences of practical import.

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