Rahman Abbas: Testing The Limits Of Freedom Of Expression

Our special series on people who have been victimised for saying what they think. Between legal action, violence and harassment, they have paid a heavy price for the right to freedom of expression.

Rahman Abbas, Urdu Fiction Writer

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Rahman Abbas, is a 43-year-old writer from Mumbai. He has five novels to his name and is the recipient of the National Award for Literature by the Universal Center for Peace and Research. Abbas’s name also figures under the list of ‘famous Urdu novelists in the 21st century’ in Wikipedia.

But for all this critical acclaim, Abbas has had to pay a price. He has been charged under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for 'obscene passages' in his first Urdu novel—Nakhlistan Ki Talash (Search of an Oasis).

Nakhlistan published in 2004, was well received but it also caused an uproar in the conservative Urdu literary circle. The novel set in the back-drop of Mumbai’s 1993 riots is the story of a Muslim youth grappling with conflicting identities and emotions. The protagonist-Jamal, is caught between the lure of right-wing preachers and tormented by his love for a young girl. His attempts to establish his identity ultimately leads to a tragic and mysterious end.

Abbas narrates his experience after the controversy broke around his novel which led to his arrest a year after Nakhlistan was published. “This novel was based on the chaotic situation in Kashmir and its impact on the minds of educated Muslim youths of that period who had already suffered a lot at the hands of communal violence that erupted post demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. One of the students, who had to review the book, took offence to the parts where young Jamal was making love to his girlfriend and publicised just certain parts. The FIR happened after the controversy gained momentum,” remembers Abbas.

As soon as the FIR was lodged, Abbas was arrested in the wee hours of July 28, 2005, sent to Mumbai's infamous Arthur Road Jail and kept under lock-up for two days. Due to his arrest and the ongoing controversy, Abbas was forced to resign from his post as lecturer in a junior college in Mumbai. He was charged under Section 292 of The Indian Penal Code, 1860 for the printing of grossly indecent or scurrilous text which carries a jail term of up to two years.

Like his novel’s protagonist, Abbas too had to bear a backlash from his religious community. He has been labeled a heretic and a threat to Islamic doctrine and orthodoxy. But this has not deterred him from writing. In the past decade, Abbas has published four other works which include the much-appreciated Ek Mamnua Muhabbat Ki Kahani, Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Ankh Micholi, Ek Simat Ki Talash and Urdu Novels in Twenty First Century and other Essays.

Abbas’s case is pending in Mumbai's Andheri Metropolitan Court—for ten years, he has just been handed dates for hearings, and waited for a judge to preside over his case. The next hearing is scheduled for August 7 and Abbas still harbours hope of receiving justice.

Also, on ‘Testing The Limits Of Freedom Of Expression’, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, crime reporter Tarakant Dwivedi, and journalist Shirin Dalvi share their experience.

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