One current and one former representative of the IHEU are under attack in their home countries at the same time. Both face the threat of being subject to discriminatory legal actions, as well as the dangers that come along with any ‘blasphemy’ accusation.
Gulalai Ismail from Pakistan is a current board member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). She runs Aware Girls, an IHEU Member Organization. Aware Girls is an award-winning, women-led organization for the education and empowerment of women and girls, with a focus on human rights awareness, equality and peace-building. Gulalai and Aware Girls have faced a campaign of defamation accusing Gulalai of “blasphemy” and the organization of undertaking “immoral” activities.
On 8 June, the office of Aware Girls received notice from the Social Welfare Directorate suspending its governing board and demanding that the organization hand over all assets and records to the Directorate. Those who had been calling for the shutdown of Aware Girls were already celebrating by the time the organization received the notice. There had been no arrest or formal statement of allegations against the organization or its board.
In a statement the organization said: “Aware Girls’ believe this as an attack on its constitutional right to Freedom of Association and the right to Free and Fair Trial. Groups like Aware Girls are rare, and thus extra valuable as an example of democracy and the human rights of all citizens. Aware Girls’ has been making Pakistan and the world a better place for young people especially young women.”
Babu Gogineni from India is a former director of the IHEU, who left the office in 2015. During his time at IHEU among other things he campaigned for the protection of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, and bringing Pakistani freethinker Younus Shaikh to safety in Europe. He has continued to be very active in the humanist movement, co-founding the South Asia Humanist Association and working with the America Humanist Association.
Babu is currently appearing on Big Boss Telugu, an Indian version of ‘reality’ TV show Big Brother. On entry to the Big Boss house his motivations as a contestant were billed as being to “help him spread his message of humanism and rational thinking, to a greater number of people”.
While isolated from the wider world in the Big Boss house, multiple and numerous charges have been filed against Gogineni. The charges under the Indian Penal Code have been detailed as “Waging, or attempting to wage war…against the Government of India”, “Sedition”, “Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion”, “Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration”, “Obscenity”, “Sale, etc, of obscene objects to young person”, “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”, “Criminal breach of trust”, “Cheating”, “Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace”, and “Statements conducing public mischief”. He is also alleged to have illegally stored Aadhaar data (a national identity number which only certain registered agencies are allowed to store under the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) Act at a event in Visakhapatnam; the organizers of this event have disputed the accusation against the event itself and also explained that Babu was a guest not an organizer).
Babu was accused by one Veera Narayana Chowdary. Veera has appeared on a television talk show to defend raising the charges, on the grounds that his ‘religious sentiments’ were hurt after watching Babu’s speeches recorded prior to the Big Boss competition. During the TV panel discussion, Veera said he had submitted as evidence video footage of Babu criticising Hindu traditions.
Veera also repeated assertions that have been made repeatedly on social media and TV discussions in recent months disputing Babu’s association with various humanist, rationalist and human rights groups. These false claims appear to be part of a continuous campaign to discredit Babu. The IHEU itself has received numerous enquiries from various sources within India since the beginning of 2018 questioning Babu’s prior affiliation with the IHEU. The IHEU head office in London has repeatedly confirmed to all enquirers that Babu Goginieni certainly was on the staff, and later a consultant, for the IHEU over several years. This information was already available on our website and we confirm it again now!
Police have been waiting for Veera to submit further evidence before any statement is taken from Babu, vowing to take him out of the Big Boss house if necessary.
Culmination of years of work – and threats
The current situations of both Gulalai and Babu are shocking. They signify a serious increase in the pressure put on humanists and human rights defenders in their respective countries, and in region more widely. Both the current situations represent a culmination of years of good, principled work by these humanist activists – and a culmination of building threats and intimidation.
Gulalai Ismail has faced a building campaign of threats and attacks on her character in recent years, as well as repeated defamatory attacks on the organization Aware Girls (fundamentalists object to the education and equality training that the organization provides for women and girls).
Along with members of her family she was forced to relocate internally within Pakistan following an attack in 2014. In 2017 she was accused of ‘blasphemy’, alongside a campaign of hate which included online rape and death threats. Gulalai turned the tables on her persecutors by suing them for intimidation over the malicious accusations and threats.
An Islamist activist, Hamza Khan, was among those accusing Gulalai of ‘blasphemy’, and has been a leading figure among those groups accusing Aware Girls of “immoral” activity. He celebrated the closure of Aware Girls’ offices in a Facebook post indicating that the actions of the Directorate were a direct result of their lobbying.
Meanwhile in India, Babu Gogineni has long-campaigned around human rights and social issues, especially those linked to superstition and harmful traditional or religious practices. In the past few years he has become more prominent as the host of a national Telugu-language science programme, The Big Question, and has variously appeared on TV talk and magazine programmes debunking astrologers and ‘miracle’-working ‘godmen’ as charlatans.
Last December his debunking on live television of a prominent astrologer, Venu Swami, in particular the exposure of a faked photograph of Venu with the prime minister, prompted a host of new – and false – accusations against Babu’s own connections (see above), as well as a slew of new social media accusations that he is ‘anti-Hindu’ and bringing India into disrepute.
Babu has had to increase his security in recent years following the murders of several other Indian rationalists.
Reaction from humanist and rationalist community
President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, comments:
“These spurious legal actions and campaigns of hate and disinformation against both Gulalai and Babu are attacks on the values they hold and the work they do as humanists, rationalists and human rights defenders.
In both India and Pakistan, humanists have been repeatedly threatened, targeted and killed, and anyone accused of ‘blasphemy’ becomes fair game in the minds of some radical Islamist or Hindutva groups. Therefore, these kinds of accusations, in particular of ‘blasphemy’ and insinuations that the accused is somehow a traitor to the country, are not only malicious and disruptive to the lives of those accused, they are also extremely dangerous.
“As with proponents of humanism anywhere, Gulalai and Babu want to advocate for liberal values, to educate the public, and to uphold equality and human rights. We petition the authorities in both countries to reject these malicious accusations and uphold the rights of Gulalai and Babu to do their work, which is not only legitimate but is in the interests of the public at large.”
Taslima Nasrin, author, freethinker and human rights defender, said: “It is a tragedy to see that instead of improving, the situation for secular humanists in South Asia is deteriorating. Whether it is Islamists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or Hindutva in India, wherever there is religious nationalism and radicalism there is suffering for the non-religious and religious minorities. I support Gulalai and Babu and condemn the threats to their lives and the unjust attempts to shut down their work for humanism.”
Atheist and Agnostic Association Pakistan told IHEU: “In Pakistan, accusations of blasphemy, and human rights violations linked to accusations, are often made to settle personal disputes or to silence human right activists and political critics. In Gulalai’s case, state and non-state actors are using ‘blasphemy’ as weapon against her due to her vocal stance on human rights and support for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Unfortunately the country’s political parties also use religion in politics and label the opponents as blasphemers and anti-Islam, instead of playing a active role to end blasphemy law.”
A representative of Jana Vignana Vedika, a rationalist organisation based in the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra, told the TV debate: “There is a larger issue at play. Looking at incidents from the murders of MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, the message is clear that there is an organisational effort to discredit rationalists and their allies. The investigators also said that the same group was responsible for both these attacks.” He also disputed that Babu or rationalists more widely were ‘anti-Hindu’ in any sense of being bigoted or hostile, pointing out that “As rationalists, we are against harmful practices in every religion”, not against individuals or against belief groups as a whole. “While it is true that we do target superstition in the Hindu religion along with other psuedo-sciences like astrology, we must note that India is largely populated by Hindus. So it is only obvious that these issues will be highlighted more. However, they appear to be sending a message that questioning their faith is an attack on religion,” he added.
A joint press event was held by members of the South Asian Humanist Association, Science for Society, Jana Vignana Vedika and Indian Humanists at the press club in Somajiguda, 30 June. Lawyers representing Babu said the charges should be dismissed as contravening the right to freedom of expression, and complained that, “What pains us is that this attack has come at a time when Babu can’t defend himself. This is why, all of us have gathered here to express solidarity. Besides being a personal attack on Babu, this is also an attack on humanism and rationalism.”
Narendra Nyak, renowned rationalist and president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) is among four rationalists who police last month said needed special protection because of the threat to their lives from Hindutva extremists. Nyak told IHEU: “We are long used to attacks from religious fundamentalists of all tinges, trades and callings! When we opposed the evangelical healers we were called as anti-Christian, in opposing people like Zakir Naik as anti-Muslims, and now it is the turn of the Hindutva gang to cast their evil eyes upon us. There seems to be a coordinated campaign of vitriol and violence. I have been on the alleged hit list of such from several years. As days go by the hate campaigns have become more and more vicious. In the last month the special investigation team for the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation has submitted a list of people for whom security has to be provided and in the top four among them is yours truly! In India, as in Pakistan and across South Asia, humanists and rationalists are threatened!”
In a press statement, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) said it “strongly condemns the attacks on the Humanists of Telengana/ Andhra Pradesh. Babu Gogineni an eminent rationalist/humanist who is at present participating in a TV show called Big Boss in Telugu and hence incommunicado for some months has been the subject of a vilification campaign and a number of private cases have been slapped upon him for allegedly provoking sedition and civil unrest. … All these are attempts by the reactionary elements to suppress the voices of reason through intimidation [are undertaken] because their propagation of rational thinking has made the people question the superstitions and wrong practices of the society. We appeal to the authorities to provide them protection and strongly protest against this suppression of voices of reason.”