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How Constantinople changed the Orthodox World

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Soon it will be one month since the Ecumenical Patriarchate reinstated the primates of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC KP) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and finally headed for granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the Tomos of Autocephaly.

This decision has already led to large-scale changes in Ukraine and the Orthodox world. So, what’s happening?

Ukraine: Property redistribution, fighting for the new Church’s Primate chair and uncertainty

The first thing the Ukrainians did was redistributing property. A part of the deal between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Autocephaly was a number of real estate items in the center of Kyiv. As it is rumored, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France visited the country to review the objects; their size and value quite impressed him.

On October 18, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed the President’s bill on handing St. Andrew’s Church in Kyiv to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Up to that moment the church served as the UAOC’s cathedral but its primate Metropolitan Makarios supported the presidential decision since his organization will be part of the new united Ukrainian Church and he is ready to sacrifice for it.

Meanwhile the UOC KP is getting ready to obtain new real estate items. On October 20, the Synod changed the title of its head: now he will also be the “Holy Archimandrite of the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavras”, which belong to the UOC MP. On the eve of elections, Filaret seems to demonstrate his supremacy before Makarios and the UOC MP. As it is known, the UOC KP and UAOC are in long-lasting conflict, which escalated since the Tomos will be granted shortly.

The UOC MP certainly is in no haste to recognize Constantinople’s decision: the clergy of a few large eparchies of the Moscow Patriarchate vote for Metropolitan Onufriy and against the Tomos. Met Onufriy openly claims that the Phanar’s actions are uncanonical and calls for defending the faith. Bishops won’t join the new Church without their clergy and dioceses.

For instance, in predominantly anti-Russian Rivne Oblast in western Ukraine, all the clergy and monks unilaterally supported Met. Onufriy.

At a voting by secret ballot in Odessa Diocese, only 3 (!) priests of 406 were against Met Onufriy.

Metropolitan Sofronios of Cherkasy was the only bishop of UOC MP dioceses who openly supported Autocephaly. Cherkasy Diocese’s voting by secret ballot showed that nearly all of the local clergy deprecate the Autocephaly. Facing criticism, Met Sofronios had to publically state that he “won’t join the same Church with Filaret.”

In case Filaret and Makarios don’t reconcile and UOC MP bishops stand aside, the Unification Council will fail. The only result yielded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s strategy would be an exarchate and valuable property in the center of Kyiv. But where is the promised unity of the Ukrainian Church?

The world: A schism, the declining authority of the Greek Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Patriarch

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has failed to reach concord in the world Orthodoxy. It is starting to divide into two camps. Despite the cut ties, Moscow couldn’t be isolated: the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Slavic Churches are against Constantinople’s hasty actions on the Ukrainian question and the conflict is expected to be universal.

Such stand-offs can’t foster the positions of the Greek Orthodoxy. Constant quarrels between the Local Churches undermines the authority of the Orthodox Church in the eyes of Roman Catholics and Protestants: the Greek Orthodoxy once again looks ridiculous.

The ambiguous events influencing the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s reputation also added oil to the fire. First, the contents of the confidential talks on August 31 with Patriarch Kirill were leaked. The negotiations were recorded only by Constantinople’s representative, so it couldn’t have been published without prior consent of Patriarch Bartholomew.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is quite aggressive toward the Russian Orthodox Church without presenting grounds for his accusations. Thus, he has recently blamed Moscow for the dissemination of “well-paid articles” and “black propaganda” without clarifying what he meant.

Obviously, scandals like this one and aggression toward other Churches negatively affects Bartholomew’s reputation. Moreover, it looks like the Ecumenical Patriarchate strives not for the Unity of the world Orthodoxy but for its own supremacy over other Churches.

There should be recalled the situation with the “pearl in Constantinople’s crown” – the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA). In summer, some of its influential supporters spoke about independency following the example of Ukraine, but these talks were cut off. Meanwhile, for several months the Phanar has been trying to displace Archbishop Dimitrios. Against the background of the Ukrainian Autocephaly and open war with Moscow, the attempts to restrict the GOA’s independence and kick out its primate look cynical. Otherwise, it can urge the Archdiocese’s clergy and laity to unite for independency.

Relations with the ROC: the future of the ecumenical dialogue in question

The rupture between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has influenced not only the processes between the two Churches. In cooperation with the ROC, Constantinople conducted active inter-confessional negotiations, but since Moscow refused to take part in them, the future of the relations, first of all with Roman Catholics, are not that promising. Now the talks led by Constantinople won’t be all-Orthodox, and this can be a pretext for predominantly anti-Ecumenical Churches to abandon them.

Besides, the Phanar’s actions will affect the Orthodox Diaspora: without the ROC, the Assemblies of Bishops won’t be that effective, their activity can stall.

At this moment, it’s unclear what awaits us in the future but one thing is obvious: the Orthodox world has changed and it will never be the same. Yes, Constantinople has won in the battle for supremacy becoming “the first without equals.” But the price is too high.

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance

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A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.

This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.

It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.

“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.

Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.

Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.

Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.

The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.

The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.

The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.

Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.

The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.

The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.

The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the  Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.

With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).

In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.

The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.

As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.

The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.

“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.

In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.

The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.

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Sedition law: Hand-maiden of the Modi’s government

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Sedition laws have become a handmaid of India’s government under Narendra Modi to stifle dissent, incarcerate political opponents or persecute minorities. Shouting  a slogan, wall chalking, social post “azadi” (liberty), wearing a prayer cap, or offering prayer on adjoining roads when a mosque is overcrowded could attract sedition charges. Even interfaith marriages or cow related offences could be tried as sedition. The Hindu-monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh had directed his administration to try cow related offences under the National Security Act. Some states have passed love-jihad laws to prevent interfaith marriages. The over-ebullient Hindu extremists haul up even such people to the police stations who are happily married long before enactment of the law banning inter-faith marriages.

Apathy of India’s Supreme Court

Till recently, the Supreme Court had looked the other way in cases where there was blatant misapplication of the sedition law. Some verdicts smacked of communal bias. India being a secular country, the Supreme Court should have avoided dabbling into religious matters of different communities particularly of the largest minority, the Muslim. But, in vain. The Supreme Court pronounced that a mosque was not essential to Muslim way of worship. It allowed demolition of the ancient Babri Mosque. Thus it accepted the fictitious contention that Ram god was born at the site of the mosque millennia ago.

In marked contrast to its “Islamic” judgments, the Supreme Court had a benign attitude toward the Hindu religion. It admitted that a temple was necessary to the Hindu mode of worship. It allowed menstruating women to visit Sabarimala temple.

Supreme Court’s awakening

The plethora of sedition cases awakened the SC from its slumber. While quashing the sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, the Supreme Court expressed ennui on slapping sedition charges to gag journalists. A  Bench of the Supreme Court led by Justice UU Lalit upheld “ the right of every journalist to criticise, even brutally, measures of the government with a view to improving or altering them through legal means”.The case against the journalist had been filed by the ruling BJP and was fervently defended by the Himachal Pradesh state government. The journalist was accused of “criticising the prime minister and the Union government for mishandling of the migrant crisis during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic”. The court drew attention to the 1962 Nath case judgment. That judgment took the sting out of the sedition cases filed under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. In the aforementioned case, the Supreme Court had ruled that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code can be used only when someone’s word actually leads to violence or generates an inclination for violence. The Section 124A describes sedition as punishable with imprisonment from three years to life, a fine or both.

Among journalists facing sedition cases is Siddique Kappan based in Kerala. He was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while on his way to Hathras to cover a rape case last year and had been denied bail. Kappan and 21 other journalists covering the Hathras rape case were charged under Section 124A.

Similarly, several prominent journalists were charged under the sedition law for their coverage of the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The Supreme Court stayed the arrest of all of them. The Court observed that the Constitution has varying criteria for permissible restrictions on freedom of speech and expression and draws a boundary between serious and aggravated forms of public disorder which are calculated to endanger the security of the State and the relatively minor breaches of the peace of purely local significance.

 India’s Supreme Court had earlier observed in its 1950 judgment on Romesh Thapar versus State of Madras. “Only a higher degree of threat pertaining to endangerment of the foundations of the State could justify curtailment of the rights to freedom of speech and expression,” Thapar was editing a weekly journal called Cross Roads which was constantly at loggerheads with the Congress government of the day.

Disregarding the guidance in this judgment, the successive governments continued to mis-apply the sedition law.

Birth of the sedition law

When the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860, the sedition law was not included in it.  It took another 10 years for Section 124A to be included. Mahatma Gandhi was tried under this law in 1922. He told the court that the law had malafide intent. It was tailor-made to suppress the liberty of the citizen.

Concluding remark

India’s Law Commission issued a directive in 2018 that cautioned that a simple expression of a thought inconsistent with the government’s policy did not qualify as “sedition”. One has to be circumspect while invoking the sedition law. Yet, the Commission’s voice has proved to be a voice in the wilderness. Sedition law is a handy tool to stifle dissent. It is hoped that India’s Supreme Court will define the contour of the law more stringently to preclude its misuse by the fanatic Modi government.  

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