Hindu group threatens secularists with police over “offensive” talk

Posted: Fri, 19th Jan 2024

Hindu charity told Leicester Secular Society it would report talk on caste to local Hindu community and police.

Rathfelder, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped)

A Hindu charity has threatened to report a secularist group to the police over a talk critical of Hinduism.

In December, Leicester Secular Society (LSS) held a talk, entitled "Hinduism: Wretched Immoral Compass", by a former Hindu.

The talk aimed to "highlight the failure of Hinduism as a moral compass and show that it was flawed from the very outset". It also examined "the contribution of several neglected Indian figures who stood for liberty, equality, fraternity, social justice, women's rights, secularism/humanism and more".

The promotional image for the flier included a diagram of the Hindu 'caste system'.

Hindu council: failure to rectify situation "may lead to further escalation"

Before the talk took place, LSS received an email from Rajnish Kashyap, general secretary of the London-based Hindu Council UK (HCUK), to express the charity's "deep concern and offense [sic]" at the event's title.

The email said the title "seems designed to appeal and incite hatred towards Hindus, who are one of the largest and most peaceful groups globally".

It went on: "We intend to bring this matter to the attention of the local Hindu community, and local authorities, including the police.

"The use of offensive language targeting a religious community can have significant repercussions, and we hope you take our concerns seriously".

HCUK said it hoped LSS would "address our concerns promptly and take appropriate action to rectify the situation" and that failure to do so "may lead to further escalation of this matter".

LSS: Taking offence 'cannot be used to justify curtailing freedom of expression'

LSS chair Ned Newitt wrote to HCUK in response, saying that LSS is "committed to the free discussion of religion" and "deeply opposed to discrimination".

It said the society is "keen to explore the relationship between religion and discrimination", including discrimination against women and gay people promoted in the Abrahamic religions. It said the December lecture intended to explore "the relationship between Hinduism and the discrimination inherent in the caste system".

There are an estimated 50,000 – 200,000 people in the UK who are regarded by some as 'low caste' and at risk of caste discrimination. There is evidence of caste-based discrimination and harassment present in employment, education and in the provision of services.

HCUK has been highly vocal in its opposition to anti-caste discrimination law. In 2017 its then-director of interfaith relations Anil Bhanot claimed that attempts to outlaw caste discrimination via the Equality Act were a "vengeful" act of Dalits (the bottom tier of the Hindu caste system) stemming from animosity toward 'higher castes'.

LSS said it "believes in reasoned argument based on a study of the available evidence", and that it had every reason to believe the speaker's talk "will be well researched and will stand up to scrutiny".

It continued: "Free expression is a fundamental principle of a free, democratic, secular society, and we must not go back, through the backdoor, to the type of society where religion is exempt from criticism, ridicule and satire".

LSS suggested HCUK "confuses respect for individuals and respect for beliefs," adding: "While respect for the rights of the individual is enshrined in law, beliefs and organisations do not and should not automatically command respect in a democracy.

It said: "We do not think that 'taking offence', which is a subjective response, can be used to justify curtailing freedom of expression".

The talk was held on December 6th without incident. No members of HCUK are believed to have attended. LSS has received no further contact from HCUK or the police.

LSS is thought to be the world's oldest secular society, founded in 1851. It is affiliated with the National Secular Society.

NSS: Free speech "must include speech which offends religious sensibilities"

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "The title of this event was provocative, no doubt reflecting the seriousness of criticisms made about Hinduism's caste system. But it's certainly not a police matter.

"The fundamental right to free speech must include speech which offends religious sensibilities, or it is no freedom at all.

"It is worrying that a charity would fail to understand this and attempt to shut down an event critical of religion by threatening the organisers with police action.

"We applaud Leicester Secular Society for its robust and measured response, and for going ahead with the talk as planned."

Megan will be giving a talk at LSS on March 3rd on the theme of secularism and feminism. The talk will be held at the LSS headquarters at Secular Hall. Click here for more information and to book your place.

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Tags: Caste, Charity, Free speech