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Sections of central Kolkata have been paralysed by protests for much of the past week after The Statesman republished an article by The Independent's columnist Johann Hari. Titled "Why should I respect oppressive religions?", the piece was originally printed in The Independent on 28 January. In it, Hari said he believed the right to criticise any religion was being eroded around the world.
The Statesman, a highly respected liberal English-language daily, reprinted the article on 5 February, causing a major backlash among a small group of Muslims who felt that the piece slighted the Prophet Mohamed and insulted their religion. Peaceful protests were held outside The Statesman's offices at the weekend but by Monday, demonstrations had turned violent. Angry crowds began blocking roads, attacking police and calling for the arrest of the article's author and the newspaper's publisher and editor. On Monday and Tuesday police used baton charges to try to disperse crowds and more than 70 protesters were arrested.
Staff at The Statesman were forced to barricade the front entrance to their building and were escorted into their offices through a side door by police. The office is opposite the Tipu Sultan Masjid, Kolkata's largest mosque.
One journalist at The Statesman said: "The police have surrounded our building all this week but the protesters kept coming back. There was a small section who were absolutely hellbent on causing problems."
Last night, Hari defended his article. "I wrote in defence of the right to criticise religion – all religion – and it is vitally important to keep that right alive in the world's largest, and in many ways most admirable, democracy," he said. On two separate occasions Mr Kumar, The Statesman's editor, issued statements standing by his decision to publish the article. But he also said he had not meant to cause offence to any religion. A note published on 8 February said The Statesman had reprinted Hari's article because "it mourned the marginalisation of the middle, liberal path in modern society". It added: "The Statesman has always upheld secular values and has a record of providing space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones. If we were unable to fulfil this role, we would rather cease publication with honour than compromise our basic values.
"The publication of Johann Hari's opinion was not intended to cause hurt, or defame any community or religion. Nor was it intended to provoke societal tension. If unwittingly we have aggrieved any section of society, we deeply regret it."
As well as the protests, a complaint was also filed at a police station by a member of the public, Mohd Shahid, calling for arrests. Speaking to The Independent last night, Mr Kumar said he voluntarily attended the police station yesterday to try to calm tensions. "Upon learning that a case had been registered by Kolkata police, I contacted officers and offered to assist the investigation and to aid efforts to defuse tensions," he said. "Following this, the arrests were made early today and we were released on bail last night."
Since Mr Kumar's arrest yesterday protesters have dispersed.