The Jelly-legged War Over Salman Rushdie

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Misplaced anger People in Lucknow protest against Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to the Jaipur Lit Fest
Misplaced anger People in Lucknow protest against Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to the Jaipur Lit Fest , Photo: Indian Photo Agency

IN A moment of rapier irony, MF Husain — who died in exile, prisoner of right-wing Hindu outrage — had once told TEHELKA that he could perhaps return to India only if the BJP came back to power. There can be no more succinct comment on the Congress’ spineless politics than the dead master’s sarcastic jibe.

Over the past week, the shameful controversy over Salman Rushdie’s trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival has been a sort of inverse mirror that’s served up the same depressing face. This time it’s right-wing Muslim outrage. But the Congress — which increasingly seems to live more by the historical dividends of its luminous founders than by any contemporary glory — has reacted in exactly the same way. Fearfully. Timidly. Expediently. Hiding behind bogus “security concerns” instead of boldly declaring its bounden duty and deploying the force it commands to back that. (Are we really supposed to believe that a determined government lacks the manpower and bandwidth to secure one writer or artist against the threat of two dozen-odd vandals who usually turn up to disrupt a show?)

There is no poorer excuse in India than the phoney concern for “law and order”.

Of course, no Indian who cares about liberal freedoms needs a reminder that nothing in this vaudeville show is new or unique. It was a Congress government that first banned The Satanic Verses back in the 1980s. A Congress-NCP government that banned Professor James Laine’s book on Shivaji. The Congress that refused to stand by Rohinton Mistry or, most recently, AK Ramanujan’s wonderful essay about the many Ramayanas.

There is a reason the Congress deserves special censure for these jelly-legged capitulations: its history and foundational idea ought to have handcuffed it permanently to an inviolable defence of liberal freedoms. No matter what the cost. Instead, it constantly demeans itself by mucking about in the shallow pool of “sentiment”.

But no other party can afford to gloat over the Congress’ failures. The Left Front has to look Taslima Nasreen in the eye and the BJP’s list is even longer: there’s Professor DN Jha’s book; Aamir Khan’s Fanaa; Habib Tanveer’s plays; and Deepa Mehta’s Fire, to name just a few.

Like the true master he was, therefore, Husain’s artistic little jab was lined to cut both Congress and BJP to size in one shot.

FOR THOSE of us who take the basic principles of democracy as a settled issue, the recurring debate about artistic freedom, hurt sentiment and censorship seems a very tedious one to engage with. It’s true there’s nothing new to say; but it is not a debate we can ever abandon. Every ungainly episode like the current Rushdie fracas maroons us into smaller and smaller holes. And narrows our civilisational imagination.

Curiously though, it’s easier to understand — even empathise with — the aggressors in this debate than those who were elected to defend and fail to do so.

The fact is, in a democracy, if we stand by our right to offend, we must stand by others’ right to feel hurt as well. It might be tempting to remind those who get into a froth over the way Saraswati was depicted or the Prophet was written of that the gods are meant to protect us, we don’t need to protect them. But no reasonable citizen can deny another citizen’s right to feel that froth. One cannot demand deracinated coolth as a pre-requisite for citizenship: every civilised society has to defend the space for cultural conservatism as zealously as it defends the right to challenge it. So as long as the Dar ul-Uloom elders or the platoons of Internet Hindus are not threatening violence or bodily harm, they are not really wrong to voice their protest. Or even ask for bans.

Rushdie has become the living embodiment of the banality of a ban: a fight over thin air

It’s for elected governments to stoically absorb that sentiment and remind them that we have agreed to live in a democratic society and if any fellow Indian’s imagination offends them, they have the right to not read a book, not watch a show, not buy a canvas. Or just plain rebut. (The possibility of exercising choice, therefore, seems to be the most crucial piece in the censorship debate. One can safely argue that books, films, exhibitions or websites should never be banned or censored because they allow the viewer the fundamental right of choice. An offensive ad hoarding on a road that one cannot avoid encountering on one’s way to work, might, on the other hand, violate that right and invoke a legitimate order to be brought down.)

Interestingly, therefore, exasperating as these eruptions might be, it would probably be myopic to wish that the noise cease altogether. It is cultural differences that make the world an interesting place; that prevent it from being reduced to a dull supermarket of uniformly brash liberal sensibilities. Tradition and cultural conservatism function as enclaves that preserve a certain aesthetic or emotional fibre. Ironically, in fact, some of the best art and writing arises out of a tense dialogue with these enclaves — descriptions of them; departures from them; rejection of them.

Cultural sensitivity, therefore, is an ephemeral but necessary code for every society. It is forged through creative friction, through these equal rights to offend and express hurt; to push new boundaries and patrol old ones. It is dangerous to want a blanket barometer for everyone; but equally dangerous not to want a barometer at all. The only argument it seems important to make, therefore, is that artists be allowed to walk that creative minefield without fear of bodily harm and find their own individual zones of aesthetic and intellectual comfort.

The threat of violence is the simplest end of the stick: a virtual no-brainer. Britain’s already set a good example in the case of Salman Rushdie. India would do well to follow even a fraction of that resolve.

THE FASCINATING story of Salman Rushdie then is a distillate of every aspect of the censorship debate: both its real and extreme dangers; and its ludicrous postures. He is both the story. And the parody.

Some of the world’s greatest writing has always arisen out of the tension between securing individual freedom against collective belief. If Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was pushing the boundaries of settled religious belief, he was treading the sacred soil reserved for writers and artists and thinkers: they are meant to push the boundaries of how we see and understand ourselves. They are tasked to protect a society’s soul. To bend the limits of its imagination.

The trouble is nobody any longer knows what Rushdie was doing in The Satanic Verses:neither those who are offended by him, nor those who defend him. Almost no one, including this writer, was given a chance to read the book. The fracas around Rushdie, therefore, is just the babble of the ignorant. He has become the living embodiment of the banality of a ban: a fight over thin air.

It would be a terrible loss to everyone — aggressors, defenders and failed guardians of liberal freedoms — if Rushdie were to be scared off from coming to Jaipur. It would be to declare our collective intellectual delinquency. That rather than have an informed debate, a country of a billion plus people came to a conclusion on something it knew nothing about.

It may be too much to ask to lift the ban on The Satanic Verses. But surely the writer can be assured safe passage. There are other conversations to be had with him. And even some lessons to be learnt.

It is part of the ironic symmetries of this entire debate that the Hindu Right and the Muslim Right hate each other viscerally but are an exact replica of the other: both seek absolute purities and pieties; both seek to curb women’s freedoms, both feel the need to protect their gods rather than the other way round; both feel injured and embattled all the time. And both feel the need to back their “hurt sentiments” with the promise of violence.

But in a further ironic twist, befitting the master fiction writer he can be, far from engaging with his own detractors, no matter how civil they may be, Rushdie himself refuses to speak to anyone who criticises him. That might be a disappointing position coming from someone who has been at the heart of one of the most heroic censorship debates of our times. But the Dar ul-Uloom elders could still take a lesson from him: it’s much better not to speak to those who offend you than ask for them to be banned.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]

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