Why a Nobodaddy in everybody

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Salman Rushdie’s impending visit to India has ruffled feathers and the birds don’t know why

Nisha Susan Editor, features

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government became the first in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In 2012, we are grateful that the current Congress government is not actively seeking ways to scuttle his visit to the Jaipur Litfest. Such are our low expectations that we are grateful when Salman Khurshid tells PTI, “Why should Congress stop this? If there is a legal provision to stop someone then it should be put. But whatever step is taken should be taken within the legal framework, not outside it.” Such are our low expectations of a party that was part of the combine that banned James Laine’s book, that condoned the exile of MF Husain. Such are our low expectations in an election year, especially when the man calling for Rushdie’s expulsion, Darul Uloom Deoband vicechancellor Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, is sitting in simmering Uttar Pradesh. The BJP, stirring the pot, has openly accused the Congress of engineering the whole controversy — of planning to first invite Rushdie and then rescind the invitation to gain local brownie points. Thus we come full circle — from the perpetrator to the victim to the authorities, everyone, we suspect, has vested interests. Everyone, to borrow a Rushdie villain, is now Nobodaddy.

The truth is we Indians now suspect everyone of a warm revenue model — from the victims of dowry deaths all the way to our roving bands of moral police. Earlier this month, gay artist Balbir Krishan was attacked by persons unknown at his exhibition in the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi. A painting was damaged, but the artist (who had lost both his legs in a train accident in 1996) was luckily uninjured. He said the attackers told him when they had chased off MF Husain, who was he to get away with such gumption? Now for the more interesting part — for every exclamation of sympathy one heard for Balbir, there were two cynical ones saying, “Now his art will sell!”, or “He must have paid them to hit him”. And as TEHELKA’s own ‘rent-a-riot’ sting showed in 2010, this idea is not that far-fetched. The sad fallout of unveiling the machinations of groups like the Ram Sene has been our renewed tendency to blame the victim. Whether in the case of Balbir or Rushdie, even our eagerness to be offended is now being overtaken by our mercantile enthusiasms.

Can we be convinced that Nomani is genuinely worked up about Rushdie’s visit? It’s seeming a bit hard. Here is a vice-chancellor whose own recent appointment seems a bit shaky. Here is a man who has just declared a fatwa against firecrackers. Here is a man who didn’t realise that Rushdie doesn’t need a visa to visit his country.

From the perpetrator to the victim to the authorities, we suspect everyone of having vested interests

Every society has space for cultural conservatism, but in our seething hotpot of self-interests and material gains, where are the genuine cultural conservatives who tap into our anxieties about a chaotic world? Why must they leave us with the likes of Nomani and his second-rate ideas?

It seems tiresome to have to reiterate that a democracy can only function with freedom of expression. Tiresome to reiterate that living in a democracy means living with people who disagree with you, offend you. Even if they’re folks who are scared of firecrackers. Even if they’re 65-year-old writers who hold literary contests on Twitter. All of this must seem so tiresome and obvious to you, dear reader. And thank goodness for that.

Nisha Susan is the Features Editor with Tehelka. 
nishasusan@tehelka.com

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