Today, I learned that Salman Rushdie has decided to not come for the Jaipur Literary festival after all citing death threats. This is on top of the fact that his book The Satanic Verses is still banned in India. Coming on the heels of the death of the great MF Hussain as a citizen of Quatar in a hospital in London and various other such events this news was very depressing for me. I have always found such incidents to be shameful and every time something like this happens, it is like someone has violated my own sense of security and feeling of freedom.
How is that a bunch of good for nothing bigots who have contributed very little intellectually, culturally, economically or socially apart from serving as dead-weight on the ankle of India who is in a mortal struggle to free herself from debilitating social evils and systemic problems get to decide on what others should or should not do? How is it that they have a right to be outraged when people don’t take their god or gods or prophets or whatever seriously? Why is that their sense of outrage at books being written or words spoken more important in the eyes of society than the outrage of the common man at having his freedom to enjoy what he likes, to travel wherever he wants or his right to personal safety violated?
Anyone can believe in anything. That is up to them and their right to do so is something that is worthy of protection by every member of our society. But, to think that everyone should respect what they respect as a result of their beliefs is a mistake and if such desires are indulged it can do immeasurable harm to the intellectual and moral fabric of our society. If the government is going to accept that no ideas that can “offend” people can be disseminated then where are we going to find material with which we can evaluate, understand and question ourselves? If intellectuals, artists and activists have to operate under the yoke of religious bigotry and blackmail by pre-modern organizations, then what hope do we have as a society of progress and enlightenment?
If the government is worried about the hurt caused to people why doesn’t it take into account the outrage that the decent, hard-working moderate majority of India feels on seeing their fellow citizens of talent, ability and erudition threatened? What about their hurt at finding out that the government won’t be willing to side with them in a confrontation with violent bigotry? What about their opinion on books and movies denied to them because it is offensive to someone else?
What is this “offense” or insult anyway!? I have the right to say no to anything that can happen inside my house or be exposed to without my express intent. I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what others should read, what others should write, what should be available on the book-shelves of India, what DVDs and CDs are available for purchase, what audio can be distributed, what can be there on the internet etc. etc.. If there are outright lies being published under the guise of fact, I can challenge them in court with a request for evidence.
There is a silent, faceless enemy among us, stalking our future. It fills the dark deprived recesses of our society and uses the cover afforded it by the ignorance and helplessness of the masses. The authorities think that they are “playing it safe” by forfeiting every challenge thrown its way. They think that they are doing the people a favor by allowing them to be lead by people with a divisive and communal ideology motivated by political aims and personal ambitions. Every time the people in charge, whose responsibility it is to know better and safeguard our values and true legacy take a step back and shy away from confrontation, they are simply setting themselves up for a bigger challenge in the future. The stakes will be higher and giving up might not be a tenable option then…
The government does not ban every book, movie or painting that offends any number of people. Only when there is a threat of violence does it rush to oblige the demands made of it. What does that tell people who are taught to be intolerant? That if you ask nicely no matter how reasonable you are no one is going to listen to you. But, if you are going to make a lot of noise and threaten to unleash death and violence then whatever you want will be given to you. When civil rights organizations, authors’ guilds and decent people request the government for lawful protection the government has a moral obligation to listen. Else, eventually, the only people left with options will be the ones prepared to kill and once everyone realizes that, we will be only a stone’s throw away from anarchy and bloodshed.
The constitution sadly provides protection(Section 295A of the IPC) against criticism targeted at religious ideas. But, what about injury targeted at more universal ideas like freedom or expression, right to criticize and right to question? Are they not worthy of at least as much protection as old fairy tales? Reading the First Amendment to the US constitution was an instructive experience for me. It cannot be the business of the government to act as the protector of religious dogmas.
It is not enough that the government does not ban anything, it has to step in and use its muscle to protect people when rights are under attack. We have no issue with deploying massive forces against our own people. We don’t mind it when government machinery and money is put to use to maintain and service pilgrimage routes and to help people make pilgrimages. When there is an individual being threatened we must not think in terms of his security. It is our own freedom that is under attack. Nothing can be more precious and worthy of defense than that.
I read today in the morning paper that the authors at JLF read out passages from The Satanic Verses as a gesture of resistance. Individuals showed courage and vision that is worthy of emulation by our country. People like them are the ones who keep the flickering flame of hope for this country burning.