Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3
Rushdie episode: Need for a Rational Approach
The visit and participation of Salman Rushdie in Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) in January 2012, once again tested the principle of freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution in the face of intolerance and intimidation by a section of muslim activists and predictably the principle lost the battle. Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses was banned by the Govt. of India in 1988 under the pressure of muslim ulema and others for containing derogatory content against the Prophet. It is noteworthy that only the import of the book was banned under the Customs Act, and that book had not been banned in several muslim countries like Eygpt and Turkey. Iran had issued a Fatwa for assassination of Rushdie for blasphemy against the Prophet, which was withdrawn in 1998 and since then matters had cooled down.
Rushdie, who is of Indian origin, had visited India five times, including the JLF in recent past without any protest. But this time around Darul Uloom Deoband (UP), issued a fatwa opposing his visit and participation in JLF and some muslim organizations threatened violence in case he was allowed to do so putting the govt. and organizers of the Festival in a difficult situation. Rushdie was forced to cancel his visit, both the govt. and organizers apprehending law and order situation, and a video discussion was planned instead. Even this had to be given up in the face of continued threat of violence by some muslim groups.
Needless to add that the final outcome was in tune with and represented a continuation of the trend since the Shah Bano case in the eighties, MF Hussain, Taslima Nasreen and destruction of Bhandarkar Institute in Pune over Lane’s biography of Shivaji. Display of painting of late M.F. Husain in an exhibition in Delhi was thwarted recently. In the last week of Jany 2012 a seminar on ‘Voices of Kashmir’ organized by the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune, had to be cancelled (officially postponed) due to threats by Hindu Janjagriti Samiti and Panun Kashmir, supported by ABVP. They were protesting against screening of a documentary "Jashn-e-Azadi" by Sanjay Kak as it included allegations of excesses by the Indian army and also against topics of the seminar. Allegations against Army excesses in J&K have been stuff of many seminars, films and reports. On Feb 1, 2012, a function for book release of Taslima Nasreen at Kolkata had to be cancelled by the organisers of International Book Fair. However same book of Ms. Nasreen was released in an official book fair in Dhaka on Feb 2 without any protest. Similarly on Feb 1, seminar a on Rushdie Affair at Hyderabad to urge peace had to be cancelled by the organizers under the pressure of Majlis Bachao Tehreek following police advice apprehending violence.
In each case the government and organisers surrendered before intolerance and intimidation and the civil society was a mute spectator and in most cases govt. compliant. The Rushdie case had blackmail written all over it because of the impending assembly elections, particularly in UP, where the muslim vote counts or else why these muslim groups were silent when Rushdie visited and participated in functions and festivals in the recent past. Issuing a fatwa where mere protest would have sufficed is rather surprising. Evidently Darul was emboldened and was sure that govt. would succumb in face of impending U.P. elections. It reflects a mindset on part of muslim organizations. Where the Rushdie episode is no more an issue elsewhere is sought to be exploited in India. It directly feeds the perception that the govt. and secular civil society runs down the Hindu organisations for protesting against the paintings of MF Hussain which denigrates Hindu deities as violation of freedom of artistic expression, while soft pedals the aggression of Islamic groups for electoral gains. The allegations of governmental and civil society (barring few exceptions) indulgence towards Islamic groups sticks. Deities and religious icons of all religious are equally sacred and so are the respective sensitivities which need to be equally protected or else the system or establishment will lose creditability. The government must understand that the right to freedom of expression is only hot air unless the authorities are willing to protect it in face of unlawful threats.
These episodes have divided the multi-religious Indian society and no political party, including the Left and the CPM or communities can hold their head high, and the only loser is the country and its liberal image and principles. There are many who supported the movement against Rushdie, including some writers, and argued that no freedom is absolute and that no one has a right to hurt the feelings of any religious group. This argument is rhetorical and self-serving. The argument of right not being absolute is meant to protect the society from anti-social and non-ethical products like pornography etc and do not cover a debate or comments or facts in an civilized manner. Then who decides what hurts a particular group or sect in a diverse society? In the present case no one questioned the sheer opportunism of the Deoband fatwa and other protesting groups.
It is time that the govt., the civil society and people of all religions and denominations wake up to the reality of the danger that this culture of threats and intimidations poses to our country and its unity. In any mature society and country which claims to have a rule of law all such disputes should be addressed to the court of law. A claim of hurt feelings has now become a business and there is no objectivity as to who and why. In the pertinent case of Rushdie, Deoband and other groups should have approached the court and filed a case u/s 295 IPC and awaited the decision. However, being sure that the govt. and society will succumb to their blackmail why should they? The govt. on its own failed to uphold the verdict of the Supreme Court in a 1989 case about a Tamil film (Ore Oru Gramthile) that the freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threats of violence as it would undermine the rule of law and that the freedom cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people. A time has come for a bipartisan political and social stand on these issues and not succumb to blackmail on account of threats of violence for political reasons and gains. In a diverse society like ours far more fundamental principles are involved requiring clarity and courage on part of the society, political parties and the govt.
This is not to argue that the right to freedom of expression entitles any one to intentionally hurt the feelings of any religious group or icon or even an individual. The difficulty arises in determining what constitutes an injury, who determines it and in case of real offence having been caused the nature of the corrective recourse available to the hurt individual or group in a civilised society where the rule of law prevails. The right to freedom of expression also includes right to protest against its misuse in an appropriate manner, which is lawful. This right to protest can not include violence, threat and intimidation. A balance between the freedom of expression and freedom of protest, both being civilised has to be attempted. Recourse to legal methods ought to be the preferred course, alongwith peaceful protest. In brief, both the right to express and protest have to be exercised in a lawful and peaceful manner.
The fact is that India is a still a nation and a stable tolerant society in the making. The political expediency and social hypocricy from Kashmir to North-East and Punjab to Kerala militates against developing a mature political and social architecture. It allows the agenda of debates to be hijacked by self-serving intolerant people and groups. A diverse society like ours needs consensus and enunciation of certain principles which will not be compromised. We claim to be an ancient civilization and culture, yet we surrender to calls for protecting the greatness of Gita in a Russian Court and eminence of Golden Temple in a late night comedy show in the USA. Our civilizational icons be it the Gita, Ramayana, Vedas or the persona of Ram, Buddha, Guru Nanak, the Prophet, Vivekananda, Shivaji, Gandhi and others do not need protection from religious and societal intolerant groups and immature hooligans. Their eminence and recognition is self-sustaining and they stand on their own and not by ownership of the intolerant groups and a govt. which is willing to be officially coopted in any frivolous issue and demand, including child custody in Norway, something which a junior diplomat should be handling. In the process we debase and demean ourselves as a society and people. Overzealousness over trivial issues is detrimental to self-respect and standing of a mature society and nation.
However, the prevalent political and social faultlines seem to obviate any such development where small time gains are allowed to trump the national interest. While blaming the political class, it is tragic that even the liberal society is also divided over the issue, and in the Rushdie affair they hid behind the fig leaf of apprehension of violence and rationalization, which included the organizers. The liberal secularists were not only mostly silent but also divided and prone to hair splitting on a matter of principle. We need to wake up before its too late. We do not seem to be united even on a issue like corruption, which is corroding our moral fibre as a nation, what to talk about a divisive issue like religion and culture.