When The Liberal Mask Slips
The situation is as ridiculous as many of the ironies in his celebrated books. But alas, it is not magic realism, but quite the reality, the furore over Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. To some extent, it’s one of those contrived controversies in a season where no other story is competing for eyeballs.
The mullah brigade has made its usual statements about the writer not being allowed to set foot on Indian soil. The TV channels have a great talking point: there are some themes that can always be debated. For 24 years, ever since Satanic Verses invited the wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, and was subsequently banned in many countries, including India, Salman Rushdie is always ready material for controversy.
It would be the Ashok Gehlot government’s responsibility to provide security and manage the law-and-order situation if Rushdie arrives in Jaipur. The author had attended the festival in 2007 and there had been no problem. But now that dissent has been manufactured, it has acquired an energy of its own. By now, several clerics, some known, others obscure, have come out with statements. Commentators like Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya and member of the Samajwadi Party, have taken public postures opposing the visit: “He should be allowed here only if he apologises. If he comes, we will exercise our right to protest.”
Ire ground Mumbai protests Rushdie’s India vacation in 2004. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook, January 30, 2012)
Since a storm is indeed being stirred in the teacup, protests are certain. The TV cameras will be waiting if Rushdie does descend on India, and TRP ratings will shoot up. A celebrity writer being hounded by obscurantists is just too compelling a story. The story also touches on the issue of blasphemy (always a provocative talking point) and the question of whether the Indian state is genuinely liberal.
To his credit, however, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari says that “there comes a time when people have to stand up for liberalism. I would suggest that the organisers of the festival put Rushdie on video conference if he cannot attend personally”. Fellow spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi reacts to the suggestion that the Centre is planting stories to discourage Rushdie from coming. “It is wrong to say that. It is normal for states to give law-and-order inputs to the Centre. The Centre will weigh the pros and cons and the visit will only be stopped if the law-and-order situation is deemed to be unmanageable.”
The Congress regime in Rajasthan is nervous. There had been a communal conflagration in the Mewat region some months ago when 10 Muslims died, and the party would not want to alienate the community any further. But do ordinary Muslims really care? Ramzan Chaudhary is a lawyer in Gopalgarh village in Mewat, and says that people in the villages are so backward, female literacy among the minorities being as low as five per cent, that they really don’t care about such issues. “If you go to the villages, they will ask who is Rushdie?”
Even those who would have strong words against Rushdie do not see it as a larger issue for the community. Najeeb Jung, vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, has this to say—“Rushdie as an individual is very low on the moral quotient. The Prophet is very special to Muslims and he has never apologised for hurting sentiments. As for his coming to India as a PIO, he has the legal right and I don’t think most people really care about this as a big issue.”
Yet, there is a perception that the New York-based author attending the literary festival could somehow impact the elections in Uttar Pradesh as Muslims would be upset with the Congress for not preventing his visit. M.J. Khan, spokesperson of the Peace Party—which is expected to get a section of the community’s vote—says that the state elections are being fought on local issues and “I don’t think this could become a genuine issue with people”. However, he adds: “It is a concern for the clerics and we believe that if there is a perception that people’s sentiments are hurt, then Rushdie should not be welcomed.”
There is a larger problem the Rushdie storm highlights. Today, any random group can claim offence or shout blasphemy about a work of art, historical or literary writing. Politicians in general don’t want to offend anyone—they’d rather please everyone. So from Rama Sene and Shiv Sena-type extremists succeeding in sending painter M.F. Husain into exile, where he died last year, to the Ramanujan essay on the Ramayana being dropped from the Delhi University syllabus, the narrow vision triumphs far too often. Showing outrage over a book or art is also a sureshot way to ensure media coverage for a small group of goons or obscurantists. Politics in India can certainly shrink our imaginations. Salman Rushdie has always created a rich imaginary world of fantastic characters, from farishtas to moors to the unforgettable Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children. His own journey over time, space and across continents, unfortunately, seems to inhabit a similarly fickle universe.
Apropos of Who’s Afraid of Nobodaddies? (Jan 30), the government’s ambivalence on Rushdie’s visit was unfortunate. Their vacillation over making the choice between upholding the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and appeasement of a religious community for votes was pathetic and unacceptable. The apex court has made it clear time and again that the likelihood of a law and order problem is no ground to deny freedom of movement to writers and artists in a free country like ours. I, for one, look forward to the display of The Satanic Verses on Indian bookshelves.
Apropos your cover story, Who’s Afraid of Nobodaddies (Jan 30), Muslims may not like Rushdie but are indifferent to his coming or going. Nor do they pay any notice to declarations and fatwas. So why does the media play it up? Political parties too have to stop thinking that the mullahs represent the community. I also cannot understand the need for Outlook to publish an outdated photo of protest against Rushdie. Till you read the caption, it seems like an ongoing protest, like tensions are simmering when there are hardly any. If a long shot of the gathering had been taken, I am sure it would show the presence of just a handful. The media is making a mountain out of a molehill.
You credit Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari, no less, with the suggestion of having Rushdie on video conference which, of course, was subsequently not allowed. It seems the Congress continues to suffer from lack of uniformity in thinking and consistency in approach. After the video link too was cancelled at the last minute, that quintessential Congress loose cannon Digvijay Singh, when asked for his comments, supported the cancellation saying religious sentiments of a section of people must be respected (and literary freedom be damned). One recalls the same Singh a few years ago deploring protests against M.F. Husain on grounds of creative freedom.
Sandip K. Pitty, on e-mail
A sensible piece, exposing Congress’s undeclared war on honesty and probity in public life in India.
Tushar Patel, Jamnagar
The issue is not of protests from Deoband. They are entitled to make fools of themselves. This is also not about the few intolerant bigots who take to violent action; they are numerically too inferior. The crime here is that a ruling party has delivered a death threat of sorts to a pio through its state government.
A. Abhi, Mumbai
Blame the government. An issue which could have been handled sensitively was blown out of all proportion and allowed to overshadow a fine literary event.
Shamael Jafri, Lakhimpur Kheri
Where were all the liberal writers when goons attacked M.F. Husain’s shows and drove him out of India? The truth is that India is divided right down the middle and there is really no liberal, non-partisan media or a liberal people as such.
Haruncts, on e-mail
First, they banned the book. Now, they have banned Rushdie under pressure from the votebanks. Election years!
A.K. Ghai, Mumbai
Instead of protesting M.F. Husain’s paintings of naked Hindu goddesses, people could have exercised their own right to artistic freedom and painted him naked (with a drawing board beside him)—like a certain person from Bihar did.
It’s inevitable that votebank politics will turn India into a Saudi Arabia-like Wahabi fundamentalist state, especially when the all-powerful Congress is at the wheel. In today’s India, the so-called communal Saffron Party paradoxically seems the most secular...comparatively, of course.
Preventing Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Litfest was undoubtedly a shameless attempt by a nervous Congress regime in Rajasthan to appease the ‘mullah brigade’. The party is courting the Muslim vote in a key poll-bound state, by pandering to some dangerous Islamic segments. This unbridled appeasement of radical elements is more dangerous than the threats from Maoism.
K.V. Raghuram, Wayanad
If the government fails to provide proper security to a single PIO, how then can it vouch for the safety of the majority? It is only the cleric-politician axis that plays such dirty games. The average Muslim could not be bothered about protesting Rushdie’s visit.
There is something more than what meets the eye in the entire Rushdie affair. Ironic as it might sound, the presence of someone like Richard Dawkins at the Jaipur fest didn’t raise any eyebrows! Dawkins’s rational criticism of religion, though absolute, is of course different from Rushdie’s ridicule of Islam. But then India hosted someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali a year back. Her criticism of Prophet Mohammed in explicit terms regarding morality and personality pales Rushdie’s magical-realist exertions. It is not that Rushdie has faced protests every time he has visited India: he has come to the country five times since Khomeini’s fatwa. Blame it on the mini parliamentary elections but the bottomline is that religious fundamentalism in India is increasing. India is on the slow path to becoming a religious state, the theo-democracy of Maulana Maududi. The clash of civilisations with undertones of religious identities and shameless surrender by secular authority will make the democracy in India weaker. In Husain and Rushdie’s penchant for controversy lies the creative freedom of an artist. You cannot call them mere publicity-seekers. The Rushdie controversy started some seven years after he became the first Indian-born writer to win the Booker. He was also the first Indian-born writer to win the Prix du Meilleur Livre four years before the fatwa. Likewise, it took 26 years for Husain’s painting of Hindu goddesses in the nude to stir the fundamentalists; he had already become the Picasso of India and the first Indian national (by birth and right) to win the Golden Bear award.
Anonymous, on e-mail
Can anyone in India stand up and tell all those protesters that gods, saints and prophets of no religion require human intervention to protect them. However, the conduct of the government, at the Centre and in Rajasthan, in this case, was nothing short of shameful.
Navien K. Batta, Muscat
Wondering if the Mullahdom of Qatar will extend Rushdie the same hospitality (grant Qatari nationality, that is) it did to Husain?
Jaleel Khan, Lucknow
Is being deliberately abusive of someone else’s sensibilities really freedom of speech? That said, its compulsions in UP made the Congress capitulate to Muslim protesters, but methinks Rushdie will visit again, after the elections, and the Congress will welcome him with open arms, in the name of freedom of expression!
A.K. Bundi, on e-mail
Clearly, the author is comparing apples with oranges. While Salman Rushdie has made it amply clear that he has no particular fondness for any religion, MF Hussain was a different case altogether. While he refused to apologize for painting Hindu gods nude, he readily withdrew a song from his film (I forget the name of the film) that Muslim groups found objectionable. So much for art and freedom of expression! Having said that, the ruckus that Shiv Sena and other Hindu groups created over his nude paintings was a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot. It gave Hussain's mediocre paintings free publicity and exposed the stupidity of these Hindu groups. After all, Hinduism and the glorious traditions of tolerance and openness it represents isn't and cannot be demeaned by a few paintings, but can be injured by its own adherents' idiocy, as in this case.
could somebody explain the title.
what is the author trying to convey?
The issue is not about right or wrong.. The issue cannot be about daring or non daring leaders.. The issue can't be about freedom of speech.. The issue cannot be about politics...
The issue is ABOUT GOVERNANCE RELATED TO LAW AND ORDER..
There is NO INDIA.. Repeat there is NO INDIA.. It needs to be formed.. Just like minded people are staying next to each other.. Just look at it this way ...
1) There is no other country which GOVERNS ITSELF IN A LANGUAGE WHICH IT DOES NOT UNDERSTAND.(ENGLISH).. Imagine you going to Russia and asking justice if the Russian police arrest you in Russia and imagine the trials in that language. You will be very much afraid... Now imagine in India an illeterate from a village comes to a near by CITY AND HE TRIES to get justice in ENGLISH... Especially in the High/Supreme Court.. R U kidding.. Can anybody provide justice in a foreign language ? Will the illeterate understnd the justice
2) The job of a policeman is to arrest a so called trouble maker who does vandalism.. Then he takes the suspect into the COURT OF LAW.. Then the judge has to analyze and then prosecute the suspect accordingly...
3) Does that ever happen to hooligan who belongs to a political party.
4) Now imagine the Police commissioner is supposed to represent a city. But many times he is an appointed person by the politician. In foreign countries Police Commissioners are elected by city local people..
5) Lastly imagine if a Police commissioner and the judge in India started implementing the constiution.. THE MASS PEOPLE WILL NOT LIKE IT. THEY WILL GO NUTS. Cos most people in India DO NOT UNDERSTAND LAWS NOR DO THEY OBEY THEM. THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT IMPLEMENT THEM. WHY BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT WRITTEN WITH THE PEOPLE INTO CONFIDENCE WHICH HAPPENS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES.
A country where there is no governance guess what the Police institution now has become A GUDA RAJ OF THE MAFIA. THE POLITICIANS HAVE BECOMED THE MAFIA. In India laws are used to threaten and extract money NOT TO PROVIDE JUSTICE...
THERE IS NO INDIA.. IT NEEDS TO BE FORMED...
To do the right thing sometimes requires stepping in the troubled waters. Nothing is gained by waiting at the shore
To do the right thing sometimes requires stepping in the troubled waters. Nothing is gained by waiting at the shore
I was talking about the missionary stupidty when I commented on this, not MFH. Sorry
To do the right thing sometimes requires stepping in the troubled waters. Nothing is gained by waiting at the shore.
We banned the book in '88. Some say Babri Masjid was a logical fallout of submitting to the same elements. Look where it got us.
No one, and I mean no one is so holy that he/she cannot be criticized. To our brethren who lose no opportunity in calling him a coward: Prophet did scoot from Mecca when it got too hot. And, security didn't protect Kennedy. You may hate him but Rushdie is a brave soul.
While the story behing linga puja is quite fantastic, Shiva purana was written much later. Linga worship follows an ancient tradition and it's quite wonderful that it has survived till now.
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