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By a happy coincidence, Sir Salman Rushdie happened to be visiting Delhi precisely when the Jaipur literary festival was in full flow. He appeared to have a packed diary too, promoting the cinematic version of Midnight’s Children. He was also able to push his pet theme of the growing cultural and intellectual intolerance in India because of which he has become something of a pariah in his own country. From the enormous publicity he received, one can assume he had a pleasant and productive trip. We did not hear of much protest as the nation lauded its controversial son. In fact, some mullahs struck a conciliatory note, offering to engage Rushdie in a debate on Islam. It was an offer he wisely refused given his past experience with the Muslim clergy. Nevertheless, it did suggest a change in mood: instead of asking for his head, the mullahs were asking for a dialogue. He’s welcome to come and go as he pleases. Rushdie vs India is a tale that needs urgent burial. I hope this visit puts an end to the canard advanced by the writer’s fundamentalist friends that he is unwelcome in India. If anything, the opposite is true.
A Dead Horse Beat
Another happy coincidence: Rushdie was in town and argumentative India was again discussing freedom of expression: was it endangered or safe? And fiercely divided on the issue. The Ashish Nandy storm-in-a-tea-cup punch-up added fuel to the debate. I remain a passionate advocate of free expression. How can I not be when my dal-roti depends on unhindered press freedom? But I’m not an absolutist. I believe the founding fathers displayed commendable foresight when they placed “reasonable restrictions” on freedom of expression. The ‘Freedom or Censorship’ binary is at once unhelpful and dangerous.
In our country where emotions—over religion, caste, region, language—are a tinderbox, no responsible government can allow a free-for-all. If-you-don’t-like-my-book-don’t-read-it ignores the Indian realities. In Denmark, they may do things differently. India is not Denmark. When there is apprehension of large-scale civic unrest, when there’s the possibility of a serious law and order problem, the government must act to protect its citizens. And in the rarest of rare cases, it may be necessary to curb free expression. That’s just sensible, it doesn’t make India a totalitarian state.
Big Chief Blues
My biography of Sanjay Gandhi, first published in ’78 and now reissued by HarperCollins (Rs 499), has had a surprisingly warm reception. When HarperCollins expressed an interest in the book, I was astonished and flattered. Who wants to know about Sanjay Gandhi in 2013, what relevance does the ‘extra-constitutional authority’ have today? I still don’t have an answer. Could a Sanjay Gandhi-like figure emerge in 2014? Someone who has a proven reputation for getting things done, a strong leader, a prime minister who is much more concerned with ends than means? In our messy, loud, rule-obsessed, allegedly policy-paralysed democracy, it seems the people desperately long for a ruler who can cut across bothersome PILs, cumbersome environmental concerns, land-acquisition norms, slum-clearance approvals, parliamentary opposition. You-Know-Who presently hovering on the horizon has the urban middle-class and, of course, the business class waiting to crown him. Is someone who warns that while a strong leader may be desirable, he or she must function within our maddening system, a party pooper?
A recent US opinion poll revealed that cockroaches and lice are more popular among American voters than politicians. Root canals, colonoscopies, traffic jams, Donald Trump, France, used car salesmen, Brussell sprouts and Genghis Khan also beat the politicians in the popularity stakes. Such is the level of despair in the world’s most advanced and richest democracy about their netas. Indian politicians frequently complain about how they are unfairly maligned by a cynical and corrosive media out to tarnish their image. They can take comfort: they still have some way to go before they catch up with their counterparts across the Atlantic. But it wasn’t all bad news for Obama & co. Politicians were more popular than playground bullies, telemarketers, gonorrhoea, Communism, North Korea and the Ebola virus.
Glossy Lip Service
I met a retired army officer who in the mid-’70s commanded a battalion on the LoC. He told me during his two-year tenure on the border there wasn’t a single instance of a breach in the ceasefire. Why? His Pakistani counterpart, who he met regularly as part of the protocol, demanded just one thing: the latest copy of Debonair. This was duly delivered and peace prevailed. Who says I haven’t done my duty to the nation?
I had the best mutton biriyani in my life at a restaurant called Paradise in Hyderabad. I recommend it strongly.
Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief; E-mail your diarist: vmehta AT outlookindia.com