Faith and freedom of expression
By Dr Jay Dubashi
Salman Rushdie is perhaps not coming to India; scores of other writers are but coming (Rushdie was to come but for the Congress kow-towing to fundamentalist fatwa). They are apparently coming to attend a literary fest (a fancy word for festival) in Jaipur, which, as far as I know, is not known for writers or literature of any kind. I have no idea who is behind the fest, but India is an open country, and anybody, even illiterates, can hold literary or culinary fests and make merry. And there are hundreds of twenty somethings with convent accents who work for TV companies and go gaga at the very mention of foreigners – foreign writers, foreign actors, foreign food, and possibly foreign crooks straight out of Chicago.
I am not an admirer of Rushdie, and though I may have some of his books, which I may have received for review. I do not think I have done more than just thumb through them before throwing them away. Rushdie may or may not be a great writer and may one day receive a Nobel prize. Considering the kind of people who have been receiving Nobel prizes lately, and not just for literature, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. After all, didn’t Amartya Sen receive a Nobel?
But that is neither here nor there. Rushdie’s visit makes news because some Muslim organisations have taken objection to it, as they often do, because some of his books, may be all of them, have been blasphemous and have hurt their sentiments. At least one of his books Satanic Verses has been banned in India and several Muslim countries, but quite a few other books, some by non-Muslims, have been banned too. Getting a book banned is no criterion of the quality of the book, just as banning a scientist like Galileo and holding him a prisoner by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages does not mean that Galileo was a fake. Governments do very foolish things and we should not take them seriously.
What concerns one is the peculiar way our Muslim friends react whenever they come up against something – books, paintings, cartoons etc – they do not find to their taste. We are now in the twenty-first century and people come in so many colours, sizes and faiths that it is foolish to expect them to follow the same line, particularly a line you approve of. Rushdie does not live in India, though he was born in India. He carries a British passport, which makes him a British citizen. If the British do not object to what he writes or does, why should we?
Of course, some of us can indeed object to his writings, and I would myself do so, but can we really ask the government to stop him from coming? Some people will say that we stopped MF Husain and the man was forced into exile and died in a foreign country, as if it was all our fault. First of all, and to get the record straight, we didn’t stop Husain. We just made his life here difficult, as we were within our rights to do so. This man was deliberately painting our goddesses in the nude, just to make more money from his foreign clients, or cocking a dirty snook at us. It had nothing to do with artistic freedom of expression, for an artist does not have any special rights not enjoyed by the common man. And the goddesses were Hindu, though the man himself was not. Can you really blame the people here for thinking that the man was deliberately going out of his way to humiliate them? Would he have painted Virgin Mary in the nude and expect people from the Christian world to applaud him? He would have been lynched and left in the sun to dry.
Freedom of expression is all very well and I am all for it, but it should not be one-sided. Why should artists think that only they have freedom to do what they wish and others don’t? If Husain had artistic freedom to paint whatever he pleased to the point of offending sentiments of others, why should he deny it to others, who also would be within their rights to protest against him? If he has the right of the freedom of expression, so have others, as long as their protests are peaceful and within the boundaries of law. Freedom of expression cannot be restricted only to some fortunate people – calling themselves artists – and denied to others. It is a right sanctified by the Constitution, and the Constitution does not distinguish between artists and non-artists.
If Salman Rushdie is within his rights to write the kind of books, blasphemous or not, he wishes to write, others who do not like his books are within their rights to protest. What kind of form the protests should take is another matter. Rushdie is also within his rights to visit India – just as Husain could have visited India instead of hiding in some Muslim country – but that does not mean he should expect others to remain quiet. I would advise our Muslim friends to go to Jaipur and stage a silent protest against Rushdie and his book or books outside the venue. I would have advised our Hindu friends to do the same had Husain visited India. I have, as an Indian citizen, as much of a right to express myself as these venerable artists and writers, who seem to think they are above the law. There can be no special rights for artists, but that doesn’t mean they have no rights at all. Both of us draw our rights from the Constitution, and, as I have said, the Constitution is the same for all.
On second thought, when everything is said and done, why not just ignore Rushdie? After all, very few people read his books, even fewer can make out what he is trying to say. I would have asked my Hindu friends to ignore Husain also, but the man was a serial offender, and whatever he was doing, he was doing it deliberately, and it had nothing to do with his so-called artistic freedom. He was, in fact, like a terrorist who goes about planting bombs with the express intention of killing people, and then expects to be treated like a common criminal.
No freedom is absolute. Your freedom of expression ends where my freedom of expression begins. If you are asserting your freedom through writing or painting, I may do so through staging Mahatma-like satyagraha. I would advise Rushdie’s critics to go to Jaipur and engage him in argument, which he is very good at. If he shuns argument, stage a satyagraha outside the venue and make his stay miserable. This is how civilised people behave, and India is a nation of civilised people, even though people like Husain may try to get away by blaming others for their self-inflicted pain.
(The writer is a senior columnist)