The latest episode in the long-running Salman Rushdie saga with the Dar-ul-uloom Deoband demanding the author's visa cancellation brings us face to face with our failed democracy. Some of the questions raised by the issue: Should we have blasphemy laws, as the Delhi High Court has suggested last week after being suitably outraged by 'objectionable material' on the internet? Or should we, mere mortals, have the right not only to criticise god, which is but natural and acceptable even to the Deobandis, but also to mock him and make fun of him, which is what infuriates the fanatic?
In other words, should we always go in fear of god or should we act and speak out of love for honesty and justice and truth for their own sake - and not because it guarantees us a place in heaven? Should religious values have primacy over non-religious values?
Unfortunately, all this is a consequence of the way in which we define our secularism, in a 'pseudo-secular way', as 'equal respect for all religions', which ultimately amounts to absolute 'Respect for Religion', or, rather, to the equal appeasement of the intolerance of all religions. If Rama Retold by Aubrey Menen is banned in order to make Hindus happy, then The Satanic Verses must be banned to compensate for that and make Muslims happy.
True secularism of the kind practised in western Europe is the exact opposite of the Indian variety. It signifies equal disrespect for all religions, to the point of supporting blasphemy, as the French government did when they threw a cordon of security around the officers of the French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, after the latter got involved in the 'Danish cartoon' affair. Rushdie himself was given State protection by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, arch conservative and no lover of literature, for more than 10 years, until the Iranians promised not to give effect to Khomeini's fatwa. Also, Martin Scorcese's film, The Last Temptation of Christ, was given similar protection in France and Spain when right-wing Catholic militants threatened to bomb theatres screening the film. All this because European governments believe that freedom of speech and expression is absolute and a core value of European civilisation.
In India, many people representing the entire spectrum of political opinion, will tell you that religion is primordial in this country and people are likely to lose their heads over it and create an unmanageable law and order situation. So the government's response is not to put up any kind of resistance (especially where voting masses are involved), whereas free speech is an elite preoccupation (which it is, undoubtedly, in a country where millions go hungry every day).
The larger question is: what kind of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where our tastes and desires are at the mercy of a religious mob? Is it the priest, the mullah and the pandit who are to dictate what we should read, wear and eat? That is the question that we are forced to ask ourselves even after 64 years of Indian secularism.
What is cynical about the Deobandi move is its attempt to leverage a Muslim votebank in order to achieve its strategic objective: to remain relevant in the mass Muslim consciousness. They don't give a damn that persecution of authors is bad press for India. They are unashamed about their own values. They don't know or wish to acknowledge that 'god is dead', maybe not as a living reality in the lives of millions of people, but as a historical and political reality. No one is going to blame an earthquake on divine retribution anymore.
In short, the battle for free speech has already been won in history. The Deoband will not be able to roll back the tide of time and return to an era of pristine religious purity.
The only problem in a country like India is that it has a middle-class that is culturally ignorant, ie, who know very little about the culture they were born in and nothing about the big wide world outside. They are, overwhelmingly, culturally uneducated.
Finally, Rushdie is a great writer. The Dar-ul-uloom can do nothing about that. The Satanic Verses once written, cannot be unwritten. People are going to lay their hands on the book somehow (on e-book format, for instance) and even some Muslims are going to read it. None of this can be prevented by banning the book or preventing the author from visiting India.
The loss is ours because we have entered a phase of competitive obscurantism in this country. The only decent way to come out of this is to reverse the decision that started it all: lift the ban on The Satanic Verses.
(Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.)