India-born British author Salman Rushdie’s just-published memoir Joseph Anton, in which he writes about his fatwa days among other episodes of his life, could not have been published at a more eventful time for India and the world. While there are explosive protests in the Muslim world against a film on the Prophet, in India there’s a raging debate on freedom of speech or rather the limits of such freedom. During his pre-launch interviews on Joseph Anton, the author spoke about how India is increasingly becoming more and more censorious and that such a development does not augur well for the country at all. He argued that this kind of mindless censorship increased after the Indian government banned his novel Satanic Verses. The larger point that Mr Rushdie was trying to make is what German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine made in his play Almansor: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”. And as history as well as news events show, Heine’s warning has become a reality in many parts of the world.
There is no point in picking on a particular case to show that India is increasingly becoming a closed society. Such developments reflect badly on the government of one of the largest democracies in the world. But India was not always like this: leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar were savagely caricatured by political cartoonists routinely but they never reacted the way today’s leaders do. Have, as Mr Rushdie says, leaders become too thin-skinned? Yes, they possibly have. By barring writers/poets/cartoonists from commenting on the world around them, governments (and other radical groups) also are infringing on the right of the people to read/watch/hear what they want. So we have had right-wing lunatics targeting James Laine’s book and a state government arresting a cartoonist for denigrating national symbols. The fear of attacks is so deep-rooted that even after 31 years of its publication, there are no takers in India for the celluloid version of Mr Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Is this kind of “DIY censorship”, as a book blogger aptly put it, a sign of a mature democracy?
In the interview, Mr Rushdie goes on to say that we need doses of blasphemy; any limit on thoughts and ideas is not a great development for any country that wants to have a vibrant society. In any case, in an age of social media, no ban is ever complete and it only gets the “offending” work more publicity. Remember what happened to the cartoon that made Mamata Banerjee lose her cool (and wits)? It was widely shared by people on the social media and there was no way to put a lid on it. In India, governments usually see such incidents as more of a law and order problem than issues of freedom of speech and the typical babu way of handling them is by imposing a ban.