It is well-known that no one gives a fig for free speech and expression in this country. Proof? We banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in no time just because two MPs, Syed Shahabuddin and Khurshid Alam Khan, raised the issue in Parliament, hinting darkly that it could upset the Muslim votebank and, therefore, cost the government.
The argument was that it could lead to a law and order problem. This is equivalent to saying that all women should wear burqas lest they get raped. On the other hand, no one prevents Bal Thackeray or Narendra Modi from spewing venom against Muslims in their speeches and, in Thackeray’s case, articles.
Why this discrepancy? Is Salman Rushdie more dangerous, a bigger threat to civic order, than Thackeray and Modi? The answer lies in the nature of the speech. The reason why Rushdie needed to be banned was that he repudiated his own religion by writing a book. Rushdie is a man of the imagination and, therefore, fundamentally disobedient.
It is disobedience that opens the doors of the imagination towards uninhibited and absolute freedom. It is disobedience that leads to subversion which is literature’s first duty. A man who repudiates his own religion and commits this repudiation to writing — that is, brings to bear on his religion the full weight of the history of cultural dissent, without being struck down immediately by lightning — sets a dangerous precedent for others to follow.
The writing is the most crucial element of this repudiation. It shows that one can be critical of the most fundamental assertions of one’s religion at a level that is at once sophisticated and historically legitimate.
Thackeray and Modi, on the other hand, disturb no cultural fundamentals. Thackeray wears saffron, sports a very prominent rudraksh mala and makes no bones about his majoritarian political preferences. Modi is, of course, the ‘Hindu hriday ka samrat, presider over the mass murder of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat. They do not rock the boat. No Muslim got up to say that his sentiments were being hurt because of what Thackeray and Modi said about his people. They are fundamentally obedient.
In fact, there is a great deal of similarity between Thackeray and Modi and some of the more extreme elements among the Muslims. Both believe in the subjugation of the other. A devout Muslim can identify easily with Thackeray and Modi and believe that he, too, could have been a ruler had he belonged to the majority community. It is this commonality of aspirations, of this hankering for power that marks out the line of demarcation between Rushdie, on the one hand, and Thackeray and Modi on the other. The one is, as I said, a man of the imagination, the other two are men of power.
The conflict between the two is fundamental. Rushdie in an open letter to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said that he considered himself to be an antagonist of the State. This was five months before Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. It is true that the ban was condemned by the overwhelming majority of India’s media. But then no one cares for what the media have to say on such issues either. The ban remains in force more than 20 years after it was imposed. In other words, there has been no social or cultural progress since then.
Things get a bit more complicated if we delve a little deeper into l’affaire Rushdie. Rushdie’s mind is not only insubordinate, it is also superior to that of his adversaries. He has won recognition in the West, to the extent that Thatcher’s Conservative government went out of its way to offer him Scotland Yard protection for the entire duration of the fatwa remaining effective. This not only reflects on the willingness of Britain to defend its core values, but also on the importance it attaches to Rushdie and his work. True, the Indian ban order did recognise “the literary and artistic merit” of the writer’s work. But this was more in the form of an apology: I am sorry to have to ban you, but ban you I must.
Which is, as they say, neither here nor there. It is the historical superiority of Rushdie’s work through its association with Western values that also enrages his opponents among Muslims.
It is clear that the ban on Satanic Verses was a turning point in the history of free speech and expression in this country. It established the principle that no one dare utter anything that our political masters dare not think. And, thus, other bans followed: James Laine, Taslima Nasreen, to name just two. It is now easier to ban a book or a film than it was 20 years ago.
The ruling class has understood there will be no mass protests; that no one will be willing to take on the mob; that free speech and expression do not constitute the core values of our democracy. On the other hand, lifting the ban on Rushdie now would be the equivalent of a cultural revolution.
Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer.