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Our right to offend

Exactly 21 years ago today, on February 19, 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, the author of what he proclaimed to be a blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses, writes Soumitro Das.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2010 01:06 IST

Exactly 21 years ago today, on February 19, 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, the author of what he proclaimed to be a blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses. While this act instantly galvanised — and radicalised — the protests from Muslim communities in various quarters against Rushdie, it was in India that The Satanic Verses was first banned in end-October 1988 by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government, months after the novel was first published. For all purposes, the ban on Rushdie’s novel marked the beginning of the State gagging artistic freedom in India under the guise of ‘protecting the sentiments’ of various groups.

We are a very sentimental people. The abolition of sati in the 19th century, for instance, hurt Hindu sentiments. But that did not make the abolition less necessary. It was down to Hindu reformers supported by the British administration who finally overturned the tyranny of tradition.

Offensiveness comes in two categories: involuntary and voluntary. M.F. Husain’s depiction of Hindu deities in the nude is an example of offence given involuntarily. Husain’s nudes are not pornographic. The Nude is a particular genre of painting that has been rendered famous in art. The aim is to celebrate the human form and not to titillate. The intention is not erotic and Husain is not undressing women. Besides, in painting goddesses in the nude, Husain is divesting them of human accoutrements and enhancing their divine quality. (Why on earth should goddesses dress in saris anyway?)

But what about voluntary offensiveness, where the artist goes out of his way to provoke if not cause offence? Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses falls into this category.

The modern novel has arrogated to itself the right to offend. Its source lies in the literary revolution that swept through France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Mallarme and Apollinaire took literature out of the salons and into the streets and the bordellos of Paris. They attacked bourgeois culture and repudiated all bourgeois forms of success: fame, wealth, power, etc.

Every individual surrenders a part of his freedom and his self when he acknowledges any form of social or political authority in order to enjoy the security and the other benefits that society bestows upon him. The literary revolutionaries mentioned above reneged on this social contract and reclaimed for themselves the freedom and the selfhood that had been sacrificed on their behalf by their mentors.

They all suffered from a condition that, after Nietzsche and Freud, could be called ‘unheimlichkeit’, or homelessness. Homelessness was the price they had to pay for attacking family, country and religion. This is borne out literally in the case of Rushdie and also Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. Rushdie, after the fatwa, had to literally hop from safe house to safe house for 10 years, without being able to call any place his home.

Nasreen, on her part, was hounded out of ‘India’s cultural capital’ (sic) Calcutta by Muslim hoodlums and is now flitting from country to country, returning occasionally to India to renew her visa, but without being able to return to her ‘home’.

More than a political condition, ‘unheimlichkeit’ refers to a psychological state where it is not possible to obey any authority but that of one’s own self. Art, revolutionary art, is the highest value, the highest expression of what Nietzsche calls “the will to power”. The worship of beauty for its own sake is much more demanding than the worship of God. It is from this point of superiority that Art is able to mock at, insult or humiliate religious faith.

India is, of course, a poor country and all such things are incomprehensible here, where politics is the highest expression of ‘the will to power’. The poor look towards the State for succour and the State does or does not do them justice. This is a black and white world, a world of Manichaean extremes. While Truth, to which Art is intimately linked, is full of ambiguity and ambivalence, and is, as Nietzsche puts it so finely, “beyond good and evil”.

Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer.

The views expressed by the author are personal.