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Two cheers for blasphemy

It is past time that the Government of India recovered its lost secularist soul, past time that it stood squarely against fundamentalists whether these be Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Sikh, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2007 00:52 IST

How one reads the protests by the governments of Iran and Pakistan at Salman Rushdie being made a knight depends on where one is placed on the political spectrum. Those who incline to the right might dismiss it as yet another illustration of the illiberalism of Islam. On the other hand, some on the left might welcome it as a display of anti-imperialism. After all, if Britain assumes it has the right to invade Iraq, surely Pakistan and Iran can legitimately call into question the honours system of Britain itself?

Interestingly, while Tehran and Islamabad have been vocal, New Delhi has been quiet about the anointing of Sir Salman. This notwithstanding the fact that there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan or in Iran, that Rushdie was born in this country and still considers himself in some way part of it, that we were the first to ban his novel The Satanic Verses, and that we have the closest ties to Great Britain. This silence, I submit, is a product of confusion. The dilemma facing the Government of India has, so to say, four horns. If it is to issue a formal statement, then this has to be worded such that it will not offend Iran, not alienate Great Britain, not displease our own Muslims and not give a chance to the Hindu right to dismiss it as ‘minority appeasement’. This is a task that is beyond the most skilled wordsmith in South Block. The government has found it prudent, therefore, to say nothing at all.

I think I know a way out of the dilemma. This is to place Salman Rushdie alongside Maqbool Fida Husain. They have much in common. For one thing, both are greatly gifted artists. To be sure, their art is not to everyone’s taste. I have heard Husain described as ‘India’s finest limited-overs painter’, and Rushdie as a man who ‘exhibits sparks of brilliance amidst a raging fire of bombast’. These judg-ments are in part a product of sour grapes (in fact, the first comes from the son of another painter, and the second from a fellow writer). They are also a response to the sheer promiscuity of these artists’ creations. If a man writes or paints so much, the cynics ask, can all or any of it be good? The critic’s answer is that artists must ultimately be judged not by their worst but by their best wourks. And at the top of their form, both Rushdie and Husain are world-class.

Second, Rushdie and Husain are akin in their deep love for this country. Although he has lived elsewhere for most of his life, the novelist returns again and again to India in his writings. On the other hand, Husain has lived most of his nine decades in his homeland, and has travelled widely within it. Both the writer and painter have marvelled at the colour and vibrancy of our mythical and craft traditions, and incorporated them in their work.

Third, Rushdie and Husain are alike in the controversy that attends their personal lives. Both have gone through several marriages and many relationships. Both have openly expressed their love (not to say lust) for a beautiful woman much younger than themselves.

Finally, the novelist and the painter are alike in having offended the sensibilities of the seriously bigoted as well as the merely pious. The Satanic Verses is by no means Rushdie’s finest work, but, nearly 20 years after publication, it remains its most controversial. Husain has done many better things than the sketches of Hindu gods and goddesses that keep him in the news and keep his lawyers in the courts. Both artists have paid dearly for these perceived transgressions. Rushdie had to live underground for years; more recently, Husain has been forced into exile.

Despite these (and other) similarities, there is one notable difference in the careers of the two men. This is that Rushdie’s sworn enemies (and putative murderers) are radicals who profess allegiance to Islam, whereas those who vandalise Husain’s works, and threaten to tear him from limb to limb, are Hindu extremists. To be sure, in his day Rushdie has offended some Hindu bigots too, while Husain is not exactly a favourite of the mullahs. However, their main and most dogged adversaries owe allegiance to two very different fundamentalist traditions.

It is this difference that opens up a space for the Government of India to act on. To say a kind word or two about Rushdie will certainly displease Islamic radicals. To praise Husain might offend the Hindu chauvinist. But to honour both at the same time would underline the government’s appreciation of artistic excellence as well as affirm its commitment to artistic freedom. With Husain desperate to come back to India, and Rushdie longing for some kind of public approbation from the land of his birth, cannot New Delhi devise a way of simultaneously saluting them both?

What precise form this honouring should take can be debated. Perhaps the Prime Minister can throw a joint reception for Rushdie and Husain, to which leaders of all political parties are invited. Perhaps their names can figure in the next Republic Day awards. Last year, the CEO of Pepsi, Indira Nooyi, was honoured with the Padma Bhushan; surely Rushdie is a more distinguished NRI than her? He could be awarded the Padma Vibhushan, while Husain, since he already has that honour, could be dignified by the Bharat Ratna. Or, if this is considered too excessive, perhaps Rushdie can merely be invited to lecture by the Ministry of Culture, and Husain assured by the government that he can live safely in his own country.

In any case, something should be done, and at the official level, to honour these very fine and brave-artists. By saluting Rushdie and Husain together, the government will even-handedly offend bigots both Hindu and Muslim and, more crucially, harness the support of the much more populous if thus far quiescent forces of the vital centre. In the first few decades of Independence, this centre was proudly represented by the Congress, which kept the forces of extremism at bay while nurturing the inclusive, democratic ideals of the Constitution. More recently, however, the Congress has tended to humour and even submit to the forces of religious intolerance. It was India’s Grand Old Party, which overturned the judgment in the Shah Bano case; it was the same party that opened the locks in Ayodhya in 1986 and permitted the destruction of the Babri Masjid six years later.

When, back in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi’s administration banned The Satanic Verses, the historian Dharma Kumar wrote that this was “a sign of the government’s weakness”. “In a secular State,’ she pointed out, “blasphemy should not in itself be a cognisable offence; the President of India is not the defender of any nor of all faiths.” It is past time that the Government of India recovered its lost secularist soul, past time that it stood squarely against fundamentalists whether these be Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Sikh. A bow in the direction of Rushdie and Husain would be a good way to begin.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi