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When talk is cheap

Indian liberals defend writers out of familiarity. An idea of freedom that comes from a closed world can't experience its crises in the true sense, writes Amit Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2012 23:36 IST

Despite being the world's largest democracy, India's embarrassingly awful record on freedom of expression is plain to see. Salman Rushdie was the first celebrated casualty of the Indian State's repressiveness (in the end, the Indian State must take responsibility for what elapses within its borders), of its refusal to abide by the tenets of its own constitution; as I write this, he's also its latest casualty. Meanwhile, the Indian State and others who speak in its name have been proactive abroad, complaining to the BBC of insults in Top Gear, to NBC of insults on the Jay Leno Show: complaints that were briskly, and rightly, ignored. It would be nice if the Indian State could deal with complaints arriving at its own doorstep with the same decisiveness and clarity.

Both decisiveness and clarity were lacking all round in connection with Rushdie's abortive Jaipur Literature Festival visit; and they're lacking when it comes to the matter of free speech. There has to be a law pertaining to this question, of the freedom to say and write things which may be offensive to others, and this law and the right it protects is fundamental to the political system called democracy, since that system works on the idea of government and opposition, of elections and change of government, of the provisionality and impermanence of world-views: no absolute view is tenable in a democracy, except the context of democracy itself, in which we've all chosen to live, and where we have the peaceful right to disagreement and even to be disagreeable. Being disagreeable is fundamental to a democracy, and so it's admissible for Rushdie to be disagreeable in The Satanic Verses, for his critics to be disagreeable about him, and for his Islamic detractors too, if they so wish; but it's inadmissible under the law for any of these parties to use violence or coercion. The transgressor, on many counts, has clearly been the State, who, in acts of coercion, banned Rushdie's novel, ensured MF Husain had no safe haven here, made Taslima Nasreen's life difficult, and now wants to censor Facebook; the State, and all who (the Bajrang Dal, the Darul Uloom, and others) initiated, abetted, and participated in coercion and violence.

So the four writers who read from The Satanic Verses at the JLF were right in doing what they did, in the face of State-supported coercion. There was a nuance that people may have missed; that one of the readers was Amitava Kumar, who has, in the past, been harshly critical of Rushdie's work. This detail is pertinent to the nature of both democracy and literature; that upholding them passionately doesn't preclude disagreement. However, public readings from The Satanic Verses can't stop, now they've begun. This is easier said than done, but our secular middle class - in which I include myself - needs to learn that free speech can't be arrived at via a well-mannered compromise with its enemies. Yet free speech can be peaceably pursued.

So much for our record on free speech; what about India's record on literature and the arts, since they seem to be at stake in most of the examples I've cited? With regard to both the State and the secular middle class now clamouring for free speech, the answer is: abysmal. Not just the rise of the sciences and rationality, the role of the arts in the emergence of the secular is crucial. The paradox of secular modernity is that it treats certain literary texts, even very profane and irreverent ones, like Ulysses, with a reverence accorded once only to sacred texts. And it treats certain sacred texts purely as literary texts; thus, Matthew Arnold's view that the Bible was literature, and also the Bhagvad Gita; thus, Gandhi's remark that the Gita was allegory; thus, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, in a letter to a friend, distinguishes between the secular/literary and religious dimensions of Hindu tradition as he embarks on his own modern poem based on the Ramayana: 'I hate Rama and all his rabble... I love the grand mythology of my ancestors, it is full of poetry.' Secular modernity is precisely about accommodating this curious mix of love and hate toward the textual and the mythical, this uneasy but liberating combination of disregard and reverence.

In India, though, I get the feeling that the liberal middle class is only dimly aware of the importance of the arts, and how integral they are to the secular imagination, except in a time of media-inflated crisis, when it becomes a 'free speech' issue. Indians know how to talk about writers, but not about writing; in India, famous writers aren't writers who happen to be famous, but famous people who happen to be writers. This means we don't have a persuasive idea of the value of the writer we're upholding volubly at certain moments. The Satanic Verses needs to be defended from censors even if it's a bad book; but very few people in India seem to be able to speak of its virtues or, for that matter, Rushdie's, in anything but the most self-serving clichés. So with AK Ramanujan's essay: it's clear that not many people had read Ramanujan, except after the ban, and that few can tell us why he's such an important writer. About Husain, I don't know which was more tragic: the fact that he was exiled by a cowardly government, or that he belonged to a country that called him its greatest painter without seeming to have the slightest inkling why. When he died, there was piety and self-flagellation in the papers, but no illumination as to which - in contrast to, say, Picasso, to whom he was mysteriously compared - his great paintings or phases of creativity were. In India, with its robust democratic tradition, one often senses that neither detractor nor supporter has any penetrating case for or against the arraigned writer or artist's achievement. Argumentative Indians indeed!

Part of the failure of the 'free speech' issue in India has to do with the nature of our so-called secular intelligentsia, which has been busy, in the last 20 years, building its own fiefdoms. This was visible to anyone who followed the Rushdie debate on television. That liberals are complacent in their power and their class, and the right wing generally confused, unpleasant, poor and desperate, is a paradox we can't entirely ignore. From the glimpses of the JLF on television, one noticed, despite the tears, rage, and anxiety, a sense of centrality, rather than marginality, in the liberals, notwithstanding their defeat, shored up as they are not just by a common belief in free speech and literature, but by networks of mutual support and interest.

Liberalism is not just a matter of solidarity, but of an openness to people, even strangers, of disparate social backgrounds, who haven't necessarily been domesticated into the mainstream, and who come together out of a shared respect for the realm of ideas. One has to admit that this isn't the case in India; that our liberals are too over-familiar with one another, and comfortably so. An idea of freedom that emerges out of a closed world, from a sense of entitlement rather than from constant intellectual striving, can experience its crises with only so much urgency.

(Amit Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer. His latest novel is The Immortals. The views expressed by the author are personal.)