Democratic we may be, but liberal we most certainly are not. The test is accepting that others have a right to say and do things we don’t approve of, consider offensive, or even emotionally and sentimentally hurtful, but which don’t actually physically harm us. Voltaire put it most pithily: "I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." However he was French. We’re Indian.
Taslima Nasreen may not be a great novelist. She may even be motivated by a quest for publicity. And many say she deliberately and calculatedly compromises other people by revealing their personal secrets. But those are literary or moral judgements. No doubt each of us will accept or reject them as we deem fit. The question is, do we have a right to silence her voice because of them?
I might not like someone criticising my gods or exposing the faults and flaws in my faith. It may even feel like an attack on my identity. But the correct response is to question my intolerance rather than vent my anger on the critic. If the criticism is justified, it can only help. If not, I will emerge stronger for tolerating or, at least, ignoring it. But to ban the critic is to diminish myself. It fails the test of the values I claim to espouse.
Taslima’s case is no different to MF Husain, the Baroda University art students, Karunanidhi, Salman Rushdie, Baba Gurmit Ram-Rahim Singh or Gautam Prasad’s Youtube Gandhi. Whether the motive is art or literature, satire or politics, the liberal options are to accept, criticise or ignore, but definitely not ban. To do so would be not just intolerant and narrow-minded, but proof of insecurity and self-demeaning. That’s why it’s wrong. That’s why I consider it indefensible.
The argument made in India is that we are an uneducated, deeply-religious, conservative society where faith is an anchor unlike in the West. In such conditions criticism of god or religion can - and often does - provoke violence. To prevent this governments have to censor and ban. At first that may sound persuasive or, at least, sensibly pragmatic. But, I’m sorry, I do not subscribe to this line of thinking. It ignores essential facts. And it’s philosophically mistaken.
The truth is that on almost every such occasion when violence has occurred, people have been incited and provoked. Not by the novelist or artist, not by the criticism or the cartoon, but by those who have exploited and manipulated the situation for their own ends. The authority to ban and the power to censor plays into their hands. As long as they exist they will be used. Where they don’t, the matter invariably resolves itself peacefully.
But I have a deeper point to make. Why should brute force, which damages property, destroys lives and devastates cities intimidate me? The answer to those who behave unlawfully is not to give in and appease but to stand up and enforce the law. If you love freedom you have to be prepared to defend it. You can’t protect freedom by compromise and concession.
After all, freedom is not just the right to be considered if correct, it is equally the right to be heard even if you are thought of as wrong. And in these matters who is to judge right and wrong? Were Buddha, Mahavira and Luther wrong? Were Copernicus, Darwin and even Marx wrong? And who today would maintain that DH Lawrence or Boris Pasternak was wrong?
The India I would be proud of would welcome Taslima Nasreen and grant her sanctuary. It would guarantee MF Husain’s return home without fear of imprisonment or harassment. It would hear Karunanidhi, read Rushdie, accept Baba Gurmit Ram-Rahim Singh, even if it does not agree with them. The India I’m embarrassed by wreaks violence on the streets of Calcutta, vandalises art schools in Baroda and threatens peaceful worshippers in Sirsa. Alas, that is the India I live in.