For a Moment of Statesmanship

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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With Rushdie, the government has again chosen the cowardice of practicality over the courage of morality

William Dalrymple, the Scotland-born writer and a director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, who is sometimes in medieval robes, has for long insisted that he is Indian at heart. But when he announces that the probability of an event occurring is one hundred per cent, it is not clear if he is being fatalistic the Indian way or if it is the swagger of the White man’s confidence in cause-and-effect, or if it is just that he knows something that others don’t. Last Friday, when I asked him if Salman Rushdie would be visiting the Jaipur festival, Dalrymple said, “Even if there is the threat of a nuclear explosion, Salman will come to Jaipur.”

The events of the past few days, which have cast a shadow over Rushdie’s visit, suggest that in this great republic the threat of a nuclear explosion is not as serious as the imagination of wounded religious sentiments, especially in the time of crucial elections. After an Islamic cleric objected to the visit of Rushdie because the writer has not apologised for Satanic Verses, and several Muslim groups joined the noise, with one of them even offering a prize of Rs 1 lakh to the lucky person who would fling a shoe at the writer, the Indian government has not told the nation what its position is. At least some Muslim organisations have had the will to strongly condemn those who have threatened violence against Rushdie, a grace the government is yet to show. Instead, the home ministry has conveyed, “law and order is a state subject”. And the Congress Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, in turn, has very clearly said that he cannot promise safe passage for Rushdie because “a section of people” is offended.

It is believed there is a chance Rushdie will make an appearance at the festival after all, in a shroud of secrecy, as he used to in the days of his hiding from the mad men who had already killed two translators of Satanic Verses. Even if Rushdie does manage to visit the country of his birth, it would be like a fugitive. In this, the cleric of a seminary in Deoband, Maulana Abdul Nomani, who started the entire controversy, is not as complicit as the government of India. An Islamic cleric will say things, he is only doing his divinely ordained job. Without passing moral judgments, issuing sundry threats and stating his interpretation of texts, he is nothing, he has no place in this world, and for all this he endures the consequences of his action by being on the margins of a modern progressive country.

The Indian government, on the other hand, is a direct beneficiary of not only electoral politics but of the powerful values on which this country was built. If the Indian government enjoys far greater dignity than the Pakistani government, if the Indian Army general has to plead his case with the government or fight in the Supreme Court against it for a one-year extension of his term while, historically, the situation has been the reverse in Pakistan, it is because of the philosophical foundation of modern India. But the government has often chosen the cowardice of practicality over the courage of morality. And it has, once again, failed to stand up against religious thugs because it is afraid that it will lose Muslim voters in UP and elsewhere, who are crying hoarse anyway saying that they are not so stupid. It is atrocious that a representative of such a government will allow himself to be a guest speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival when his government has not guaranteed the security of Salman Rushdie.

I may not have the powers of the Maulana of Deoband, nor will all the Malayalees of the world join me in this protest, but still I do state that my sensibilities are deeply offended by the presence of the information technology minister, Kapil Sibal, who is slated to speak on the first day of the festival on the topic, ‘The Truth of Poetry and The Truth of Politics.’

For lovers of poetry who would be missing Mr Sibal’s session for various reasons, here is a sample from his poetry collection: I Witness: Partial Observations


Cricket lovers nightmare / Slapstick tamasha /  Connoisseurs often complain. / Instant stroke-play / Without any foreplay / This is not cricket they claim.

Sometimes, religious thugs are protected for no good reason at all. It is absurd how much they can get away with just because politicians do not want to take a chance.

About five years ago, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India ran a feature story about the toilet habits of film stars (‘Superstar and the John’). The story mentioned, in half a line, the name of Manisha Koirala’s dog. A month later, cops went to the house of the reporter, who lived with her old mother. The reporter was not at home, so the mother, who was in the early stages of dementia, took the full blow of the shocking news—her daughter was to be arrested. Apparently, the name of Koirala’s dog is one of the names of the Prophet, and the reporter had been charged with ‘deliberately injuring religious sentiments’. A corporator had filed a police complaint claiming to be offended by Koirala’s dog. The actress quickly denied the name of her dog as reported in the newspaper. While the reporter had to rush to court to save herself from being arrested, a dozen cops went to Koirala’s house to guard her from a paid mob.

It was a municipal corporator who had filed the complaint and he had successfully conjured a stunt from thin air. A reporter who did not know all the names of a prophet was almost arrested, and an old woman with the symptoms of dementia spent tense days mumbling her new fears to the walls.

It is humiliating what can happen to you sometimes in the name of religion. One day, I arrived at Mumbai airport to find the exit doors of the terminal blocked by a small mob. They did not let anyone leave. I tried to walk out and the mob said I would be beaten up if I didn’t go back in. Apparently, a godman had tried to board a plane faraway in Lucknow with his holy sceptre, and airport security had requested him to check in the stick, which greatly offended his holiness. He goes nowhere without his sceptre, not even on a plane. He refused to board the plane. So, his supporters in Mumbai had decided to block the exit gates. They managed to do this for nearly three hours. I asked a senior cop how this can be allowed and he said with a calm smile, “Religious matter. But if I get just one call from the commissioner’s office, I will clear the space in a minute.” He did get a call, and his men drove the thugs away, in less than a minute probably.

Politicians can maintain law and order—if they want to. As a senior police officer in Ahmedabad told me after days of violent riots, “A spontaneous riot can last only fifteen minutes.” Anything longer is an organised attack, and riots that last for days are not possible without the complicity of politicians. The government is powerful and competent enough to ensure Salman Rushdie’s safety, and it is at once comic and shameful for a state chief minister to say that he cannot guarantee such security, a statement that actually amounts to plain intimidation.

There have been strong reactions from writers and readers, and the media is filled with various views, which are largely uniform—Rushdie has the right to visit India. But what is more important is that he has the right to blasphemy. Rushdie or even his visit cannot be meaningfully defended without accepting the true nature of the conflict. The issue here is not as facile as defending a man whom some mad men have threatened to kill and some clerics in India do not want on their soil. The issue is Rushdie’s right to offend Muslims, and Hindus, and Christians, and everybody. That is at the heart of freedom of speech, and that is the most important freedom literature demands from the world.

Chetan Bhagat, in a statement to The Times of India has said, while defending Rushdie’s right to visit India, “The fact is that he has been blasphemous and I don’t think it serves much purpose. It doesn’t lead to reform. Even if you want to comment on a particular religion, there are better ways to do it. So, we shouldn’t make a hero out of him.”

This is nonsense. When Bhagat says, “The fact is that he (Rushdie) has been blasphemous and I don’t think it serves much purpose,” it is important to ask who has the right to decide what the purpose of Rushdie’s novel is. Bhagat says, “It (a blasphemous novel) does not lead to reform.” But the purpose of a novel is not reform. A literary novel is not a how-to book. Bhagat goes on to say, “Even if you want to comment on a particular religion, there are better ways to do it.” This is exactly the sort of rubbish that censorship is all about. ‘There are better ways to do your novel’. I would normally not have used Bhagat’s comments to explain Rushdie, but apart from the hilarity of trying to do so, I believe Bhagat’s comments represent the views of many people who think they are on Rushdie’s side when they really are not. They are just slightly more sophisticated imams. Which is the problem with free speech. Not many people can truly accept it.

Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair, in 2009, recounting the days after the fatwa to kill Rushdie was issued: ‘In the hot days immediately after the fatwa, with Salman himself on the run and the TV screens filled with images of burning books and writhing mustaches, I was stopped by a female Muslim interviewer and her camera crew and asked an ancient question: “Is nothing sacred?” I can’t remember quite what I answered then, but I know what I would say now. No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.’

But will a day ever come when Indian politicians defend what is important at the expense of what is profitable? Such moments have already occurred.

Last Friday, during a discussion at Jamia Millia Islamia, social activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey mentioned a moment of incomprehension in their long and tireless struggle for the Right to Information Act. It was a moment that came at the very end of their struggle—why did politicians actually pass the bill? True, there was a genuine people’s movement and long relentless media campaigns, but still these pressures were nothing close to the terror of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. Yet, the Lokpal Bill was not passed, while the RTI did become a reality. It was not just because the scope of the RTI was much smaller or that it threatened to become a serious issue if ignored. There was another reason. Aruna Roy said, sometimes politicians do want to do the right thing, they do want to convert a good idea into reality. Nikhil Dey called this phenomenon “an act of statesmanship”. A moment when a person in power is liberated from that third-rate virtue called practicality, and does what is right. It may sound naïve but it has happened several times before. And that is what free speech in India needs. A moment of statesmanship.