Monday, January 9, 2012

Of course allow Rushdie to come to India….

Another ruckus over another creative artist. First it was MF Hussain who raised the hackles of the Hindus; now Salman Rushdie has done the same with the Muslims. Proves only one point really – no matter how much India progresses economically, we remain as orthodox a society as ever. Why can’t we become a more liberal country? Why do we have to evaluate everything from the prism of religion and faith?

I don’t intend to comment on the specific grouse that the Muslims have against Rushdie. I haven’t even read The Satanic Verses. But I believe there is something that Rushdie has written that is offensive to Islam. My simple suggestion to my Muslim friends is: if it’s offensive, just ignore the writer. Don’t buy his books. Shun him. Protest against him when he lands (in a non-violent manner) in India. Raise your voice against him. Sit across him on a debate and prove his point wrong. But how can we stoop so low as to disallow a celebrated writer a visa to enter the country. The country of his origin.

It was the same really in the MF Hussain case, when orthodox Hindus succeeded in pressurizing him to leave the country for good and take up citizenship of a country with which he had absolutely no connection. MF Hussain was an Indian and an Indian who did India proud with his celebrated paintings. The subject of some of his paintings may have been nude Indian goddesses, and that may have offended some “hard core” Hindu groups, but again, they should have done what I wrote in the previous paragraph. Protested, but not compelled him to leave the country. Or abused him. Or threatened him. Or disrupted his art shows.

In both cases, it is the politics that muddies the waters. In the MF Hussain case, the Congress preferred to play the “liberal” card; while the BJP took up the cause of its core constituency, the Hindus. In the Rushdie case, it is very likely the Congress will take up the cudgels in favor of the Muslims (an illiberal position); the BJP preferring to play the liberal card – albeit guardedly. The problem is obviously more acute because of the UP elections – a state which has close to 18% Muslim population. Even the BJP doesn’t want to offend this huge voter base – and hence has asked the government not to grant him a visa. Quite expectedly, almost all other parties in UP have also made the same demand. When its election time, orthodoxy is the predominant theme and the one who out-does the the other on orthodoxy wins the game!

I saw a part of the TV debate last night and was surprised with the quality of defence put up by some Muslim panelists. Their argument was that even the Christianity disallowed “blasphemy” – as if the Christians represented some moral highground of liberalism. There are all types of Christians in the world. There are the liberal ones and the very orthodox ones. We know about the “bible belt” in the US which can rival any degree of orthodoxy found in India. Giving select examples like this may help to win an argument on TV, but it does nothing to make progress in one’s thinking. We need to decide this for our country – do we want to be liberal at all or not? If we want to be, we should set examples, or follow the right ones, rather than hide behind convenient but retrograde examples.

While it is religion that gives faith and hope to all, it is also true that it often divides people. Many of the world’s conflicts are on grounds of religion. The tension in the relationship between Christians and Muslims is well known – with the crusades mounted by the Church between the 11th and13th centuries well documented. Likewise, the 2nd World War had the persecution of Jews as the central theme. The division of Sudan (Muslims and Christians), the rivalry between Ireland and the UK (related to Protestant and Catholic divisions) and the rivalry between Iran and Iraq (Shias and Sunnis) has much to do with religious divide. In India, we have seen a widening of the chasm between Hindus and Muslims over the years. Rather than bringing people together, religion sometimes divides people especially if it is used as a political tool. It’s not religion that is a problem; it is the people who use religion as a political tool that is the problem.

It’s not difficult to understand why political parties are taking the stand they are on the issue. The Congress has always been mindful of Muslim sentiments (minority appeasement as some argue), even if they are often illiberal. One remembers the Shah Bano case where the Congress (under Rajiv Gandhi) preferred to side with Muslim orthodoxy than liberalism. The SP has always considered itself to be the protector of Muslim interests – and so opposes anything that goes against the Muslim sentiment. What about the BJP? Quite clearly, its pro-Hindu ideology is synonymous with an anti-Muslim stance and hence it’s tempted to take potshots at the Muslims on such issues. Had it not been for the UP elections, the party would have strongly demanded that Rushdie be allowed entry into India.

I am clear that Rushdie should be given the visa to visit the Jaipur Literature Festival. By all measures, Rushdie is eminently qualified to participate at the Festival. He may have written something controversial in The Satanic Verses, but he continues to remain a celebrated writer. He’s been honored with several awards, including the Booker. Why would we even think of denying him the visa?

Unfortunately, given the UP elections, it is likely that the Indian government may deny him the visa and if that happens, that will be tragic. Fortunately, most media is supporting his visa request. Let’s see what eventually happens.

The real truth is that economic progress is one thing and social progress entirely different. India can grow as much as it wants economically, but it is struggling to grow socially. It may become the world’s number 1 economy in just half a century, but to become the world’s most liberal country may take many eons. If democracy is about personal freedom, and freedom of expression, then all right minded people must oppose any attempts by anyone to put limitations on these cherished principles…..

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