Saturday, January 21, 2012

Secularism or Cowardice? Congress must answer for Rushdie’s absence….

So Salman Rushdie is not coming to Jaipur. Everyone knows the Congress didn’t want him to come, but the way it has been dressed up, it appears like he has decided himself to give the event a skip. The Congress claims to be a secular party but now it has a lot to answer. Does secularism mean agreeing with the retrograde views of one community? Why did the Booker prize winning author not have the confidence in the Indian government to come to India if the government was willing to have him here (as they claim)?

The fact is that the Congress decided to pander to the fringe elements in the Muslim community – given its need for its support in UP in the forthcoming elections. I am consciously calling it “fringe” elements because I don’t believe the larger Muslim fraternity is as orthodox and illiberal as it is made out to be. Is this the level to which politics has to drop in election times? Is this the meaning of being a secular country – that it also has to become illiberal? Wasn’t it the Congress that added the word “secular” in the preamble to the Constitution in 1976? Then why has it developed such a weak spine over the years?

In 1988, when the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress banned The Satanic Verses, that was bad enough. Just look at the list of countries where the book is banned: Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand. Is this the kind of company that India wants to keep (except Singapore)? Banning books is a particularly illiberal form of behavior – attacking the basic freedom of speech and expression as it does. The courts have often ruled against such bans. For example, the Gujarat government had banned Jaswant Singh’s book: Jinnah – India, Pakistan, Independence in August 2009, but the Gujarat HC lifted the ban in December of the same year. The liberal west hardly ever bans books these days. Shouldn’t we try and adopt some of their good practices? Besides, is it now the Congress’s stand that not just the book but the author himself has been banned from India? If not, then why not allow him to come? Rushdie has written many other books – at least nine other novels, a couple of children’s books and many other articles. Surely his presence at the literature festival would have added value?

What is the Congress afraid of? Is it the SIMI threat that scared off the Congress? Are we saying that a relatively minor terror outfit – one that has been outlawed by the government of India – has the guts to pressurize it in this way? If that is the case, then what moral authority does the government of India have to take on the various threats that face the country? Rushdie himself appeared to be willing to take the risk of coming – but rather than giving him the confidence to do so, the government appears to have pushed him into changing his mind. This is really a shameful thing for India.

In the past as well, the Congress has been weak in handling such pressure tactics. When the Shiv Sena and the BJP threatened MF Hussain’s exhibitions in Mumbai and elsewhere, the Congress sat still – again unwilling to grant protection to the world renowned artist. When Hussain wanted to come back to India from his self-imposed exile, the Congress went weak kneed again – speaking in double voices about whether it wanted him to come back or not. The master artist eventually chose to immigrate to Qatar – a country with which he had no links at all. What a shame that was for secular India – that an artist thought Qatar could be more liberal than India. Is India even less liberal than such middle-eastern states?

But it’s not just the Congress’s that’s spineless. The Left parties are the same. Take the case of Taslima Nasrin, the celebrated ex-Bangladeshi author who angered the Muslims by writing the story of a Hindu girl raped by a Muslim man in Lajja. And asked for a revision of the Sharia – the Islamic religious law. That was enough for several Muslim organizations to issue a fatwa against her. Soon she was booted out of Bangladesh; her book banned there. She was forced into exile in Sweden. Ten years later she came to India, and fortunately, the Indian government gave her a visa to stay and work (unsurprisingly by the NDA government, but more on their motive later). She chose to live in Bengal – a state which has a high % of Muslims. Another controversy – and some riots in Kolkata – later and the Left government pressurized her to leave the state. Wasn’t that a cowardly act also?

Again, she went abroad. Again she returned back to India, this time to live in Delhi. How much time before the Congress develops cold feet on her case as well and asks her to leave India? There are enough threats to her and the Congress may just find it more convenient to keep their Muslim supporters happy rather than worry about the damage to the progressive fabric of the country.

It’s not that the BJP is any more liberal. While it calls for a uniform civil code in India, its liberal attitude comes out only when it is preaching to the Muslims to change their conduct. That’s why it allowed Taslima Nasrin to come and settle in India – going against Islam as she was. And when it’s convenient for the party, it prefers to forgive its own cadres. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Godhra massacre, the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, the support for alleged saffron terrorists in so many cases are all trademarks of the Hindutva policies of the BJP. Just as much as the Congress and the Left are anti-secular at times, so is the BJP is as well.

The real truth is that disallowing Rushdie to come to India is a shameful thing for India. And the Congress is responsible for backing down. At least on this one subject, it certainly doesn’t get my vote…..

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