The Rushdie affair typifies art and its capacity for subversion as well as the State's oppression of it.

They that start by burning books will end by burning men.

Heinrich Heine

The heartache caused to many by the unfortunate absence of Salman Rushdie from the Jaipur Literature Festival has been duly compensated by his recent presence at the India Today Conclave where he struck back at the Indian leadership for its short-sighted political motivations at keeping him away for reasons of political expediency. Jaipur, according to him, was not about unpredictable Deobandi bigotry. “It was about — as it turned out later — pretty bad electoral miscalculations of the Congress”. “It didn't even work, Rahul,” he laughed. “It must feel sick.”

Rushdie's appearance at this occasion took me back many years to when I first met him at the Oxford University Student's Union where he was invited for a public reading session. Rushdie had accepted the invitation then with the sole purpose of defying the fatwa and sending out the clear message that he was coming out of hiding, whatever the consequences. I think it went to his credit to come out of the closet with guns trained on fundamentalism, thereby proclaiming literature to be secular and not sacred.

The literature of such writers is the literature of witness: the one who has been there and knows the torture of confinement and the harsh workings of state repression. This has been his refrain from those early days of the fatwa to the present scenario of fear and censorship. At the conclave, he emphasised that two new concepts of “respect” and “offence” had been raised by the recent events: “respect is being used to demand assent” just as “offendedness” is largely employed to silence any dissent.

A free space

In literature, there are no boundaries, no finality. The writer and the reader are within their creative rights to subvert established harmonies and textual obeisance by entering the space of freedom. This aspect of art was apparently thrown to the wind by the Indian government by refusing to provide state protection to Rushdie; it was a flight from social and moral responsibility, a frightening truth about our so-called democracy and its blatant Right-wing populism. The question screaming at us today is, how long we must tolerate this opposition of public acts of remembrances and resistance to received assumptions. Can burning of books or their banning be legitimised through the argument of preserving a pure and pristine religious identity or thinking?

The long and thundering applause that greeted Rushdie at the debating hall of the Oxford Union on that historic day, and now at the Conclave, was a reminder of the responsibility of the state to ensure protection to anyone who believes in free speech, even if it is adversarial to the state. It resounds with overtones of free exchange of ideas put across in a wildly funny and scintillating, exuberant wit that we all have experienced in his writings and speeches.

Rushdie might have perhaps shown the same daring of visiting the Jaipur festival as he had in Oxford had the organisers remained undaunted. However, his arrival in Delhi for the conclave is bold enough. I will always remember his word play, the exotic strangeness alternating with punning, and the energy and buoyancy of a language underpinned by an instinctive conviction which so naturally comes to persecuted writers. Maybe, his visit will enable the Indian state to once and for all face up to bizarre quarrels, and lethal divisions, flaring up periodically in our contemporary history. Rushdie's dissidence has the foundations in a life passionately lived and put into writing with a hope that, in the words of Kate Millet, “those who will hear will care, will even take action.”

The more one ponders on the issue, the more it throws light on the insecurity of religious institutions and political structures that unequivocally take a stand against the freedom of expression as well as refuse to recognise the function of art in upholding civilisations. Barbaric fatwas and extreme positions in the recent debates over freedom of speech only go to show the fragility of the notion of the “sacred”. As Rushdie asserts, “to respect the sacred is to be paralysed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas — uncertainty, progress, change — into crimes.”

Creative transformations

Holding up the banner for secularism, Rushdie argues that “those who worship the whale — for, pursuit is a form of worship — perish by the whale” as in the case of Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. But he refrains from putting secularism or religion into absolute watertight categories. His fiction becomes, “a bit of this and a bit of that”, because art celebrates “transformation that occurs through new combinations of culture, ideas, politics, music and songs.” Moreover, creative dissidence acknowledges the self and the other and is never aimed at carrying out a one-way critique of the oppressor.

Salman Rushdie has had the same fate as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx, whose radical views endangered the advocates of ideological purity and fundamentalism. Pushkin attracted the wrath of the Tsar by composing “extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which a dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification, in the audacity of his sensual fancy, and in his propensity for making fun of major and minor tyrants.” Beethoven was forced to change the title of the final movement of his Ninth Symphony from ‘Ode to Freedom' to ‘Ode to Joy' at the behest of the Napoleonic censors. And M. F. Hussain had to live in exile till his end owing to threat to his life from the Right-wing fundamentalists. Matters of justice stand abrogated with the deviant and the unruly put in the dock for an anti-authoritarian stance. Democracy lies breathlessly under a siege that disallows creative flare and liberal activism to coexist. We stand at a juncture when the free citizens of the land wonder if the dreams of their forefathers to set sail towards the frontiers of liberty have not been mocked by the power-hungry state that allows the dark clouds of unjustifiable intolerance to envelope the nation. The erosion of our democratic values only points towards the bleaker times that await us.

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