The recent furore over Rushdie's visit to India is a throwback to the past.
The parallels between Salman Rushdie and M.F. Husain are uncanny. Both were born Muslim. Both subscribed to the view that serious art needs to be provocative and push the boundaries of what is tolerable, if not palatable, in a culture. To that end, both pursued artistic agendas that raised the ire of conservatives and religious fundamentalists, albeit of different stripes. Both enjoyed rather than shunned the spotlight their fame brought them, which made them fair game for any detractor itching to make a splash. The threat of the mob and the weak-kneed approach of the Indian government in combating it drove Husain into voluntary exile. At the moment, the two have conspired to force Rushdie to rethink his participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival. Let us hope they don't, as was the case with Husain, lead to an estrangement between him and the country of his birth.
In my essay on Husain's death in London last year which was published in The Hindu (‘When Society Failed the Artist', June 19, 2011), I compared Husain's exile from India to the instance of the Irish writer James Joyce exiling himself from his native Ireland where his works were considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church and targeted by unruly mobs. Rushdie's predicament can be compared to that of another prominent Irish writer John Millington Synge. The kind of angst Rushdie has encountered from the Islamists for The Satanic Verses is similar to what Synge faced when his 1907 play “The Playboy of the Western World” led to riots in Dublin. Religious elements and the conservative faction of the Sinn Fein condemned the play for its apparent patricide and foul language, and interpreted the sight of women standing about on stage in their undergarments as a slight against Irish womanhood. The antipathy directed at the play dogged Synge for the rest of his short life, he died at the age of 38 in 1909, in the same manner Islamist anger aimed at The Satanic Verses follows Rushdie.
When The Satanic Verses was banned in India in 1988, it hardly raised an eyebrow round the world. India was then a marginal country, falling very quickly off the world's radar. Three years later in 1991, it would reach its nadir by being forced to hawk its gold reserves in a desperate bid to stay afloat. Hence, if it chose not to safeguard a constitutional freedom such as the freedom of expression, despite calling itself the world's largest democracy, who gave a damn? The country's profile was so miniscule that what it did or did not do hardly mattered. Now, more than 20 years later, India is a country that has witnessed sustained economic growth for several years and is touted as a haven of stability in a turbulent part of the planet. That keeps it very much under the world's microscope.
It is in this realm that something like this causes the maximum damage. It halts the new story of India on its tracks and hauls the old stereotype of the country as a backward nation steeped in intolerance out of mothballs. That the Deoband establishment mentioned the intervention of the Indian government to prevent a ban recently proposed in Russia against The Bhagavad Gita as part of its call to stop Rushdie gives their action a sectarian edge. The fact that Rushdie has been to India several times since the fatwa was rescinded and the current call to stop him was issued on the eve of the U.P. election introduces opportunism into the mix. That the government in power and the administrative and law enforcement machinery in Rajasthan leaned on the festival organisers to persuade Rushdie to cancel his visit shows the extent to which the Indian state remains at the mercy of the mob. Now all we need is for some zealots to embark on an orgy of book burning and the late eighties will feel like here and now.
The American author and educator Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, said, ‘The highest result of education is tolerance.' That the freedom of expression is constantly under siege in India is symptomatic of how India's education system has consistently fallen short in this respect. Our educators have, to paraphrase former American President Theodore Roosevelt, chosen to educate men only in their minds. When it comes to morals, they have ceded their responsibility, allowing those who pursue a moral agenda completely at odds with the principles of a liberal democracy to fill the vacuum. Unless our educators own up their responsibility and work diligently to instil tolerance in their students, the freedom of expression will remain endangered in our country and the old stereotype of India as an intolerant nation will continue to be rescued from mothballs and unfurled as a banner for the world to see.