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Friday, January 20, 2012

Salman Rushdie: A Test of Indian Tolerance?

Article first published as The Indian Rash Over Rushdie! on Technorati.

The celebrated author of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to India as a keynote speaker in the famous Jaipur Literature Festival (JLT) supposed to start from today did not make the country happy. This was despite him being a Person of Indian Origin (PIO). What should have been a matter of pride for the largest democracy of the world turned into the old Indian rash surfacing again in all its sore features.

India being a pluralistic society with various linguistic, religious, cultural and ethnic communities the chances are very high for any particular section to get offended by creative works or plain statements made by a particular author or journalist or filmmaker or even politician. In majority of such cases none of the supposedly offended community happened to be even aware of the content of the cause of offense. The only result of this rash is that of a growing wave of intolerance which has been palpable in recent years. 

 Somebody writes a book parts of which are not liked by a particular section and so demands get raised for banning the book. Some journalist writes a column that allegedly offends some and again protests happen which may even lead to attacks on the journalist or his/her properties. One filmmaker makes a movie not liked again by a section and it may lead to protest marches or even vandalizing the cinema houses showing it. Sometimes the concerned creator is even hounded out of the country. This ugly trend asserts itself in all cases of creative works including by painters or poets.

Since India has a post-independence history of linguistic and religious riots in many regions such cases of dissent are taken as security threats or law and order problems making the authorities bow down to demands almost always. Apart from this the possible impact on voters are also viewed by ruling political parties. So, the motto of ‘playing it safe’ emerges as the overpowering mentality.
When Darul Uloom Deoband, the oldest and biggest Islamic seminary of India, appealed to the authorities to decline permission to Salman Rushdie’s visit it was viewed as a security concern and ‘playing it safe’ prevailed to put the visit in great uncertainty. The organizers of JLT were also influenced to fall in line. Accordingly the organizers announced a change in Rushdie’s travel schedule on January 20 while maintaining that it stood by its invitation which meant Rushdie could in fact visit later as the Festival would continue for four days. On the other hand a PIO cannot be prevented from visiting his/her own country and s/he does not need a visa for that. 

Salman Rushdie published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 which hurt sentiments of Muslims all over the globe for its allegedly blasphemous content against Islam and the Prophet. Ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (death warrant) against Rushdie in 1989. But that was more than two decades ago and the Deoband has no history of ever protesting against Rushdie during these years. Another surprising fact is that though the JLT attract authors from all over the world hardly anyone decided to protest against or comment on the Rushdie issue.

It happened with M F Hussain, the legendary painter of India, too. Some sections did not like his movie and particularity a few of his paintings that were supposedly derogatory to the Indian deities. The great artiste was hounded continuously immersing him with litigations and threats to life and finally forcing him to leave the country. He lived in exile for five years and accepted citizenship from Qatar fearing that he would never be allowed to come back to India. The great artiste died in exile in 2011.

If a creative work is not liked or hated there should only be creative criticisms or reviews. One can get an apology in an educated, cultural and constructively creative way too.
But intolerant India thrives on its internal intricacies. And, who is bothered about it?
By the way, is Salman Rushdie coming to India tomorrow or day after or ever?
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