Freedom of expression, especially in the arts, has taken quite a beating recently. This past week must have been quite stressful for anyone who believed in this freedom and believed in a strong, democratic and progressive India. It is quite disturbing to know that today; I might be taken to task for expressing my opinion and not because I directly offended a person or section of the society, but because someone who was not even remotely related to the expression decided on becoming the authority on offensive remarks and censorship.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s novel was first published in 1988, well over two decades back and was promptly banned in India for its “blasphemous” contents and that decision was accepted by one and all (mostly). That I thought was enough of a measure to punish the “erring” author and we could have buried the issue then. The recent protests against his planned visit to India and the statement issued by the Darul Uloom Deoband asking for a life ban on the author are more than ridiculous. If a certain section of the society had a problem against the author for what he wrote in The Satanic Verses, they could have dragged him to the court of law for hurting their religious sentiments and then let the court decide on the due course of action. I am not in support of the author here or of his writings, I am more in support of his right to freedom of expression and more importantly, his right to be adjudged a “criminal” or a “wrongdoer” by only the court of law and not by a bunch of intolerant protesters.
What takes this whole issue to a much higher-level of senselessness is the statement that if the author were to apologize for the blasphemy in his book, his wish to visit India and the Jaipur Literature Festival could be considered. Would an apology nullify the so-called damage that was done by the writings or in other words wash away Salman Rushdie’s “sins”? This in some ways points towards the insecurities of a country that boasts of a thousand years of proud existence and a history rarely seen elsewhere but can’t seem to get over 100 years of British oppression. As is so natural to us, we might as well blame this too on the British. In fact, I do sometimes think that that may be true to a certain extent, in this particular case!
I have grown up watching movies and reading books about the great freedom struggle that India went through and how it didn’t matter if we were of a particular caste or religion when we were facing a much larger issue. The point was to fight for a free India. We did get a free India for sure, but we lost the larger cause that kept all of us from getting into these irrelevant and worthless debates. After the feeling of elation that is felt after one achieves a tough goal, there is always a sense of restlessness that the wait for the next goal evokes. In this state of restlessness, there is a tendency to get involved in many inconsequential lesser issues. This I think is the state that we are in. It somehow points to a weird sense of insecurity that lies embedded in us and this, maybe, is what makes us extremely defensive.
How else can we explain the government’s reaction to comments made by the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson on the BBC show, Top Gear? As an on-and-off viewer of the show, I know for a fact that Jeremy Clarkson is a prime example of the absurd and often satirical British humour. The man jokes on an almost regular basis about the Queen of the country of which he is a very respected citizen. We have a problem with him because he made controversial remarks about our lack of sanitation, our clothes and our history. But then, we had no problems with Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire showing the slums in Mumbai and the lack of sanitation there. Even if we initially did have some minor issues with the movie, we were all but open to ignoring them once we realized that our very own music genius A.R.Rahman was to receive two Academy Awards for his music in the film.
The brouhaha and protests over M.F.Hussain’s objectionable paintings of our deities and Mother India and the shameful attack on the double amputee artist Balbir Krishan for painting on the theme of homosexuality are other glaring examples of this growing despicable intolerance and hypocrisy.
There are innumerable instances of our ‘selective’ intolerance and it would take forever to list them here, but for me, these are the signs of an extremely intolerant and insecure society which at a very general level lacks a sense of humour. And I would like to clarify, when I say ‘society’, I point at those who have the audacity to believe that what they want to hear or see is what should be said or shown!
Just a small observation that I couldn’t help but mention here, in some instances, we seem to be an overtly tolerant nation too. We don’t seem to mind tolerating the threats of various groups (some are even banned themselves!) and sections and see them murdering our right to enjoy the luxuries of living in a democratic country. It is commonplace today to have threats issued by groups like the MNS, the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene and SIMI. What is amusing though is the reaction of the government and the police towards these statements. How else would you describe a reaction where the people who are threatened by these groups are asked to stay away or indoors to avoid getting into trouble? I always thought that the duty of the police and the government was to allow me my freedom and then guarantee my safety.
But then there may always be an argument that we are already asking for too much from our severely understaffed and underpaid police department and that they are doing the best that they could possibly do in this incredible nation of a billion people! That, for me, is the beauty of being in a democracy, there can always be arguments and there will always be opinions, even if there is no real freedom in the larger sense of the word!