As happy as a lark is the Congress after it patted itself on the back after foiling the attempt of Salman Rushdie coming to the Jaipur Lit Fest so as to avoid the situation taking a communal colour and winning over the minorities keeping in view the elections in five states. The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect their free expression should be its first object. But does it apply to the present Congress-led UPA government? Certainly not, as the so-called protagonists of secularism in the country can sink to such depths in order to strangulate the true ethos of democracy so as to stay well in power. This was witnessed at the recent Kolkata Book Fair function where Taslima Nasreen’s book release was cancelled on the puerile security grounds. Earlier, at Jaipur Literature Festival, the famed Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie was debarred from attending it on one flimsy ground that some hired shooters from the Mumbai underworld were chasing to gun him down. And finally, the organisers of the Festival yielded to implied threats of outbreak of violence if Rushdie attended the Festival. Rushdie was not going to speak on the ban of The Satanic Verses nor would he speak any of its part at the event. The critical issue is not about personalities viz. Salman Rushdie. It is about the principle enshrined in our Constitution. In our Constitution, the right to freedom under Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. The freedom of expression cannot be suppressed due to threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and surrender to blackmail and intimidation. Freedom cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people. But the Congress-led government of Rajasthan apparently failed to put in place the requisite security measures. The regrettable consequence was not Rushdie’s absence but the prevalence of bigotry and intolerance. A section of so-called champions of secularism launched a tirade against Rushdie in the media. Ironically, in their articles, these self-proclaimed custodians of secularism divulged what is written in Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, which majority of the readers were not aware of thus far. However, what was perturbing was that they wrote on Rushdie’s ban vis-a-vis a particular religious group and the need for that group, in that particular context, to open itself up to mature and democratic debates, not fatwas. They chose to sharpen their knife on that very community, which has produced more dissenting voices within itself than any other religious groups in the country—Hindus. It is noteworthy that these and other people of ‘secular’ brigade had maintained a studied silence, when MF Hussain painted the Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the nude, hurting the sentiments of crores of Hindus. Moreover, this blinkered brigade ignored critical facts in depicting the religiosity of the Indian State—that not only does the State not give money but also receive more money from large Hindu pilgrimages such as Sabarimala and Tirupathi, which it administratively controls, whereas it does not administer places of worship of any other community!
Another theory that is doing the rounds in the corridors of power is that the Congress did not want the Muslim votes to slip away from it. It is no secret that Rahul Gandhi is leaving no stone unturned to win elections in Uttar Pradesh, but the Congress surveys revealed a dismal picture for the party. Against this backdrop, if Rushdie had been allowed to attend the festival or his video link continued to be played till the very last, and that too in a Congress-led Rajasthan, this would have further marred the Congress’ image not only in UP but also in other states. According to Congress strategists, Muslims votes would have drifted away from the Congress. It is worth mentioning that the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t care about the issue, as they are too busy going about their daily affairs. To seek to portray an entire religious community as narrow-minded and prone to violence is wrong and rather shameful. Yet that is the image conveyed by the episode of Rushdie’s aborted visit to India. Whether literature should serve a social purpose is an old, hackneyed question. Whatever the answer, if there could indeed be one, readers relish and cherish the work of literature not for its social utility or relevance, but its appeal as a whole. But when we even cannot provide our writers the space for creative expression even within the limits set by the law, our society can no longer claim to be civilised or democratic. It is abysmally unfortunate that writers—whether they be Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen—have been debarred from entering this country because their creative space has either been restricted or rather made to remain eclipsed. Meanwhile, I will emphasise that while freedom of speech gives us the right to verbally express how we feel, it does not give us the right to abuse or hurt other people. Certain things require self-control and respect. But, unfortunately, there are always those who will pontificate that they have a right to do whatever they feel pleased with. In today’s world, we need more tolerance, understanding and harmony than legal restrictions. If we show proper respect to the rights and sensibilities of others, we will need no limitations marking the boundary. Our society is more and more accommodating; the plight of women and Dalits is on the wane only because of the struggles and endeavours of our social reformers in the past. If today some groups are trying to take us back into the dark medieval ages of history, we must fight against them in a very courageous manner similar to the one which our social reformers showed us. Jihad, fundamentalisms and pseudo-secularism are the follies of time and will be wiped off only when we continue the struggle of our social reformers without any fear and laxity.