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Thursday, January 19, 2012

(Published in on 19 January 2012, retrieved from

A couple of years ago, M F Husain voluntarily took up Qatari citizenship, setting off a wail from India’s acknowledged intellectia about the callousness with which he was forced into exile for exercising his freedom of expression.
Now, a man whose critical questioning of the faith he is familiar with, the religion he has grown up in, is at the centre of a row over his right to visit his country of birth. Coming, as it does, on the back of two ongoing cases in court, both to do with our right to say what we want to say, the brouhaha over Salman Rushdie’s scheduled visit to Jaipur is indicative of an insidious trend.
First, there was the allegedly “inflammatory article” How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror written by Subramanian Swamy in national daily DNA. Months after rightists and leftists of various persuasions fumed over it, Harvard University dropped courses taught by Swamy. He has now been accused of inciting communal disharmony, as if India had been a Utopian land of religious tolerance before the article came out. Ironically, the article has probably united several religious factions in condemning it, a phenomenon perhaps last seen after the repeal of section 377.
After Union Minister Kapil Sibal came across a purportedly offensive cartoon, the government decided to take on Facebook, Google and blog sites, charging them with exposing children to obscenity among other things. Children, really? I mean, if you’re going to be petty about something, is it too much to ask that you, at the very least, be forthright about the pettiness?
With this, we could be the first self-proclaimed progressive democracy that advocates and strives to emulate China’s clampdown on internet content. And yet, there are activists there who risk prosecution and torture to make themselves heard in China. People use Weibo to get around China’s ban on Twitter. Iran has grown a culture of subversion among students, journalists, writers and filmmakers, in response to the ultra-conservative regime.
And now, the Indian government is apparently bowing down to a bunch of hardliners who are unlikely to have read Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, hell, hardliners who are unlikely to be able to read it. And thanks to them, most of literate India has been deprived of the opportunity to read what is an intense, provocative book – provocative because it provokes questions, not emotions.
Every time a controversy over religion crops up, India’s solution has been to ban its source, in favour of building vote banks. From The Da Vinci Code to Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, and from songs and scenes in Kamal Haasan’s films to the movie Dam 999, any voice that is considered dissident, any question that is deemed uncomfortable, is silenced.
I personally don’t think either Lajja or Husain’s ahem, interpretations, of the Hindu pantheon, or the motives that may have inspired them to indulge in those particular artistic expressions, are worthy of the newsprint spent on the furore over them. But how does the government get to decide whether I’m to be given the chance to make up my mind?
What makes it all the more ironic is that it’s hard to drive on a road in Chennai without encountering a vehicle bearing the flag of some Dravida party and a poorly-composed couplet about the ignorance of the theist, which is clearly intended to insult either religious or syntactic sentiments.
If one were to scour Satanic Verses for an ultimate message, how different is it, really, from Tahmina Anam’s The Good Muslim, or Nadeem Aslam’s evocative The Wasted Vigil, both of which examine the essence of religion and how it can be misinterpreted into an austere, extreme form of Islam?
What is the purpose of art in general, and literature in particular, if not to allow space for doubt? And are we, as a nation, so stunted, so bigoted, so tame, that we can be bullied into postponing, cancelling or evading the visit of one of our literary icons? Does an inquiry into religion beg a ban unless one wields political clout, and clings on to atheism as a stance?


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