In terms of duplicity, deviousness and hypocrisy in governance and the display of sheer contempt for democracy and secularism, the conduct of UPA II in the Rushdie/ Jaipur Literary Festival episode marks a new low. The incident is not an isolated one, following as it does the shameful behaviour in the cases of M F Husain, and Taslima Nasreen. Democratic and secular practice has been corrupted, and this corruption is infinitely more treacherous than that of the financial kind .
Is this an over reaction, the ‘pseudo anger’ of the elite, liberal intellectual taken in by ‘western’ notions of freedom of speech and stemming from a lack of understanding of the complex socio cultural environment we live in ? Is one being completely ignorant of the difficulties that any administration confronts in maintaining public harmony? Is the reaction commensurate with the gravity of the alleged misconduct ?
It is mostly other members of the same liberal intellectual elite who dub this reaction as elitist and downplay its insidious impact. This stems from the condescension with which many of us treat the practice of democracy- as a plaything of the elite and not the bread and butter concern of the common man. The fact is that in a country of such gross inequities, democracy is the only means of survival with dignity that the common man has and protecting it, nurturing it and resisting attacks on it is the single most important responsibility we have as citizens.
In the Rushdie matter, as events unfolded themselves a few things became very clear. To a party going out of its way to woo the Muslim vote in U.P and fiercely competing with the SP and the BSP in doing so, the Congress could ill afford to antagonise the Deobandis and the Owaisis, not so much to garner votes as not to lose them. In the stakes for competitive communalism the Congress bets slyly and secretively but it bets big. Rushdie had to be stopped from coming without the Congress and the UPA Government showing their hand. So it followed a classic three pronged strategy of deviousness: First , make the State Government take the lead in dealing with the issue so that the federal excuse is always available to pass the buck and have the national level party and Government spokespersons maintain a politically and legally correct stance ; Second, fabricate a scare which is plausible enough for the JLP organisers to willingly persuade Rushdie that it will be in every one's best interests if he does not come and ensure that the decision is publicly seen as one taken reluctantly and voluntarily by Rushdie himself ; Third, keep the Islamist loony fringe protest boiling so that the threat perception remains and the JLP organisers are not emboldened into any further bit of adventurism. It did not expect that an alert media would uncover the bogus nature of the scare and thereby expose the deviousness of their plan.
It is obvious that the masterminding of this ploy was done by the Congress party leadership within the Central Government with assured access to the I.B. The Rajasthan Government was used merely to distance the Centre from any direct role. In turn, the Rajasthan Government played its assigned role to perfection and managed to scare the organisers to an extent where the choice was between having Rushdie or having the festival. Obviously no organiser is going to waste millions on standing up for a principle especially when he is led to believe that he is acting in the larger interests of the nation. The scare was sufficient to make the organisers a tad defensive about the conduct of the Government and they then took it on themselves to try and contain subsequent voices of protest.
I was witness to Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru taking a spontaneous decision to read out from the Satanic Verses during their Friday afternoon session. Many of us were sitting around in the private lounge reserved for writer/speakers ( and their spouses) when Amitava and Hari Kunzru said that they felt that it would be an appropriate way to demonstrate solidarity with Rushdie and register their protest. We could not see anything wrong with it. Yet when they started reading out to the spontaneous applause of the packed Durbar Hall, they were stopped midway by the organisers and the session ended soon thereafter in a tame manner. There was no one in the audience who objected and the directions to stop were most probably instigated by the police authorities ubiquitously present at the venue. Meanwhile in another session Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil did the same thing and chose the more provocative parts of Satanic Verses to make their point, once again to spontaneous applause. They too were cut short midway by the organisers and all four were given a polite dressing down for taking the organisers by surprise and and were painted a grim picture of the horrifying consequences that could follow such a blatantly illegal act. As it turns out there was nothing illegal in what they did, but given the nervousness of the organisers it was easy to believe ( a belief buttressed by legal opinion available from a legal luminary present) that some obscure provision of the IPC had been violated by reading out from a banned text and that grim consequences would follow this impulsive gesture. With the entire festival believed to be under threat of closure and rumours of the imminent arrest of the Fab Four feverishly doing the rounds, all four were presumably advised to quietly leave the city and allow the temperatures to come down. So even a very tame, civilised, literary gesture of solidarity was converted by the Rajasthan Government authorities into a threat to public order to achieve an execrable political purpose.
There are several voices of apology attempting to justify the conduct of the Government. The most favoured argument is to range the freedom available to a reckless writer belonging to the most privileged section of society, living in a foreign country against the sensitivities of a complex multi religious, multi cultural society. It is posed as a case of freedom of creative expression of one against the ‘sentiments’ of the masses. The second is the ‘limits to freedom’ argument. The argument is that no freedoms are absolute and romantic notions of freedom of speech borrowed from the liberal west are not applicable in our context. Restrictions have to be imposed in the interests of public order. The third argument is to make this an isolated case of Rushdie versus the Rest of India, where the focus shifts to Rushdie’s intemperance and his lack of contrition at his continued acts of blasphemy, his dubious merits as a writer and his penchant for attracting publicity to himself. The fourth argument is the one coming from the Indian version of secularism which while ostensibly treating all religions/faiths as equally deserving of deference believes that minority faiths, such as, Islam deserve a more aggressively visible demonstration of deference to protect its followers from a predatory majority.Posed in this manner it seems almost reasonable that in the case of the latest Rushdie episode the ‘larger’ interests of the nation prevailed against the interests of a minority of liberal intellectuals.
These arguments are both perverse and fallacious. Freedom of speech and expression is not just one of the Rights available in a democracy, it is its very foundation. Everything else is dependent on it. It is fundamental to democracy in the most fundamentally defining way. Safeguarding the Right, conserving it and promoting it is the foremost responsibility of the State more important than anything else that it does. It is an enforceable Right and failure to protect it amounts to the complete abdication of its most primary responsibility. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to listen, to receive information, to demand information, to discuss and debate and is therefore universal, not just the right of one individual to express himself. Limits on it can only be imposed by law and not by executive action. The limits/restrictions have to be exceptional and justified in the rarest of circumstances.
The perversity of the argument is manifold. First, it places the limits on a Constitutionally guaranteed freedom at a higher pedestal than the freedom itself and makes these restrictions the basis for policy and action rather than the freedom. By this logic, arbitrary and completely illegitimate restrictions on freedom have to be treated as sacrosanct but the freedom itself can be trampled upon with impunity. So the State instead of ensuring an environment where people can enjoy their freedom without fear or peril, supports and abets the creation of an environment of fear to deny them their freedom. Second, those who threaten to disturb public order with ominous warnings of possible violence find protection and tacit encouragement from the State,their threats justified as natural expressions of outrage against a known provocateur but those organising a peaceful and orderly assembly of citizens simply to provide a platform for creative individual expression are threatened with prosecution for attempting to do so. Third, the feelings and the rights of a moderate majority wanting simply to listen to a famous writer are held in complete contempt and treated as inferior to the sentiments of a loony, Talibanist fringe whose rights to vilify and demonise a great writer are upheld as being legitimate and justified. This is reverse secularism at its worst.
The Rushdie episode is a reminder of the extreme fragility and vulnerability of our traditions of democratic practice and how easily and readily the State is prepared to trample over them. While peaceful, democratic resistance at the grassroots have always been suppressed by the State ruthlessly in the interests of security and public order for a long time, the world of the Arts and Literature had generally been left untouched. With MF Husain, Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen that world too is no longer safe from the authoritarian strains that run through our polity. Supporting the right to dissent, to be a contrarian, to be irreverent, to blaspheme, to mock and to deflate authority and pompousness, to expose hypocrisy is what makes a democracy. As intellectuals it is our bounden duty to stand up for it and fight its erosion continuously. What the Government did in this case is utterly abominable and as intellectuals it is our duty to expose it and shame it.