By Charumati Haran:
Sir Salman Rushdie has become one of the most controversial figures in modern times. It all began with the release of The Satanic Verses in 1988, which led to a ‘fatwa’ being issued against him. Last year, he withdrew from the Jaipur Literature Festival after reports of a death threat. He was also forced to abandon plans to address the gathering by a video link after protesters threatened to march on the venue. It seems that this ‘series of unfortunate events’ is still not over.
Author Salman Rushdie has been barred from visiting Kolkata. He was to go there for a promotional event of Midnight’s Children, the film based on his book. The event was scrapped at the last minute. While so much is certain, the reports on what exactly happened are confusing: Some say, the author was also scheduled to drop in at a literary event at the Kolkata book fair where police asked for a written guarantee that the author would not attend. MP Saugata Roy says the police were told to give Rushdie “friendly advice” to stay away for his safety. Salman Rushdie himself alleges that Mamata Banerjee ordered the police to keep him out and he was told the police would put him on the next plane out of Kolkata. The event organizers says he wasn’t scheduled to come, Rushdie says he can prove he was invited for the promotional trip.
While this quagmire makes it very difficult for the outsider to take sides, there are certain very ironic facets about this whole issue:
One would expect that a vendetta like the one certain Muslims have against Rushdie would have died down in the space of 25 years. Even if some people do consider it serious enough to be maintained, the ironic thing is that by protesting again and again and so vehemently, they are only adding fuel to the fire: After the issue of the fatwa, sales of The Satanic Verses skyrocketed. The book was flying off the shelves and Rushdie earned about $2 million within the first year of publication. So the end result is that even though the author was sufficiently harassed, the amount of publicity that he and his book received just reconfirmed the popular saying that “No publicity is bad publicity”. Instead of stopping the book and the idea in its tracks, these protests have made the book more widely known! This is similar to the present situation. The protests shadowing the release of Midnight’s Children have just made others more curious to see the film: many will go just to see what all the fuss is about!
However, a very negative consequence of this is that when some members of a particular community use violence to protest, the whole community gets painted with the same brush. This feeds existing stereotypes. How will the people against Rushdie’s book, say group A, convince others that their intentions are right and honourable if group A is stereotyped as being narrow minded and violent?
Violence and stereotyping prevents people from having reasonable discussions and finding solutions. It also drives wedges between people, communities and nations: the Iranian government saw the book as part of a British controversy against Iran and broke diplomatic relations with them. We will never be free of religious and caste barriers if groups keep bringing up their differences to the forefront again and again and giving them too much importance.
This leads me to the next ironic observation: the only people who seem to get away with saying whatever they want are the people with power. The political class that has escaped several times in the last year: calling women dented and painted, indirectly blaming victims for being raped and Raj Thackeray saying that rapes are because of Biharis to name a few. And last but not least, let us not forget the infamous Akbaruddin Owaisi. This is the same political class that clamped down on free speech several times in the past year: abuse of IT act 66A and prosecuting political cartoonists are the most prominent examples. The politicians’ blunders will be forgotten, they will be voted back into power. With perhaps a reprimand from their superiors, they will go on to live comfortable lives. All this keeps happening while an author who wrote one particular book is hounded for the rest of his life.
Cases like IT Act 66A happened when the state allowed a particular group to misuse the existing laws to favour their own interests. There is a reason the judiciary exists: the learned, experienced and capable judges of the courts exist to pass judgments. If the courts have decided that banning of the book is sufficient punishment, then that should be accepted. Isn’t a court qualified to decide if content is offensive? Why can’t offended parties take recourse to legal means to express their dissatisfaction? Why hold a sword over a person’s head with threats and violence? This is sending a very bad message to the world in general. Now all kinds of groups will try to get their demands met by coming into power or threatening violence. Every day a new group will want something banned because it offends their sentiments. The values of democracy, tolerance and secularism in the constitution are to be interpreted by the judiciary and their will should be respected. The law cannot be subject to hooliganism by random groups, punishing innocent people in the process — the offended group takes out its fury against the common people along with the thing they have a grievance against. How will the educated and intellectual thrive? Why will events like the literary fest be organized when there is so much risk of offending some group?
I’ll leave you with one last curious thing to ponder on: recently on Arnab Goswami’s show, there was one panelist who spoke strongly against the movie Midnight’s Children. He was asked if he had actually seen that movie. He had not.