Rushdie and Freedom of Expression

The real danger to freedom of expression comes from the likes of another Salman, who is constantly paraded as the liberal Indian Muslim.

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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I listened to Salman Rushdie at the India Today summit with considerable interest. As always, Rushdie had a unique knack of irreverent vituperation couched in allegorical terms that his audience (and readers) find irresistible.


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Rushdie did not disappoint his audience. He commenced by taking a dig at Imran Khan for withdrawing from the summit at the last moment. Never known to pull punches, on this occasion he pulled out all the stops though when he tore into the cricketer-turned-politician for misrepresenting the real reason why he felt compelled to withdraw, and alluded to the contrast between Imran’s days as a playboy in London and his stated adherence to the Islamic principles he liberally espouses now.

He then directed his ire at the Indian politicos for genuflecting before the fundamentalists for purely expedient reasons. He went on to adumbrate how he could foresee real danger to the most cherished principle of democracy, ie freedom of expression. He cited mythical texts to explode the myth that absolute freedom of expression was not an Indian concept and that it was wilfully misleading on the part of the politicians to state that.

He also cited numerous instances where he felt that this sacred fundamental principle had been endangered in this country, eg. the persecution of MF Hussain, governmental opposition to the filming of the Deepa Mehta film, withdrawal of the Rohinton Mistry text and the Delhi University fiasco. I personally would have added another instance; the persecution of Taslima Nasreen by the fundamentalists and the shameful role played by the Left Front ministry and the Indian federal government represented by Pranab Mukherjee. I am confident this was not a wilful lapse on his part.

He then went on to state that the major reasons why these harbingers of intolerance were flourishing in India, were political expediency and public apathy, pointing out how that there was no hue and cry over his visit to the summit, as opposed to the hostility he had encountered around the time of the Jaipur Literary Festival. He concluded by stating that India deserved better leadership than it has at present.

Before expounding on what my take on this issue is, I think it would be fair to declare that I have been a long-time admirer of Rushdie. I first came to know of him when he published Midnight’s Children. I was working in London at the time and recall purchasing my copy of that book; it had just been reviewed in The Guardian. Ever since then, I have always awaited his published works – whether a book or an article – with utmost anticipation.

I might also declare that I have read the Satanic Verses in 1988 when it was first released. It would not be wrong to state that I was probably one of the very first to have bought and read the book even before it had been reviewed. And I recall vividly stating that while the volume was an unputdownable read, and its allegorical exposition was unprecedented at least in the literature that I was familiar with, I could not help feeling uneasy that within the desire to mercilessly lampoon a religion, certain epithets were employed which would make many uncomfortable.

I certainly did not anticipate what followed, and my position remains that the ban on the book was misplaced as was the brouhaha which unfortunately led to at least two individuals losing their lives. It is a matter of eternal shame for those who tend to believe that this was a price worth paying.

Once the dispute had assumed sinister dimensions, I was asked to write two reviews for two different periodicals which I duly did, and recall giving a talk on this very issue in New Brunswick, Canada. I have had occasion to revisit those reviews several times and my position remains exactly what it was 24 years ago. As it is now.

It was sheer coincidence that just around this time the US Supreme Court was deliberating on the absoluteness of freedom of expression in a democracy as enshrined in the US Constitution. The case was that of Texas vs Johnson, in which the Supreme Court was asked to rule whether burning of the US flag was covered under the freedom of speech.

In a landmark judgement, Justice Walter Brennan, one of the greatest jurists of this century wrote:

“Under the circumstances, Johnson’s burning of the flag constituted expressive conduct, permitting him to invoke the First Amendment…Occurring as it did at the end of a demonstration coinciding with the Republican National Convention, the expressive, overtly political nature of the conduct was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent.” The court concluded that while “the government generally has a freer hand in restricting expressive conduct than it has in restricting the written or spoken word,” it may not “proscribe particular conduct because it has expressive elements.”

Justices Thurgood Marshall, Blackmum and Scalia concurred with this judgment. I might note Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurrence as he was regarded as one of the most conservative judges. Even more noteworthy and erudite is the judgement by Justice Anthony Kennedy, also regarded as a conservative judge:

“For we are presented with a clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution. The outcome can be laid at no door but ours. The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases. Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”

Kudos to Anthony Kennedy! I might add that I had serious reservations when he was elevated to the Supreme Court. I am delighted that he has proved me wrong.

I firmly believe that what Justice Kennedy said about the protective duty of the flag applies equally to religion; that any religion which is a symbol of both individual and collective identity should have within itself the power to protect those who abuse it. This is what in my view differentiates religion from a despotic dictatorship.

What I am trying to express here is that I would never question Rushdie’s right to express his ideas and views. Any regime that tries to do that vitiates the very spirit of democracy. And I might add here that in India the real danger to freedom of expression does not come from the Deoband seminary; Rushdie is on the mark when he says that fundamentalists occupy a very small space, and apart from creating spasmodic bouts of public nuisance, have no potential to erode the fundamental fabric of the Indian nation. The real danger in my view comes from the likes of another Salman, viz Salman Khurshid who occupies the mainstream and is constantly being paraded as the liberal and enlightened persona of the Indian Muslim. I recall vividly how he defended the ban on the book and vigorously shouted down Prof. Mushir-ul-Hasan when he was expressing a different viewpoint. Clearly he was intolerant of an opposing viewpoint, even though Hasan had conceded that he was as shocked by the book as anyone else but opposed the ban.

Rushdie’s ire would be better directed I think against those who are in the mainstream and support suppression of expression. What I do question is Rushdie’s wisdom in alienating a large section of thoroughly decent and thinking individuals.

Like Rushdie, my fellow Cambridge alumnus, I do not believe in the concept of religious identity. That, to paraphrase the great David Hume, limits a human being and his potentials. Like Rushdie, the cross-section that I grew up socialising and associating with, were liberal open-minded people who could see the humour in the religious contradictions and enjoyed it.

And it is these people that I feel for, the ones that I know support Rushdie’s right to express himself as vividly as he can, and shall oppose tooth and nail any curbs.

I would fervently wish that he would reciprocate by being a little more sensitive to their sensitivities.

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