1/30/12

Salman Rushdie Had To Pay For Hurting Muslim Feelings

. 1/30/12

By: Pavan K. Varma

No individual can claim in the name of freedom of speech the absolute right to insult without reason legitimate articles of faith of anyone.

The alchemy of globalisation is such that western nations and societies manage to project an image of superior ethics and freedom even while they dissemble and display double standards themselves. It is as if they can lay down the rules for 'civilised' and 'progressive' behaviour, but need not follow these themselves.

Without doubt the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has assumed a proportion that its organisers could never have imagined when it began some six years ago.

I had attended the first edition in 2006 and there were a hundred people or so in the Durbar Hall, which was the only venue. Today, peak crowds are estimated at over 50,000; there are multiple events going on simultaneously; a dozen food outlets find it difficult to cope with the rush; book signing sessions have queues that stretch endlessly; college and school students attend in huge numbers. It is in every sense an unprecedented carnival.

The organisers - Namita Gokhale, Sanjoy Roy and William Dalrymple - deserve to be congratulated for this feat. There is no other cultural festival in the country that attracts such an attendance from all parts of the country and the world. Our international film festival in Goa is mostly a damp squib and the art triennale is equally lacklustre. The JLF is the only event that on its own strength can pull in the most famous international talent.

But the Diggy Palace, where the event is held, is showing definitive signs of creaking under the pressure of the crowd. This year, my session with Gulzar Saheb was moved from the smaller but more intimate Durbar Hall to the Mughal Tent, which has a capacity of 800. But 1,500 people turned up; it took some time for the aisles to be cleared before we could reach the podium to speak.

Unfortunately, for all the transparent enthusiasm of the audience, this year's festival was overshadowed by the Salman Rushdie controversy. I am afraid I do not subscribe to the somewhat hysterical view that his failure to participate signifies the end of democracy, freedom, free expression and values in India. It is beyond a tiny fig of doubt that Rushdie wrote a gratuitously blasphemous text in The Satanic Verses and has since flamboyantly defended his right to do so.

We all value freedom of speech but no society anywhere in the world believes in absolute freedom of speech. If you put something deliberately and provocatively in the public realm that hurts the sentiments of people on something as sacrosanct as faith, you must face the consequences of your action.

The West may lionise Rushdie and uphold his freedom of speech, but what has been its own track record? When the film The Last Temptation of Christ was made, it provoked in Europe a public outcry unprecedented in the history of religious films. Similarly, when The Passover Plot portrayed Christ as a charlatan, it was picketed out of existence in only a few weeks and never heard of again. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons caricaturing Prophet Mohammad. In spite of protestsby Muslims, and other liberal-minded people, the paper defended its decision on grounds of freedom of speech. But it was reported that the same editor had earlier turned down caricatures of Jesus as too offensive.

The alchemy of globalisation is such that western nations and societies manage to project an image of superior ethics and freedom even while they dissemble and display double standards themselves. It is as if they can lay down the rules for 'civilised' and 'progressive' behaviour, but need not follow these themselves.

Unfortunately, the English-speaking intelligentsia in our country often unthinkingly internalises these biases without independent and judicious application of mind. That is why I refuse to be straitjacketed into this ridiculous simplification that if you are critical of Rushdie you are anti-freedom of speech.

We must endeavour steadfastly to build a liberal society that values freedom of expression. No fringe fundamentalist or extremist group should hold a society to ransom. No individual, however, can claim in the name of freedom of speech the absolute right to insult without reason legitimate articles of faith of anyone.

Rushdie is a PIO and can come to India anytime, and has done so in the past. If he believes what he wrote was right, he can brave the reactions he has unleashed and fight for his cause here, rather than from a luxury brownstone abroad guarded by dozens of gunmen. Similarly, the authors who read out at the festival from the banned book, and who mostly live abroad, could have stayed on and fought for their convictions rather than parachuting in and out of India.

In any case, I believe that the JLF this year was a huge success even if Rushdie did not attend. It is, to say the least, going a bit overboard to judge it by a uni-dimensional issue of whether Rushdie came or not.

Source: www.indiatoday.in





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