There was much less of a furore when
"The Satanic Verses" was banned in 1988. Some major newspapers
even approved of it. The probable reason for endorsing what would
now be considered a retrogressive step was that the country was in
an uncertain frame of mind at the time.
A popular prime minister had been
assassinated following the army's storming of the sacred shrine of
a minority group while another minority group was restive over a
judicial verdict on an issue of its personal law.
Two decades later, India is a different country. It has come to
terms with Indira Gandhi's tragic death in 1984, the Khalistani
upsurge in protest against the killing of a rebel Sikh and his
followers in the Golden Temple has petered out and the Supreme
Court's judgment on the alimony for a divorced Muslim woman is now
no more than a chapter of history.
There have been other changes as well. There has been a veritable
explosion on the media front with hundreds of television channels
and scores of newspapers in English and regional languages
entering the market. The preference for the concept of the
"market" itself with its emphasis on private enterprise has
replaced the earlier longing for a "socialistic pattern of
society", to quote a Congress party resolution of 1955. The rise
of the market is linked to the growth of the middle class, now
approaching 300 million, and its consequent assertiveness, aided
and abetted by the ubiquitous 24x7 news channels, endlessly
engaged in "breaking news".
The latest rumpus concerning Rushdie is taking place, therefore,
in conditions vastly different from what they were in 1988. Sadly,
however, the new circumstances have not all been positive. While
the country has changed with the appearance of a vocal middle
class and intelligentsia, a thriving free press, a powerful
Supreme Court and Election Commission, the political class,
unfortunately, has retained its nervous pusillanimity of the past.
There is little evidence that it has the courage of its
convictions where its liberal pretensions are concerned.
This is not the only backward step which the country has taken.
Unlike 1988, when the Sikh anger was an exception and Muslim
disquiet was fanned by bigots - even if both were the fallout of
political miscalculations - the fundamentalists have gained ground
as never before. As a result, the banning of books, the hounding
of artists into exile, the vandalising of libraries, the
peremptory deletion of passages from university syllabi and the
blanking out of even a video link with a controversial author are
disgracing the country.
The standard explanation of politicians - that these steps are
unavoidable because the books and works of art hurt religious
sentiments - is a throwback to the silencing of Galileo in 1633
because his claim that the earth moved round the sun offended
orthodox Christians. It took the church four centuries to
apologise for its mistake. Similarly, the value of diverse
votebanks is so high for Indian politicians that it may take a
long time for them to see the folly of their pandering to
It will be naïve, therefore, to expect any respite from a
spectacle such as that of Hindu zealots sending M.F. Husain into
exile to protect Hindu sentiments or Muslim bigots keeping Rushdie
out of India for hurting Muslim sentiments or Marathi chauvinists
attacking the Bhandarkar research institute in Pune for allowing
James W. Laine to work on his biography of Shivaji there or Shiv
Sena activists forcing the Bombay University vice-chancellor to
drop Rohinton Mistry's "Such A Long Journey" from the syllabus for
making disparaging remarks about the Sainiks, and their Hindutva
counterparts ensuring that A.K. Ramanujan's various versions of
the Ramayan are omitted from Delhi University's reading list.
Clearly, the world's largest democracy, has become the stomping
ground of the fundamentalists of many hues, each of whom can
easily persuade a wimpish government to ban a book or harass an
artist to ensure that the communities which they claim to
represent are not displeased. None among the politicians has the
courage to ask whether the zealots speak for their entire
communities lest their parties fall foul of them at election time.
It has been left, therefore, to the intelligentsia to ask this
crucial question. The judges too have occasionally tried to
introduce an element of sanity by saying, as the Supreme Court
did, that a nonagenarian artist like Husain had the right to live
and paint in his own country and that the ban on Laine's book
should be lifted. But the politicians can afford to ignore them
because, first, the power of decision-making is in their hands
and, secondly, they are thick-skinned enough to brush off any
Amulya Ganguli is a
political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com