Friday, October 18, 2013

Religion and free speech - I

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.- Heinrich Heine

Joseph Anton is the riveting account of the fatwa years of Salman Rushdie which he spent hiding from the fanatics of the "Religion of Peace"which is deemed to be beyond criticism. (Is there a better example of an Orwellian term?) Here is Christopher Hitchens' recollections of the fatwa years. The name of the book is the name he had assumed during those years and is a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. It is an autobiography written in third person. I must say that I was intimidated by his easy familiarity with writers from across the globe and their works. I felt illiterate.

In this talk, Christopher Hitchens says that freedom of speech includes the  freedom to offend. All religions try to fence off criticism but none goes as ballistic as the "Religion of Peace". And Rushdie bore the brunt of it. As Rushdie says (quoting from memory): "There is something strange about a club that makes membership compulsory. The best clubs make membership difficult in order to keep the riff raff out."

Like a character in a Kafka novel who wakes up to find himself in a nightmare, Rushdie found that his life had changed after the fatwa. Trying to hide from the rest of the world is a disorienting, schizophrenic experience. You don't know what a new day will bring and you begin to yearn for the quotidian periods of yesteryear which you had tried hard to avoid. In Rushdie's words, he was "cursed with an interesting life". He was among the first to see the gathering birds.

I had thought that I knew something about psychological pressure but what Rushdie had to go through was orders of magnitude greater. Scuttling from house to house to keep his location a secret, fearing  for his life as well as for the lives of family and friends, keeping quiet for fear that his statements may endanger the lives of hostages, lies about him in the media, public pressure about the money being spent on his protection, pressure to compromise with (read "give in to") fanatics ...It was enough to make a person crumble psychologically as Rushdie did for a brief while before he regained his sanity. He writes:
Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe. You did not become a blackbird by painting your wings black, but like an oil-slicked gull you  lost the power of flight. The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men will commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect.
The saddest thing about the whole sorry episode was that India was the first country to ban the book (which has still not been lifted) even before a single copy had reached the country's shores and anybody had had a chance to read it. It became a football in vote bank politics. Religion, culture and patriotism are sentiments which drive large numbers of people into a frenzy on somebody's say-so although they won't have much idea what it is all about. When these are the issues, "The windiest militant trash/ Important Persons shout", as W.H.Auden wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939. Rushdie writes:
In spite of India's much-trumpeted secularism, Indian governments from the mid-seventies  onwards - ever since the time of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi - had often given in to pressure from religious interest groups, especially those claiming to control large blocks of votes. By 1988, Rajiv Gandhi's weak government, with elections due in November, cravenly surrendered to threats from two opposition Muslim MPs who were in no position to 'deliver' the Muslim electorate's votes to the Congress Party. The book was not examined by any properly authorised body, nor was there any semblance of judicial  process. The ban came, improbably enough, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban 'did not detract from the literary and artistic merit' of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.

Strangely -innocently, naively, even ignorantly - he hadn't expected it. In the years that followed, attacks on artistic freedom would multiply in India, and not even the most  eminent would be spared: the painter Maqbool Fida Hussain, the novelist Rohinton Mistry, the film-maker Deepa Mehta would would all be targeted, amoung many others. But in 1988 it was still possible to believe in India as a free country in which artistic expression was respected and defended. He had believed it. Book banning was something that happened all too frequently across the border in Pakistan. It wasn't the Indian way. Jawaharlal Nehru had written in 1929,  'It is a dangerous power in the hands of a government; the right to determine what can be read and what shall not... In India, the power is likely to be misused.'  The young Nehru was writing , at that time, against the censorship of books by India's British overlords. It was sad to think that his words could be used, almost sixty years later, as a critique of India itself.
Rushdie wrote a fiery letter to Rajiv Gandhi protesting the ban which he later admitted was arrogant in some respects. I think the arrogance was ok. Lord Reith,the first head of the BBC said, "Offend people? . . . There are people it is one's duty to offend". I will change the quote slightly to say that there are circumstances when it is one's duty to be offensive. To the government defense that the ban was a preventive measure, he wrote, 'This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr Gandhi, for a free society to behave.'

PS: Salman Rushdie spoke at Dominican University: Joseph Anton: A Memoir

PPS: Salman Rushdie spoke to NDTV and CNN IBN soon after the publication of Joseph Anton.

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