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Wimpish govt fails to stop bigots

28 Jan. 2012 11:42 PM IST

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 fanatics.

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 jibes.

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Amulya Ganguli