Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Loonies of the world unite!

By Swapan Dasgupta

        There is a famous photograph of V.I. Lenin, shot sometime in 1917, addressing a gathering of 'revolutionary' workers during the course of the upheaval that led to the Bolshevik Revolution. It is a photograph that has been published and re-published on many occasions and, like Adolf Hitler's iconic images during the Nuremberg rallies, it has become synonymous with the Communist movement.

        However, the photograph underwent a change over the years. The original showed Lenin declaiming while flanked by a galaxy of Bolshevik leaders, some known and others largely forgotten. By the mid-1930s, the photograph underwent some innovative editing. Leon Trotsky, who was in the original photograph standing next to Lenin was expediently air-brushed away. Trotsky had lost out in the inner-party struggle with Stalin and was banished from the Soviet Union. Consequently, he became a non person and was dubbed a fascist collaborator. Entire generations of pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese Communists learnt their history of the movement without any understanding of the role of Trotsky in 1905 and 1917 and the basis of his critique of Stalin. In the annals of official Marxism, Trotsky became a shorthand for treachery.

        History doesn't repeat itself as a carbon copy. However, there is something eerily familiar about the manner in which the writer Salman Rushdie is being transformed into a non-person by the custodians of faith in India. In 2012, the author was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival this year the West Bengal Government prevented him  from attending the premiere of Midnight's Children directed by Deepa Menta. Rushdie had also been apparently invited to a sesson of a literary festival in Kolkata but the local police sent word to him that he would be sent back if he landed up on any flight to the city.

        Apart from Satanic Verses which was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in 1988, there is no ban on any of Rushdie's other books. They are available in all good bookshops in India and the film Midnight's Children is being screened in many movie halls all over India. Yet, for all practical purposes, an unofficial ban has been imposed on Rushdie making an appearance at any public function. As the holder of a PIO card, Rushdie can, of course, travel to India whenever he wants to but in terms of his public persona he has been declared a non-person.

        Rushdie is not the only one who has been permanently banned from public occasions. The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was more or less hounded out of Kolkata three years ago and now leads an undercover existence in an Indian city. Each year, when her visa comes up for renewal, pressure is put on the Government of India to deport her. So far the Government has withstood the pressure but it would be hazardous to believe that this constitutes the last word on the subject.

        Rushdie and Taslima are both foreign nationals and there is a suggestion that the authorities need not go out of their way to defend the civil liberties that are guaranteed to Indian citizens. Yet, the same harassment greeted M.F. Husein, till, in exasperation, he took up the citizenship of Qatar and spent the final year of his life outside India. Mercifully, no similar harassment has yet greeted Ashis Nandy for his comments in this year's Jaipur Literature Festival. Indeed, two days after the kerfuffle in Jaipur, Nandy was photographed releasing a book in the company of Vice President Hamid Ansari. I don't know if a similar indulgence is likely to be shown towards the four Kashmiri girls who had formed an all-woman band.

        There is a temptation to interpret these attacks on creative individuals and the recent fuss over Kamal Hassan's new fim as evidence of India's intellectual regression. To some extent this is true. There is a growing body of individuals, not least in the social media, who are inclined to believe that they have a monopoly of the truth. This astonishing self-assurance is coupled with the belief that certitudes are more important than open engagement.

        That there are individuals with closed minds is a problem that is not limited to India alone. Even the most evolved liberal democracies have individuals who are not merely resolute in their views and prejudices but are even willing to even kill for it. In India, on the other hand, the problem  is not individuals but the effortless forging of collectives. In the cases of Rushdie, Taslima, Nandy and Husein, it was the fear of deranged and fanatical mobs that forced the state to buckle under pressure.

        It may be said that the mobs cut across religious communities. Hindu mobs targeted Husein's art exhibitions; Muslim mobs threatened Rushdie and Taslima; and the fear of Dalit mobs haunt Nandy. But this cross-community outrage is hardly a source of reassurance. On the contrary, they suggest that what was triggered by Islamist itolerance has become contagious. 'If Muslims get so easily offended', it has been said, 'why should we show enlightenment?'

        This is a point that needs to be addressed seriously. The reason     why there are alarm bells ringing all over India over the deterioration of our democracy is precisely because an increasing number of Indians are becoming prickly. There is not enough anger at the disgraceful treatment meted out to Rushdie and Taslima precisely because self-professed members of the majority community joined the witch-hunt against Husein and Nandy.

        It may sound provocative but the harsh truth is that minority blackmail succeeded precisely because the majority community allowed its loonies to go berserk. If the persecution of Husein hadn't happened, Centre and state governments wouldn't have had the moral authority to capitalate to the clerics. In 1988, when Satanic Verses was banned, it was  possible for the BJP to put the Government on the mat. In joining the chorus against Husein, the BJP forfeited its right to speak for a expansive democracy. To reclaim our eroding freedoms, it is the majority community that must be willing to be stand up and be counted. The rest will follow. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, February 8, 2013

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