Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Fanatic Verses

It was extremely unfortunate to learn that acclaimed writer, Sir Salman Rushdie, cancelled his trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival, due to security concerns. His book, The Satanic Verses, has long been banned in our country for its alleged blasphemous contents. I have not read the book, and so am not in a position to comment whether the book really hurt Muslim sentiments or if it was just a group of fundamentalists, with their narrow-mindedness, who just need an excuse to accuse someone of profanity.

But what I certainly feel is that writing is an art form, and freedom of speech, a part of our Constitution. Banning a book to appease a section of people is regressive. I am not against Islam, or for that matter, any community. But banning a literary piece of work cannot be a part of democracy; least of all, in a country, which is slowly climbing up the steps of progress. If you have a problem with the book, don't read it. Simple. No one can be forced to read the book, and similarly, no one can be forced to not read the book, if he or she wants to.

What has made me aghast is that this Booker Prize winner is not allowed to come to his own country. We have had such incidents in the past, when the late M.F.Hussain lived his latter part of life in exile, away from his motherland. And we missed the presence of a talented painter amongst us. Though Salman has been acquitted by the courts, he fears for his life, and rightly so. The supreme ex-leader of Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, after the release of the book, had issued a fatwa that Rushdie should be killed for making a mockery of Islam, and the killer would be awarded handsomely too. Rushdie has still managed to stay alive, but a few authors who translated his book into other languages have been laid to rest. The fatwa can be taken back only by the person who issued it in the first place, and Khomeini has long been dead.

Differences of opinions are common. Getting hurt by somebody's comments is also not exceptional. Protests are fine. In fact, they are an integral part of our democracy. But threatening someone with his life is not acceptable and justifiable. No one would have the courage then to talk or write or paint what he or she feels like. We all will talk what others would not mind listening. And we call ourselves the world's largest democracy.

By not coming to India, Salman has inadvertently become the star of the festival. Even in absentia, he has been the most-talked person here. The government should have done something to assure him about his security. This has been a huge slap on the face for the administration. This is not a triumph of anyone. Pen is mightier than the sword; not in India. I don't support Salman Rushdie's book, nor am I a huge fan of his writing. But this incident has exposed our incompetent democratic nature.

So, will Rushdie forever stay under the knife of threat and not return to his place of birth? Or will the government step in and take sterner steps next time around so that such an abject incident does not happen in future? Only time will tell, but for now, this has become a matter of national shame and embarassment.

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