Sunday, 22 January 2012

Succouring Satanic Verses

[ Jaipur Literary Festival, India ]
This January, at the Jaipur Literary film festival 2012, Salman Rushdie is not permitted to visit. More distressing is the fact that ambiguous concerns [police investigating public reading of the work] fueling fear led Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Rushir Joshi to take the exit before the festival could start. All this ruckus has turned our attention away from the "Literary" part of the festival and instead shifted our focus toward 'freedom of expression' and 'human rights' of individuals.

[ The Tolerant India ]
Historically, India has been the least totalitarian or extremist. We have tried not to ban books on account of content even if it were against a majority.  However, due to a complex mix of population, India has always been careful to listen to the requests of minority groups and ban works hoping that the sentiments of the minority will not be insulted. In truth, the populace of India, who are probably not very literate and definitely not very well read - and have never read works like 'Satanic Verses' merely react to the opinions and orders of another individual who does "moral" and to a certain extent 'philosophical' policing.

[ Threats to Indian Tolerance ]
The frenzy that follows has always been governed by crowd and herd behavior resulting in the need of the government to react with nothing less than removing the cause of their unrest - in this case ban of a book. This is partly possible because all published media and material are strongly controlled in India and the mechanism for banning them is far too easy insofar to implement. This is true of course, only for works in print an not to electronic material (yet.) In the end, silently, people read the book that has been banned, for it usually acts as a promotion.

Those who read it in silence are not pursued and persecuted like the stories (of the infamous STASI) from East Germany. Public Reading however within literary circles is sometimes risky and leads to the arrest of a small number of perpetrators. The penalty for publishing or voicing banned material is at a maximum of six(6) months and is seriously not considered a major crime except in the cases of works censured for association with treason. Strangely, in the absence of media attention, we never know what is going on. Circulating works that cause "hate", "violence" or "unrest" within a community are definitely crimes against society. This was done in Karnataka, specifically in Mangalore. As Law enforcement did not take appropriate Legal action against the material circulated, moral policing of outside-agencies smeared the image of the BJP government seated in power.

[ Media Play ]
A vast majority of independent cinematic, artistic and literary works are not covered by the press, media or anyone else - and irrespective of the matter contained within, they do not cause public unrest. Therefore, the Media has to bear half the responsibility for what has transpired. It is quite possible that someone played the media to their advantage, but undeniably, the media was indeed played and has been instrumental in the event, eventually handing over a lot of publicity, I am not sure Salman Rushdie truly deserves.

Despite all the media criticism, if a country were to film or chronicle and produce a comprehensive documentary of Salman Rushdie's works that would be India. We do censor material on and off, but most material do not stay censored for life. Looking back, Richard Burton's works on the Arabian Nights and the Kamasutra were disallowed in India, but for a short period as they carried no hate messages, and their threat to morality was considered infinitesimal.

[ Ethnic Conflicts ]
The same Indian government would not react to two ethnic groups or linguistic groups debating the construction of a Dam or one minority group opposing the operation of a Nuclear reactor as their is very little the government can simplistically act upon. Violence, murder and fighting involving a few individuals are easily controlled at both State and Central levels. However, at larger scales, when Caste, Creed and Religion are in the way, the Government becomes a bystander, not knowing which side to take and whom to save.

[ Satanic Works ]
There is absolutely no doubt that Rushdie's sarcastic parodies have deliberately insulted several characters who are popularly held in reverence. It is not only true of "Satanic Verses" for which the Fatwah was issued first by the Iranian supremo, Ayatolla Khomeini. Considering partisanship within the followers of Islam, this Fatwah is only overemphasized by the Media in India.

The only slight of the Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" was to reinstate a proposal that the Christ was mortal and therefore had a monogamous relationship, and children. This resulted in a ban of the work which was revoked much later (possibly because of the Lobby from the Motion Picture Industry).

Needless to say these are the works of least importance that form the list of banned books. Here is a more comprehensive, though less authoritative list of [banned] books from e-Charcha.

[ Self Censorship ]
The work is still censored by most part of the Christian minority within India who labeled the work as Heresy. This censorship is self imposed - like in households where Television is banned for reasons others usually find funny.

Many semi-urban and rural Muslim households do not encourage reading which is most concerning - considering that they were once very well learned in multiple languages and formed a strong intellectual group in society.

Less than 20% of the books available for reading are taken for reading, and the statistics from Libraries in the past 4 years (including 2008) have been dismal to say the least. The list of books banned in India is numerous, although no proper published list is available from even the Office of the Chief Commissioner of Customs. There are sporadic lists from the media, but no complete list - which obviously questions whether enforcement is actually possible at all. Those who have been through immigration at Airports are probably well aware of the knowledge level of the Customs Officers at the field.

Either way, Self Censorship in terms of reading has always helped communities keep material that they disagree with away from their populace. This may be because they are catering to a community that overreacts to sensationalism or misunderstands criticism.

[ The Dilemmas of Democracy with Heterogeneous Population ]
A Democracy is supposed to respect the rights of all people, which in diversity is sometimes very difficult to serve when one section is opposed to the ideas or actions of another section. Therefore interference in administration is often done by censorship and other measures which seem like Totalitarianism, but are merely reflective of the sentiments of the people. I see political leaders being blamed for what has transpired in Jaipur.

[ Questions forgotten: Security ]
The same advocates of freedom would not remain quiet if Rushdie were to be mortally injured by a mob, or other writers are badly injured because a group of miscreants decide to cause mayhem? How much of police protection would they eventually need? We cannot justify their protection by showing that politicians use 'Z' class security cover but never extend it to the rest of the people - which is a matter of scale, cost, quality and necessity. We have to address the issues of politicians misusing state resources to get their own private security as a separate issue rather than believe that they can extend such protection to the people and immigrants and non-residents with ease.

[ The Rushdie Farce ]
For those who have been veiled from reality, Mr.Salman Rushdie is a British Citizen who was born in India. He is classified as a 'British Indian', and his nationality is much the same as actor Ben Kingsley or British Cricketer Montey Pannesar. I haven't seen them being extended such courtesies through media attention whilst visiting India though. His interests in India and his writings therefore are strongly pedagogical. Most of the time Governments try to ignore these 'Intellectuals' simply because, they have an idealistic lack of perception of reality especially of Administration and of Mass response in a heavily populated country such as India.

[ Satanic Thoughts ]
Is it ethical, walking to your neighbor's house and publicly voicing your ill opinion about your neighbor's character or his family's character? Is it ethical to assassinate the character of a person in an organization you work either in public or in the hood of gossip? Is it morally correct to publish a letter tarnishing the image of a person and circulating it to a group of people who can influence that person? These are all ethically incorrect, irrespective of how factual the information might be. Free speech is good as long as it does so without the intent to hurt anyone. There are many good authors who have demonstrated the handling of extremely delicate material. A great example is "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" (whose Authors sued Dan Brown for allegedly using text from their book without permission.)

Rushdie's works do evoke one to think, even as most satires do, but kindle feelings of hatred and anger either against a person of renown and respect or a community or against Rushdie himself. Hence the literary essence of the work is overshadowed by the implications of what it expresses. I can assure you that most people in India haven't even seen the cover of the work 'Satanic Verses', nor have read a single Chapter in it. Too few have read "The Moor's Last Sigh" which too has pejorative references specifically to Political Figures in India. This book has not been banned, though the pejorative references are directly towards Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Bal Thackeray, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Representatives of the followers of Islam in India requested the Government to refuse entry to the Indian born, British Citizen Mr.Salman Rushdie, over a piece of work that (they believe) is truly insulting to their creed. Followers of Islam constitute of 138 million citizens of India. Now, whom should the Government listen to? The self-proclaimed voice of the 138 million citizens (even though it may not be fully representative of all of them) and hold of what could become sectarian unrest all over India -- or bow down to the ideals of Democracy [which I do not see anywhere in the world] and call upon doom protecting one man, which they did in 2007 when Media attention was focused elsewhere.

[ Verdict ]
Asking Mr. Rushdie to buzz off, after the media crowded into the issue like flies was good for his safety - particularly because Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) are already rerouted for Election duties and allocated based on the schedules of State Election. This is a crucial issue that many people forget. The best security in India is confirmed when the CRPF is present. In their absence, it would be administrative folly to try to provide security when media is also fueling unrest and causing sensationalism when there are more pressing matters at stake.

[ Ignoring Verity - Media Lies ]
The stability of the Indian Government is at stake. Power production and therefore Industrial Produce and therefore jobs in Industries are flaky due to major unrest. The request for Telengana has rendered Andhra Pradesh almost crippled. The Maoist insurgency in Chattisgarh and surrounding states has forced major reallocation of military. A huge drop in temperature has resulted in paralysis of Indian Military troops stationed in the border causing a major Defense concern.

A global market meltdown is still possible over fluctuations of oil prices, dollar rates, foreign investments and fears of war. Over 20,000 birds have been culled in Orissa alone due to concerns of Bird Flu. Elections simultaneously in multiple states actually render the country in a weak situation in terms of social security as specialized security forces including the Railway Police and State Police get concentrated at District Headquarters and Polling Booths.
Major attacks on the Internet have resulted in stolen Identities, rendered several websites defaced and are becoming an international concern of cyberterrorism, which is worse when it has no face and no specific group claiming responsibilities for all recent intrusions.

The media lays less stress on the above problems swayed by political pressure hoping to divert focus on a non-issue. Seriously, I would never have known the existence of a person named Salman Rushdie until the Ayatollah decided to issue a Fatwah against him and had his photograph splashed on every paper.

[ Conclusion ]
It is best that India does not ponder on this issue any longer, for it has acted like a true (representative) democracy. The freedom of thousands (actually 138 million Muslims) precedes the freedom of one foreign national with roots in India. Several others have been prosecuted without any help too, like the journalist who spent his life's work in exposing the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal and the real damage to human life and environment as it stands. Several missionaries in Independent India have been murdered by sectarian violence.

The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered due to sectarian disagreement with his pluralist viewpoints. In comparison Salman Rushdie doesn't command any further interest - not even of the literary kind after this terrible incident - even if the press & media fueled it on their part without his consent. He can stay in the UK where he has citizenship or try watching 'Top Chef' which he stopped doing after 2007 (sarcasm intended.) Incidentally someone was asking about why they let him in during 2007 - he was accompanied by an American citizen (Padma Lakshmi) of Indian origin, his wife at that time and focus was tilted towards her adding more cover to him. She is no longer his wife as they are divorced.

Other figures like the great M F Hussain were censored for similarly injuring present perspective on religion. He is probably not the first to draw a nude representation of an Indian deity, nor the last. There have been others, and some are millennia older than him. This too has been done, to avoid provocation.

[ Freedom ]
Freedom, is not purely the responsibility of a Government. It is a mindset that the people, the citizens should carry. It is us who should be tolerant of all viewpoints and thoughts. Even in my fractional interaction with people, incomparable with those mentioned above, I have seen blatant refusal to open thinking in the minds of the people. This has been irrespective of their religion, caste, language and geography. The tendency to dismiss an idea without even permitting an alternate perspective is not a mistake of a Government but the people of whom the Government is built. Democracy is definitely a Government by the people and of the people. Whether it works for the people, is largely dependent on the people it originated from. Hence crying foul over this issue, is merely questioning hundreds of millions of Indian citizens about their refusal to be open minded. Society in India is becoming Victorian, closed, backward and small-minded. Rushdie is merely a surface wave of a deeper insidious effect.

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
  Where knowledge is free
 Into ever-widening thought and action
  Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

Rabindranath Tagore