The recent Rushdie episode has raised some vital points regarding freedom of speech and expression, which need to be seriously addressed. I am submitting five points for consideration on the topic.
1. No freedom can be absolute: In a democracy freedom of speech is a valuable individual right. For progress there must be freedom to speak, freedom to write, freedom to criticize, and freedom to dissent. Unless there is freedom ideas cannot grow, and in the transition period that India and other under-developed countries are going through, modern ideas are extremely important.
But since man is a social being, he cannot be permitted to exercise this freedom in a manner which may damage society (see Rousseau: The Social Contract). It is for this reason that Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which grants freedom of speech and expression (which has been interpreted by our Supreme Court to include freedom of the press) to all citizens, has been made subject to Article 19(2) which says that the right granted by Article 19(1)(a) is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the security of the State, public order, decency, morality, etc.
The individual’s freedom of speech has, therefore, to be harmonized with the public interest. In other words, a balance has to be struck between the two. Where to strike the balance is, therefore, a question of crucial importance. This then takes us to my second point.
2. Freedom is relative: In considering where to strike a balance one cannot consider the matter in the abstract but in the specific historical context.
For example, portraying Jesus Christ as a gay person may be acceptable in the West today, but to depict religious figures of Hinduism or Islam as gay would be totally unacceptable in India and may probably lead to religious riots and violence. This is because people in India are much more religious than in the West.
Therefore when we consider the Salman Rushdie issue we must keep this point in mind. In ‘Satanic Verses’ Rushdie has certainly attacked, even though by insinuation, Islam and the Prophet. Such sensationalism may have earned Rushdie millions of dollars, but it has deeply hurt Muslim sensitivities.
Some people describe Rushdie as a great writer because he has won the Booker Prize. In this connection, I wish to say that Literature Prizes are often a mystery. To give an example, out of the approximately 100 Nobel Prizes given for Literature till date, nobody even remembers the names of 80 or more winners, whereas many great writers were not given the prize. So winning the Booker Prize, to my mind, proves little. ‘Midnight’s Children’, for which Rushdie got the Booker Prize, is almost unreadable. It is difficult to understand what Rushdie is driving at. So the new criterion for good literature is that it should be unreadable!
3. The Jaipur Literature Festival: This was dominated by the Rushdie issue. There was hardly any good discussion on other writers of India or foreign countries in the 5-day Festival. Rushdie was made into a hero.
One had expected a serious discussion on Indian writers like Kabir, Premchand, Sharat Chandra, Manto, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Ghalib, Faiz, etc. or foreign writers like Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Walt Whitman, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gorki etc. But instead the total focus was on Rushdie. Discussion on good writers was marginalized.
A big hue and cry was raised that freedom of speech was imperiled by banning Rushdie.
The Indian Prime Minister recently declared that it is a shame that 42% of our children are malnourished. The real figures in India are higher, perhaps 47%, which is 12% higher than the poorest sub-Saharan countries like Ethiopia or Somalia. 47 farmers have been committing suicide in India everyday on an average for the last 15 years — 2,50,000 farmers’ suicides, making it a world record of suicides in history. Unemployment in India is massive, there is poverty everywhere, even in the capital city. There are massive problems of price rise, healthcare, education, housing, etc. We stand 66th among the 88 hungry nations of the world. On the other hand, there are 49 dollar billionaires in India, and the gulf between rich and poor has greatly increased.
Should literature address these problems, or should we only care for Mr. Rushdie’s freedom? To my mind, freedom for the Indian masses is freedom from hunger, ignorance, unemployment, disease and all kinds of deprivation, not freedom to read Mr. Rushdie’s sub-standard books.
Had Rushdie’s work been beneficial to the Indian people one could have supported it even if it temporarily created some social disorder. Great works sometimes create disorder, e.g. the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, the French Encyclopaedists, etc. But how does ‘Midnight’s Children’ or ‘Satanic Verses’ help the Indian people in their struggle for a better life? What is their social relevance?
Many Indians suffer from an inferiority complex that whatever is written by someone living in London or New York must be great literature, whereas whatever is written by a writer living in India (particularly in a vernacular language) must be inferior.
I was recently reading (or rather re-reading) John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which is about the migration of farmers of Oklahama in U.S.A. who had lost their livelihood due to the Great Depression and fled to California searching for jobs which were not there. This is a really great novel, and reminds one of the recent migrations of hundreds of thousands of farmers in India who lost their livelihood and fled to cities looking for jobs which were not there. It is such kind of literature which India requires highlighting great social problems, not works of Rushdie which have no social relevance.
4. There is tremendous diversity in India: India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. 92 to 93 per cent. of its present population consists of descendants of people who came from abroad, mainly from the North-West. For this reason there is tremendous diversity in India – so many religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc. Therefore, the only policy which can work in India and keep it together is secularism and giving equal respect to all communities – the policy laid down in our Constitution.
For this reason it is very important for preserving India’s integrity to respect all religions, even if one does not subscribe to them.
Religion is a matter of faith, not logic. Hindus regard Lord Rama and Lord Krishna as Gods. Muslims respect Prophet Mohammed. Since the overwhelming number of Indians are deeply religious, unlike in the West where the hold of religion has considerably weakened, care must be taken in India not to insult any religious figure directly or indirectly.
Rushdie has deeply hurt Muslim feelings by ‘Satanic Verses’. Why then was the focus on him at Jaipur? Was there a subtle, deliberate design to divide Hindus and Muslims? One wonders.
5. India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history, from feudalism to a modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonizing period in history, as a study of European history from the 17th to 19th centuries discloses — full of turbulence and turmoil. With great difficulty, and after tremendous sacrifices India has partially emerged from the dark, feudal age. Should it be hurled back into that age by permitting freedom to insult religious sensitivities, which only makes people more obscurantists, and may lead to public disorder? To my mind freedom of speech should be used in India to spread rational and scientific ideas while avoiding insult to any religion. This will help in getting over the transitional period faster and with less pain.