Yes, one has the freedom of speech and expression but that always comes with limits. As goes a saying, ‘your freedom ends where my nose begins’. Now we know that Salman Rushdie, an award winning controversial author, couldn’t visit the Jaipur Literature Festival but it at the same time brought to our focus the ‘freedom of writers to write anything they want to’.
Those of you who don’t know about Rushdie’s novel ‘Satanic Verses’, let me apprise you that the book is banned in India and possessing it is an offence under Indian law. Published in 1988, initially in the UK, the book created a furore amongst Muslims across the world (not just the fundamentalists or zealots, as many writers would call them). Reason: After God (Allah), Prophet Muhammad is the most exalted figure for all Muslims, whether they belong to Sunni or Shia sects. And Rushdie’s novel was seen as a blasphemy, as it projected ‘prophet’s ignorance and the state of confusion’, which even tipsy Muslims wouldn’t approve of.
David A. Kerr, a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslin Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut wrote in his article years before: “Rushdie has said that his book is not about Islam but “about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.” In two chapters that take the form of a fictional dream of a fictional character, Rushdie deals in a fantastical way with the birth of a great world religion, which claims to be based in revelation. It is these chapters that led to Muslims being offended. Though allegorical in style, they clearly refer to the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and companions in terms that are bound to give insult. The naming of the prophet as “Mahound,” for example, directly evokes medieval European polemics, which called Muhammad by this word, a synonym of the devil (Satan). He is said to have written his revelation at the prompting of one of his companions (another Salman). His wives are portrayed as harlots, and his companions as bums.”
Though the author isn’t present in the festival but his ghost seems to have fallen in love with the show being put up, and is fuelling one controversy after another. Four authors, including Hari Kunzru, despite knowing that the book is banned in India (one believes that an author of a great stature wouldn’t be ignorant like a commoner who isn’t even literate about the law of land) read several passages from the book, apparently ‘to give voice to an author who was silenced by a death threat’ but Kunzru, according to media reports has even left the country, after being informed that he could face an arrest. One would have imagined Kunzru would resist and fight the case, and maybe, spent a few nights behind bars as that might have given a better voice to Rushdie (who although doesn’t need one, as he isn’t dumb). But quite understandably, he chose to flee (if we write he left with the tail between his legs, it would obviously annoy him, and he would yell at our freedom our expression and quite genuine, so we avoid saying this).
Now, it has been reported that Kunzru has posted an apology on his website for unintentionally hurting feelings or causing disrespect to religion. It seems like emptying your weapons on a person and then saying sorry to his survivors. Why don’t these ‘big-shot’ writers gauge their writings or saying before they go public? Doesn’t it reduce the difference between a person with average intellect and intellectuals like Kunzru? Also by posting an apology, Kunzru has unintentionally contradicted the freedom of expression, he was championing for Rushdie – hurting somebody’s faith is not guaranteed by your fundamental rights.
As reported by Indian Express, the banned novel depicts four women as prostitutes and Rushdie chose to name them according to wives of the Prophet. One name would have been a co-incidence but all the four names couldn’t – a big reason for Muslims to get offended by the novel. Immediately after the publication, a death warrant was issued by Iranian spiritual leader, Ayotollah Khomeini against Rushdie but UK government chose to provide him security that has kept him unharmed till date.
According to Indian Express, Muslims in the UK fervently pleaded for an extension of the law of blasphemy to non-Christian religions. But it was turned down because Whitehall (the seat of England’s government), even with the influx of millions of immigrants to England, was still — at least in outlook — an exclusively Christian country.
The paper adds: “If by innuendo, the distinguished and popular author, who could not attend/ did not attend/ was not permitted to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival (take your pick!), had linked the names of the four women in his book instead to Jesus Christ, he would have been guilty of the criminal offence of blasphemy in England — the bastion of free speech.
Though more than a dozen people have lost their lives in the protests that ensued across the world after the publication, the issue that was becoming hazy in poeople’s memories was given fresh oxygen in the run up to the Jaipur Literature Festival, and was brought to the fore after Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband demanded that Rushdie shouldn’t be allowed to enter the country. The issue assumes significance due to the assembly election in five Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh where Muslim votes have a large say in the outcome of the results.
But now it has transcended that issue – a massive debated is trending on social media and the mainstream media about the freedom of expression of the writers. Not only that Rushdie himself has taken to Twitter and in the latest outburst he has accused the intelligence agencies here, who according to him had lied to him about the teams of ‘hitmen’ formed to kill him, if he ventured into the Pink City.
After taking a look at the whole controversy, one gets a feeling that the fatwas or threats may be the handiwork of political machinations but it, at the same time, has brought into focus that we can’t hurt one’s feelings or faith through our writings or sayings.