Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rushdie and Husain: Casualties of an Immature Democracy

Salman Rushdie is an Indian Muslim who was recently stopped from visiting India by those who claimed their ‘sentiments were hurt’.   Salman Rushdie was not allowed to attend the recent Jaipur Literary Festival because his book ‘Satanic Verses’ remains banned by the Government of India.  MF Husain was another Indian Muslim who was forced to leave India because another group claimed their ‘sentiments were hurt’.  Husain died in exile in Qatar pining for his home country.  An author and an artist are the casualties of an extremely immature and peevish democracy called India.   

In both the cases, the state, in the form of Indian Government, has succumbed to the mounting pressures from religious groups who claimed their sentiments were hurt by the actions of this author and the artist.  The weak state has allowed for suppression of expression of an artist and an author bowing down to the protests of ultra-sensitive groups.  As a result, the individual lost out to the power of a committed and bigoted group; and the state stood in support of the group and not the individual.  

In India, freedom of expression comes with moderation.  That’s where the problem is.   Most educated Hindus also believe that freedom of expression cannot be absolute.  Guatam Adhikari writes in TOI:

Someone, apparently a tolerant and liberal person, said on a TV show that he was for freedom of expression but "you cannot offend or hurt people". He then added: "This is not London or Paris or Amsterdam, this is India".

What Indians fail to understand is that freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend or hurt organized groups, hurt public figures, hurt all those who are in the positions of influence, hurt all those institutions which are powerful and influential, hurt our histories, our legacies, and our past.  Freedom from religion is one such freedom, and so is freedom to criticize our culture, tradition and the nation.  Freedom of expression cannot come in doses of moderation, like what the Indian Adults want us to believe.  And that’s where we got our democracy wrong, making it immature, refusing to let our people grow.  Freedom of expression cannot be defined differently in a nation or a city; it is the same in almost every country and nation, like Theory of Gravity or Archimedes Principle.

After a nearly thousand years of tortuous history, mainly in Europe and America, we have come to an understanding that there are some freedoms that have to be near absolute, without preconditions and without imposed restraints; and one of the those essential freedoms is the freedom of expression, the ability to say or depict what you want to say however contrarian or despicable that opinion is to the majority, to the state or any group or individual.   The reason why we have come to that understanding is- anything less we will go back in time to the authoritarian times, the medieval times, the dark ages.

When United States became independent, they believed all men are created equal, but then they thought it cannot be absolute.  They put some conditions, saying that Blacks would not be considered men, and were kept outside the purview of the freedoms that Whites got.  Even women were not considered equals and were denied the right to vote.  But now we know better.  All such moderation and exceptions will go away with time, will cause friction, will suppress certain people, make them second-class citizens, and allows for one section of people to target another.  It creates a medieval society as time progresses.  We cannot go on to say, ‘you are free to think and write; but you cannot do this and that, you cannot hurt him or them, you have to stay within these boundaries’. 

There is a general consensus amongst many Indians that freedom of expression cannot be absolute, that it should come with some moderation.  So the question is – who is going to enforce that moderation? The state? Or should it be a self-restraint to be praticed by the society itself? 

If we allow the state to enforce that moderation, the societies turn into autocracies.  The people in power get to stifle the freedoms of common men.  That's what communist countries do - those who are in power decide what people can say, do or watch. 

In a mature democracy, the restraint has to be practiced by the society itself, either by counter-criticism, parody, comics, cartoons, columns, satire, etc.  There is a constant need to check upon the powerful people and groups which try to encroach upon the rights of common men and women.  A mature democracy, by allowing free expression in near absolute form, allows for self-restraint.  If you go too far in your expression making it really troubling for everyone, a mature democracy will automatically correct itself by showcasing that expression as utterly ridiculous.  No one had to shut up Sarah Palin. If she speaks for long, she loses her audience.   And all her gaffes will be lampooned and ridiculed.  If a priest in Florida speaks of burning Koran, there is no need to invoke a law to lock him up.  Enough criticism will be launched in media to make him retract his statements.  It will be a disaster to American democracy if that priest is arrested for making such statements, however volatile they are. It would have been a disaster to American democracy if they had to make Jay Leno shut up just because he made a joke on Mitt Romney using Golden Temple of Sikhs.

The ‘freedom of expression with moderation and imposed restraint’ is a paradox in itself.  The country ends up being autocratic given enough time.   The American nation created by American Revolution became a successful democracy because they gave themselves these freedoms as near absolute.  A contemporary revolution in France became a chaotic, bloody and retributive failure when it allowed the powerful state to decide which rights the individuals can enjoy. 

The experience of many nations on this planet has made it clear that we cannot decide what expression we are going to allow and what expression we are going to curtail.  If we start with the premise ‘freedom, but with constraints’ the question that arises is who is authorized to regulate those constraints?  The state or the groups?  Whoever is entrusted with that power, they will become autocratic eventually. 

Indians, instead of forcing their people to become mature, have instead resorted to protecting the ultra-sensitive people to get their way.  How many books shall we ban? How many plays shall we ban?  How many authors and artists have to flee this nation?  Before we start realizing that the creativity cannot come with constraints and that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure an individual is protected against the ire and anger of a frustrated group no matter how egregious that individual is.  The state cannot be in bed with the religious groups to suppress that voice of the individual.  That’s like monarch in cahoots with the priests of the land persecuting every free thinking woman and man.

Now, people ask, ‘what about those speeches which clearly urge or encourage people to take up arms and target certain kinds of people?’  We have enough laws already in place to take care of such incitement; and therefore we require no extra laws to protect sentiments of religious groups.  ‘Hurt sentiments’ should not be and could not be used as a pretext to shut up any artist, author, movie maker or any speaker.

What happens in India is that there enough number of antiquated and medieval period laws coming from witch-hunting times by which almost anything you say or do can be considered ‘hurting the religious sentiments’ of one or the other group making the freedom of expression a ridiculous freedom which can be taken away by the state any time whenever a group of more than ten people come together to complain.

Rushdie and Husain are casualties of such an immature democracy.  India is an immature democracy because it has consciously chosen not to grow up.  It has consciously chosen to remain ignorant and prejudiced. It has consciously chosen not to use it brains faculties to think and reason.  It has chosen to remain peevish and ultra-sensitive to every mockery, ridicule, satire, joke, criticism and parody.   It has ensured that its people remain highly sensitive, getting hurt every time anyone says anything remotely negative against them.  Recently, the Indian government asked United States government to take action against Jay Leno just because he showed a picture of Golden Temple as a future home of Mitt Romney.  Our sentiments got hurt immediately.  As a nation, we can’t even take a joke. 

India will become a mature democracy only when it gives the freedom of expression without constraints, without restraints without having to regulate moderation.  The message for India now is, 'grow up, grow up, and grow up, and face the music'.  Face the onslaught of criticism like a mature person, face the ire, anger and vitriol of people inside and outside your country.  Let your institutions be critically examined, ridiculed, made fun of.  Let your public figures be derided and spoofed. 

If we start allowing every group of ten people to come together and claim ‘hurt sentiments’ to stop an artist or author to shut down his work and flee the nation, we will go back in time, to the dark ages, where all forms of creativity and original thought is banned, censored and regulated, where witch-hunting will become the main pastime of the state, where the rabid priests will hold the sway over fate of every freethinking man and woman. 


  1. First and foremost, well written.. Frank.. But no.. i don't agree with most of your opinions.. Freedom of Expression is NOT absolute.. anywhere in the world.. probably the standards differ, but definitely not absolute.
    As far as India is concerned, Expression is not and should not be absolute.. "expressing" against the nation is sedition, against a person is defamation.. so it flows for everything (including religion)
    Hurting someone's sentiments as u put it.. is a very valid reason to curtail expression.. even if its just the sentiments of ten ppl.. I will tell you why.. if i defame a person, I will be hurting just one person, but thats illegal/immoral and not right.
    same goes for religion.. both Hussein and Rushdie had a million things to paint/write (express themselves).. then be creative at the cost of someone else's feelings.. It was uncalled for!
    Your right to express is as important as my right to revere.. i cant violate ur right.. you cant violate mine..
    Now lets say, my religion restricts you to speak.. will that be a justified? can i claim my right to faith in this case.. No.. similarly, your right to speak cannot infringe my right to revere.. i make be ultra-sensitive, but i have a right to be ultra-sensitive.
    Last, about the Golden-Temple.. I think Leno is plain dumb! he does not know the greatness of the Shrine.. the Sikh/Indians need not have reacted.. cuz he wasn't worth it.. but yes, he violated right to religion and he did not have a right to express in this manner

  2. Sangeetha,

    If anything that hurts the sentiments of others neeed to be banned, let's begin with the religious texts themselves. The Koran has only contempt for idols and its worshippers. Surely, the sentiments of many pious Hindus will be hurt by what's in that book.

    And the Bhagvad Gita has passages that clearly consider Shudras as inferior to Brahmins. I am sure a Dalit reading the Bhagvad Gita would be hurt by those passages as well.

    Shall we then ban these two books to begin with, before we ban Salman Rushdie and MF Husain's works? Fair deal?

    1. This a very good point. well taken.

      No one should have threatened to kill Rushdie. I also do not think that it should be wrong to criticize any religion.

      At the same time I am not sure that expression should be totally free.
      I read stuff on the net where people commonly call each other scum, they call for killing jews, muslims, African Americans, gays, arabs, call women sluts etc for killing conservatives etc.

      I have read articles in newspapers calling immigrants an infestation. That kind of dehumanizing language can and does lead to persecution,violence, discrimination and murder.

      I also am deeply troubled by the unbelievable violence in pornography. I am not talking about having an issue with nude bodies etc, but with stuff where women and men too are abused and this abuse is made to seem sexy etc.

      I don't want to be on a crusade yet I think tons of people are hurt in the porn industry and that it also leads to abuse of people especially women.

      Maybe we could all try to express ourselves without calling each other vicious names.

      Maybe if we are enraged we could say look, i am enraged and feel like killing people, so we can get out our anger, but not just use vicious horrific names etc.

      joy song

  3. Sujai,

    Sangeetha's comment offends me. Delete it please. While we're at it, I'm off to register a complaint against her and hope to get her arrested. She could've chosen million things to comment on but she chose to express herself in a way that offended me.


    @Sangeetha, you agree with me, right?

  4. "same goes for religion.. both Hussein and Rushdie had a million things to paint/write (express themselves).. then be creative at the cost of someone else's feelings.."

    I want to suggest something else. At least in the case of Rushdie it was not a case of hurting some ones feelings or sentiments. Rushdie one of the great minds of our times observed his religion, his co-religionists from within and found some things he wanted to set right. Consider him as a religious reformer. He was awakening his co-religionists to the need for reform by writing Satanic Verses. You know he did not invent the words Satanic verses; the topic was there before. He was only focussing attention and using a literary form known as magical realism to make his point. The jihadi attack of 9/11 has proved him right. A religion without reform from time to time becomes a millstone around the neck of the followers. Rushdie paid dearly like all religious reformers, went through some hard times running for his life every minute of the day for several years. I hate to be in his position. I am sure through all this suffering, he made a lot of muslims a bit more skeptic and prompted them to reconsider their position. May be Arab Spring is a result of that. His message as I read it, nothing is sacrosanct if it is blatantly antihuman. Someday people will realize that Rushdie is a great religious reformer. For the time being, I wish him a Nobel.

    1. I agree, not because i am anti muslim, we need more thinkers like him in all the faiths.

      What bothers me is when people on the net etc call each other vicous names and call for killing other they disagree with.

  5. you have to understand what is freedom, your freedom starts where other man''s freedom ends.

  6. @Ledzius.. Religious text do not hurt anyone's sentiments.. as for the specific instances that are quoted, they r out of contexts and i do not wish to dwell on them over here. anyway, these religious texts have a legal protection but Hussain's paintings or any other offending expression does not get..
    but in general, there are religious practices which hurt not just sentiments but also the lives of people. these deserve to be condemned. Say Sati or caste system. If such measures are taken, i ll welcome it wholeheartedly.
    the ground point is this.. expression has its limits. and it has to stay within the same.

    @Av/Anonymous.. ya. i agree with u! Sujai is free to delete my comment and you are free to file a complaint and sue me in court if you feel that i have offended you. its your right and u may go ahead.

    @bairagi.. have u read the Satanic Verses? I haven't so i really cant comment on its content. i must confess hat my view is entirely based on the unpopular perception of the book.. but on a personal note, i doubt if the Holy Quran has anything that instigates violence or anything that calls for "reformation". just a proper understanding of the faith would suffice

  7. I just happened to see a similar hypocrisy (to that of Sangeetha) from politicians, recently. This is about how poor people in Florida are submit to welfare drug testing.

  8. When sujai starts fighting for the rights of minorities in muslim countries and ask them for reparations for years of oppression, then I will believe his arguments on muslims.
    Sujai, riddle me this, why is every muslim country a theocracy?

  9. mr Anonymous 1.. pls explain wat "hypocrisy" is there in my comments??
    Mr. anonymous 2.. ur question is highlu paradoxical!! How can a secular state be "a muslim country"???? by virtue of being a muslim country they become a theocratic State.

  10. Well written Sujai!

    However, I disagree with the title itself i.e. "immature democracy". Why? Because we have come to accept that "democracy" as defined some strong (not sure) nations are the true definitions of democracy. Which in fact is not.

    An entry from wikipedia :

    While there is no universally accepted definition of 'democracy',[7] equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times.

    The countries having so called matured democracy defined are not able to define what they mean by EQUALITY and FREEDOM. More you can follow on:

  11. @ Sangeeta
    :) what I should have said was "muslim majority country".

    The truth is that the phrases "muslim majority country" and "islamic theocracy" are for the most part interchangable. Where is Sujai's bleeding heart for minorities in those countries? Of course, he is conveniently not fighting for them because it doesnt fit his distorted world view.


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