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To You Who Speak of Rushdie

Last updated on: January 19, 2012 14:14 IST

'The chief minister and other ministers who speak of possible law and order problems that Rushdie's visit raises, you know little about governance and democracy and therefore you should explain exactly why you occupy those ministerships,' says Dilip D'Souza.

Here we go again. Another controversy, another round of expressed outrage in every direction, another round of political capital made, and it's laid to rest till the next one. I mean, here's a shortlist: M F Husain. MSU Baroda art exhibition. Rohinton Mistry's book. A K Ramanujan. James Laine.

And, of course, Salman Rushdie can figure in any such list not once, but again and again: because he has in his time managed to offend both maulvis and Senas, because even his travel to India -- this is not the first time he has sought to do it -- becomes an issue to get all shirty about.

For the record and quickly: I have no particular opinion about Rushdie's writing, but not because I'm looking for some kind of 'balance', or am reluctant to express an opinion (more on those themes below). Instead, it's because I have tried and failed, several times, to read his novels. (I will keep trying). However, I do have recent small reason, which I will keep to myself, to feel kindly towards him.

That much said, let's get a few things straight.

You, the 'clerics' who demand an 'apology' from Rushdie, you know little about religion, least of all yours. You, the folks who draw distinctions between writers (that I might even agree with), you don't see that that's the famous slippery slope: Freedom of expression doesn't depend on who does the expressing and what kind of expression.

You, the guys who demand the 'cancellation' of Rushdie's 'visa' for India, you won't even learn that he has no Indian visa to cancel because he needs no Indian visa. (Please do yourself the favour of finding out why, you might learn something about this country you profess to live in).

You, the guys who won't mention M F Husain as you go on about Rushdie, I'm putting you on the spot, not that I expect you to pay any attention: Please spell out exactly the mental gymnastics that allow you to see a difference between the two cases.

You, the people who seek to be 'balanced', you haven't understood that there's such a thing as standing for a principle, and seeking 'balance' there is not just ludicrous, it is cowardice.

And maybe most important of all: You, the chief and other ministers who speak of possible law and order problems that Rushdie's visit raises, you know little about governance and democracy and therefore you should explain exactly why you occupy those ministerships. Not that I expect you to pay any attention either.

That last is the most important of all for this reason: Everyone in this cacophonous democracy has an opinion and will voice it, for that too is the meaning of freedom of expression. But we choose and swear in elected officials, above all, to uphold the law, transcending individual opinions about it. That means facing up squarely to the challenge posed by people intent on causing disorder and breaking the law. Those who cannot find the fibre to so face up can always seek less pressing jobs.

You think this is a naive and idealistic view of the world? Too black and white for you? Unfortunately, that's the way freedoms are. Black and white.

If you colour them gray, they no longer are freedoms.

There is really nothing more to say that others have not said far more eloquently and learnedly than I can.

So whether you are a Congress politician with an eye on the UP elections, or a Deoband cleric supposedly upholding some peculiar idea of your religion, or a BJP minority cell leader fulminating in your cell, or a rabble-rouser seeking to upgrade to shoe-thrower and Rushdie-ban-demander, or a chief minister of Rajasthan unwilling to do your duty by your state and your country, or a central minister/Congress spokesman who likes passing the buck, or whoever else that yearns for gray -- whoever you are, you should know this: you know next to nothing about the principles that lie at the very foundation of this country.

It's time you fully understood that. It's time you fully understood that grays don't cut it.

Dilip D'Souza, the Mumbai-based writer, has contributed to Rediff.com since its inception.

Dilip D'Souza's earlier columns.

Rediff Realtime News for updates on Salman Rushdie's visit to India.

Dilip D'Souza