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Rushdie brouhaha is another strike against Free Speech

Last updated on: January 18, 2012 20:13 IST

When Truth dies along with it dies the 'Fabric of Trust' that holds nations and societies together.

From raising dishonest questions over the Batla House encounter to raising false bogeys over the Rushdie visit, the Congress stands guilty of causing irreversible damage to that fabric of trust, says Shashi Shekhar.

As of the writing of this column, uncertainty loomed over writer Salman Rushdie's participation at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

The political logic over the objection to Rushdie's participation has a very simple basis. The Congress party in Uttar Pradesh is in a desperate dogfight for the Muslim vote. The Congress government in Rajasthan is in a desperate mood to shift the focus away from the worst sex cum murder scandals to have tainted it in many decades.

The Islamist establishment in India is facing both an existential and generational challenge.

Salman Rushdie is a convenient target of opportunity for both the Congress and the Islamist establishment.

It is no secret that the Islamic seminary of Deoband faces both a generational and existential challenge. The manner in which a reformist Maulana Vastanvi was ousted as its rector spoke volumes of the reformist undercurrents that Deoband is facing.

Outside of the Deobandi school of thought, one also saw in recent months a very bold move by the larger Barelvi organisation in India rejecting the import of hardline Islamist ideas from Saudi Arabia.

In fact, one has also seen a rare move towards bridging the communal faultline when back in October prominent Sunni Sufi leaders expressed a sentiment of reconciliation towards Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

At a time when even Godhra has turned the corner on overcoming the scars of 2002 and Muslim victimhood, it is jarring and bizarre that there should be opposition to the Rushdie visit from even the BJP's minority cell in Rajasthan.

At a time when the Delhi high court cites the example of China on Internet restrictions and Dr Subramanian Swamy has to turn up at a police station to explain an opinion column, the brouhaha over Rushdie may appear to be just another strike against Free Speech.

While protection to freedom of speech in India has at best been opportunistic, I would however hazard against drawing phony parallels with the unfortunate circumstances leading up to the self-imposed exile by the late M F Hussain. There is something deeper at work here.

Let us be clear: Rushdie is asserting his Indian identity as a Person of Indian Origin and consequently his right granted by law to be able to visit India at any time. The irony of expressing inability to guarantee security to Rushdie just the week after Jaipur hosted the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas is perhaps lost on the UPA government in Delhi and the Ashok Gehlot government in Jaipur.

The Congress party is hurtling this country down an all too familiar path.

Twenty-three years after the Congress government lead by his father Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to Islamic fundamentalist pressure to ban Rushdie's book, Rahul Gandhi had an opportunity to stand up and show leadership on this issue.

With his silence and his party's ambivalence in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi has failed a critical test as far as providing leadership to this country in bridging the deep communal faultline.

Political leadership to bridge that communal divide will have to come from elsewhere.

India is poised at a critical juncture as its destiny is now closely intertwined with the political fate of destiny's four daughters and one son. All five of them are grassroots achievers. What is more, all of five of them have a chosen a lonely political path with no dynasty to bequeath their political legacy to.

Mayawati and Uma Bharti stand between the cynical politics of competitive communalism in Uttar Pradesh between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. Mamata Banerjee stands in between the Congress' anti-federal impulses and the next election. Coming from a state with radically altered demographics, thanks to a soft border policy for decades, it is Mamata Banerjee who will face some early tests in bridging this divide.

No less will be the burden on Narendra Modi in bridging this communal fault-line as he continues down a path that few in the BJP have undertaken.

But the all important inoculation against an Islamist veto on the affairs in Delhi will likely have to come from down South. Noted political satirist and the match-maker of many a political alliance, Cho Ramaswamy, mooted a southern second front against the Congress over the past weekend with a key role for Jayalalithaa.

Federalism is the credo that binds all of them together as was evident in their collective opposition to the divisive Communal Violence Bill pushed by the Congress. It is in that shared value of federalism that we must look for a new coalition that not just stands up to the cynical vote bank politics of the Congress, but is also able to pave a political path towards permanently burying this communal faultline.

Politics and politicians, however, can only take us so far down that path.

Ultimately, this has to be about the enlightened self-interest of the Indian Muslim. There is a short distance between denial that arises from victimhood and societal schizophrenia. There cannot be a better example than Pakistan on how the false bogey of Muslim victimhood eventually gives way to mass Islamist schizophrenia to justify Muslim killing fellow Muslim.

Islamist Schizophrenia is today so deep in Pakistan that truth has become the casualty even in matters concerning the deaths of that nation's very own from Benazir Bhutto to Syed Saleem Shahzad.

When Truth dies along with it dies the 'Fabric of Trust' that holds nations and societies together.

From raising dishonest questions over the Batla House encounter to raising false bogeys over the Rushdie visit, the Congress party and its leadership Sonia and Rahul Gandhi stand guilty of causing irreversible damage to that fabric of trust.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in

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Shashi Shekhar