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Rushdie issue: Only in India can one get away with such farces!

January 24, 2012 14:02 IST

Ashok Gehlot may very well pat himself for winning over a few Muslim votes, but he has simply provided the template for the next offended group: The past is often the prologue to the future, says Rohit Pradhan.

Despite the rather long drawn-out drama, the end was quite predictable: Salman Rushdie wasn't allowed at the Jaipur literary Festival. Of course, Rushdie wasn't explicitly told to stay away; just that rumours were floated about credible threats to his life.

With remarkable alacrity, the Rajasthan chief minister rushed to meet Home Minister P Chidambaram warning of protests and a 'breakdown' of law and order. Following the example of its counterparts across the country, the Rajasthan police happily threw up its hands and there was little else left for Rushdie to do except fulminate on Twitter.

The Deoband seminary, an institution whose faith in democracy is a trifle suspect, declared Rushdie's withdrawl as a victory of Indian democracy.

Only in India can one get away with such farces!

But leave aside the free speech debate for a minute. Wikipedia suggests the Rajasthan police has a strength of nearly 70,000 personnel. Why was this large force, funded by taxpayer rupees and tasked with defending the masses, cowering before a few hooligans?

In fact, this is an oft-repeated pattern where a few hooligans are enough to disrupt a painting exhibition or burn down a theatre playing a movie which has offended someone somewhere.

We may scoff at the Bollywood Kings who are so ready to self-censor their movies in response to demands from religious/caste groups. But what options do they have in front of a murderous mob when the police and the political leadership is so unwilling to discharge their responsibilities? Especially when crores of rupees may be riding on a movie or an art gallery may be worried that priceless paintings may be destroyed by those who have little understanding of the arts or culture.

Little wonder, then, that the organisers of the Jaipur festival allegedly 'advised' the four authors who read Rushdie at the event to immediately leave the city.

The monopoly over violence is one of the primary roles of the State; it is its very raison d'etre. If the State repeatedly concedes this monopoly to motley group of hooligans as long as they have religious/caste cover, then it sacrifices its very legitimacy. Gradually the citizens lose their faith in the ability of the State to protect them from private violence.

Left with little option, people don't approach the State for redressal preferring to take the easy way out by compromising with hooligans. What follows is often worse. Because of the State's abdication of its Constitutional and moral obligations, it builds monsters who feel comfortable challenging its very authority. Ultimately, it only leads to more bloodshed further weakening the State's legitimacy in the eyes of her citizens.

Ashok Gehlot may very well pat himself for winning over a few Muslim votes, but he has simply provided the template for the next offended group: The past is often the prologue to the future.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that purely in terms of narrow parochial interests, the politicians have it quite right. Beyond a narrow liberal elite, there is simply little appetite for free speech in India. And even this elite, while upholding the right of artists and filmmakers to free speech, often draws the line at boisterous online commentators who may offend their sense of decency.

But then this entire struggle is about protecting speech which is often odious. Who, after all, gets offended by flowery compliments? Or take the ongoing case in the Delhi high court where companies like Google and Facebook have been hauled up for hosting 'objectionable content.'

Citing the example of China, the court has threatened to block these Web sites, and it was left to Google's lawyer to point out that comparing free democratic India to totalitarian China was simply preposterous.

If a high court in this land seeks inspiration from China to decide a free speech case, what is there left to say?

Like rest of us, politicians react to incentives. They instinctively understand that the vast majority of the Indian population is either completely indifferent to the issue of free speech or would happily acquiesce to their government censoring offensive speech for them.

Perhaps, it is because of India's religiosity or simply may be an extension of the mai baap sarkaar; if it can provide for us, perhaps, it can think for us too! In any case, it is clear that there is little potential downside for a politician stomping on the right to free speech while there is always the opportunity to portray themselves as the saviour of a religious group or popular sentiment.

Has there ever been an Indian politician who has lost an election because he decided to ban a book or censored a movie? No surprise then that politicians act the way they do. And all the anger in online forums or newspaper columns is not going to change this sad reality.

This is not a defeatist attitude -- of course, we must continue to defend free speech -- but merely an admission of India's reality.

The epilogue to this entire fiasco may have been purely symbolic; yet, it was highly suggestive. Amitava Kumar, the very embodiment of the literary elite read from Satanic Verses in anger at Rushdie's forced exclusion. And Chetan Bhagat, darling of the hoi polloi, whose books sell in the millions and has spawned one of the most successful Hindi movies of all time, criticised Rushdie and his defenders for hurting Muslim sentiments.

In a way, both were playing to their respective audiences, but is there any doubt about whose market is bigger?

Dr Rohit Pradhan is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution. The views are personal.

Rohit Pradhan