Rumours of ban on The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie
The Indian State is beset by terrorism in its various incarnations. Indeed its critics argue persuasively that in sector after sector, the State and its actions have come increasingly to resemble those of its terrorist adversaries. However, there is a particular variant of this bewildering reciprocity that is the subject of today’s concern.
In some ways, the Indian political scene is characterized by a dangerous degree of freedom. Thus, people are free to call for vengeance against whole communities for ‘injuries’ that, the revenge-seekers admit, happened centuries ago. Certain others, whose call for vengeance resulted in the violence of 1984, are still unshriven, still unrequited – indeed they are themselves part of the State today and enjoy its protection, at public expense. Still others are free to crow over the criminal and hurtful destruction of the Babri Masjid. All kinds of things can be said – at streetcorners, in formal and informal assemblies, in printed words and even in the cartoons that once absorbed Bal Thackeray’s energies.
The banning of highly wrought, high-literary works in such an apparently permissive environment is deeply puzzling. To put it bluntly: are there things that mustn’t be said, ever; and ways in which nothing must be said?
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned because it was anticipated that it would offend the religious sentiments of devout Muslims. That anticipated outrage culminated in an extreme form of censorship – Khomeini’s fatwa. We would like to be able to argue that the right to challenge established orthodoxies, whether of state or religion, is a basic democratic right. Indeed, in certain contexts, it is almost a moral duty.
The case of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is in any case quite straight-forward. For one, Mr Thackeray and his outfit are a political party, and must be subjected to the processes of critique and evaluation whereby a society regulates its political processes. And in so far as it is more than a mere political party, the Shiv Sena is a quasi-criminal grouping which is believed, on the strength of its record, to command a potential of considerable violence. But it is important, precisely for that reason, to ask just what is at issue here?
to Bombay. Then there were rumours that the Customs Department, well known for its literary sensitivities, had banned the import of the book. Now it is said that the Home Ministry has banned The Moor’s Last Sigh. What the hell is going on?
It has been argued before now that creative writers must be accorded special privileges. Thus we are told that the creative imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. But the case for the unrestricted publication of The Moor’s Last Sigh does not rest on any special privileges, but only on the exercise of those freedoms that many others who are neither as humane nor as gifted as he is are free to exercise, to the great detriment of the public sphere.
There are several things at issue here: there is the question of the moral legitimacy of the State, which must not act (and must not be seen to be acting) in a craven and cowardly manner, for reasons which it is too embarrassed to acknowledge; there is the more general question of the right of political dissent, and of the duty of the State to provide an environment in which that right might be exercised, without either actual violence or the self-censorship that results from the fear of such violence; last but not least, there is the right and, in any civilized society, the need to enable the imaginative exploration of the complex worlds in which we live, to create hypothetical universes in which the bewilderments of historical processes might be probed and contemplated.
On all these counts, the business with The Moor’s Last Sigh has made the Indian State look distinctly unedifying. A guilty and shame-faced State, acting covertly through rumour and innuendo, has turned its back on its own vaunted historical legacy – not only on the ‘Nehruvian’ values of secularism and liberal tolerance, but also on its claims to sophistication and high culture. After all, Bal Thackeray’s reported recognition of himself in Rushdie’s gangsterish Raman Fielding is not more damning than the failure of Indian officialdom to read Rushdie’s wonderful Jawaharlal. After all, anyone with even a modicum of English could have seen the anguish that inspired the ironic portrait of that much-loved dog. The final image of Jawaharlal, now stuffed and increasingly battered and shabby, dragged along on its rickety wheels but not quite cared for, not quite abandoned, is both poignant and acute. But perhaps, for a State that is actively – and, one must believe, consciously – engaged in betraying the Nehruvian vision, whether in the field of culture or the economy, it is, finally, the truth that hurts.