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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Back Rushdie’s resolve on freedom of speech

Back Rushdie’s resolve on freedom of speech

Last week’s shocking attack on the author reminded us of how risky the world is for artistic expression. We must also remind ourselves that a free market for ideas is vital to progress

Photo: ReutersPremium
Photo: Reuters

The attempt last week on Salman Rushdie’s life in upstate New York was a shock at many levels. No, that won’t do. Whether it was random or by design, we cannot get away from the moment. The author’s would-be assassin struck 50 hours or so before the eve of a midnight we commemorate for freedom from the British Raj, an occasion he made magical for the Anglosphere’s literati with Midnight’s Children, his 1981 ode of a novel to a newly liberated India, with all its perfections and perforations. In our revulsion lay a reminder of his 1988 fiction, Satanic Verses, the offence caused by which among many Muslims has emerged as the attacker’s likely motive. The particulars of this case, be it the tale’s unedifying dream sequence or undignified references to Islam’s Prophet, must not distract us from the universal lessons in need of a refresher. On freedom of speech as much as our national compact with it.

A free market for ideas has always been observed to act as a blender of diverse views, just as the space made by this for novelty has long led human progress. This is also the big edge that liberal democracy wields over its alternatives. For it to be effective, individuals must be able to speak freely—so long as no harm is caused. Yelling “fire" in a closed hall, for example, should be forbidden under such a regime, even as we turn a deaf ear to stuff that poses no peril and enjoin the easily-offended to do likewise. Sure, India’s sordid record of Hindu-Muslim strife and lives lost to it meant our legal red lines had to be kept stricter. Yet, on balance, New Delhi’s 1988 decision to ban Rushdie’s controversial book was poorly judged. Not just for the attention it attracted to its alleged blasphemy, with Iran’s infamous 1989 fatwa—eased in 1998— forcing him into hiding for about a decade, but also for letting down a vital aspect of the Idea of India. After all, it was not a foreign formula of liberty as much as our own long-cherished respect for diversity, argumentative as it made us, that secured India’s resolve to keep our market open to a vast variety of thoughts. The story on this score since that ban has been a perforated path, a descent that has put particulars over principles and political aims over artistic. Coarse words that court conflict fly around our airwaves, making it that much harder to judge what plays with fire and what doesn’t. Broadly speaking, however, it’s clear that too much gets hauled up as offensive far too easily. We must fix this intolerance before its muzzle effect distorts the emergence of our economy.

As home to every tenth Muslim, as estimated, it is incumbent upon us to secure the dignity of our largest minority group. Maximizing the space available for a variety of views among followers of Islam should be part of that mandate. At a base level, the view of Syed Ahmed Khan, an educationist who insisted that a book can only be answered by a book, would need airing afresh. At another, schools of Islamic thought that have come to be seen as heterodox, such as the so-called Mutazila movement which had animated debates on divinity about a millennium ago, must stay amenable to academic exploration. Studied well, epistemic and exegetical endeavours of the past could help diversify voices of the future. Whatever readers make of Rushdie’s work, good or bad, we must all accept it’s his words that critics must engage and he himself should be left alone. Ink must speak, not blood.

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Updated: 15 Aug 2022, 09:43 PM IST
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