Politics, faith and maturity

It is tempting to declare that religion causes more problems than provides solutions. My personal fascination with religion begins and ends with trying to understand why people believe. But like all woolly-headed liberals I also know that people have the right to put their faith in some divine benediction and look for solace where they want. But in the whole Salman Rushdie-Jaipur Literary Festivals, it's difficult to exactly determine where religion ends and where political expediency and official cowardice begin.

Delusion: The protests against Rushdie, past and present, fortify the 
idea that blasphemy is being used for political gain more than any 
greater understanding of God

Being human has to allow a balance -- albeit delicate -- between being sensitive to beliefs and challenging existing ideas. It is also necessary to distinguish between prejudice and perceived hurt sentiments. There is little doubt here that the Rajasthan government either capitulated to pressure from a few Muslim groups or manipulated the Muslim dislike of Rushdie to scuttle the writer's visit to the festival. Did Rushdie upset believing Muslims with Satanic Verses? Of course he did. Has he paid the price for that? The answer to that is also yes. He lived in fear of his life under a fatwa for years and even came up with some sort of an apology. But was Rushdie the first to challenge, mock, scorn existing beliefs and will he be the last? An emphatic no is the answer to that.

Like every human -- or divine -- conceit -- or concept -- religion has been questioned and challenged several times and many of those threats have come from within the religion itself. Look at all the schisms in almost all major and minor belief systems. So the idea of blasphemy itself has been used for political gain more than any greater understanding of God. And that is what it seems to be the case here as well.

It seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that a literary festival in Jaipur is going to have a solid effect on the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh government so it is possibly more likely that someone in the Congress felt that soothing Muslims passions might be a good idea. However, unlike the sort of violence and vandalism that followed the 'hurt' sentiments with James Laine's book on Shivaji or the paintings of MF Husain, the anger against Rushdie has been comparatively restrained. Yet Rushdie was told that there were death threats against him from terrorists to deter him from coming to India, only for the police of Maharashtra and Rajasthan to deny any such thing.

The problem once again then is the government. The huge effort to ensure that Rushdie did not attend, the supposed death threats, the cases of the four writers who read from Satanic Verses to protest the treatment of Rushdie -- all these give truth to the oft-made accusation of appeasement of Muslims by the Congress. The question to be asked is whether all Muslims want or need this kind of appeasement and do they not lose more than they gain from it?

But there is another question: what does it say for the Indian state that it a) cannot provide security to a writer at a literary event and more significantly b) that it finds it so easy to sacrifice freedom of expression at the first sign of any conflict?

From DN Jha to James Laine to Wendy Doninger to Taslima Nasreen to MF Husain to Salman Rushdie, they have all been made victims in this fear of 'hurting' sentiments with little regard for the greater consequences where the right to question is sought to be silenced.

You only have to look at the apparent rage over a few jokes about India made by a BBC car programme or by a tangential reference to the Golden Temple made by American comic and TV host Jay Leno to see how touchy we are or how frightened we are of criticism or ridicule. If you feel insulted, there are laws to deal with it. And if you are a believer then surely, at judgment time, God will have the last laugh? Until then, maturity will not hurt.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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