MF. Husain and A.K. Ramanujan are dead, and Salman Rushdie has been resurrected. There is indeed no better event for a writer than a ban. The State once again capitulated. The meticulously drafted statement of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival — the type useful in diplomatic parlance — revealed they were in deep trouble. Rushdie had visited the fest in 2007. What was different then? There were no elections in Uttar Pradesh and the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled Rajasthan, happy with Rushdie but perhaps not with Husain.
There has been considerable debate about the virtues and legal limits of free speech. Thoughts and feelings are yet the preserve of a private mind. The State can enter our preserve: it is all powerful and when it has god on its side, or rather, is on the side of god, what are we puny mortals? The battle over god is all about which community rides the current political sweepstakes. Keep it all inside the head, one might argue, the gods will support your innermost thoughts. Speak out and risk censure. Given the various interpretations of god, there will always be someone who doesn’t like what you say. You are a minority if you dare to speak. If you cannot speak, you can still think. Yet if Lacan was right, deep unconscious drives influence language and, in turn, are influenced by what we say. Our thoughts are not our own, but only if we let them.
That is why this isn’t only about artists and thinkers. Rather, it is about the slow turning of a fervent intellectual and political landscape into a barren wasteland, where the mind isn’t free and the head cannot be held high. Our democracy is rendered futile when our collective psyches slowly corrode with cynical scepticism. Our lives become fake, full of disingenuous twists and turns. We are not who we are. Who we are, is not who we claim to be. We become shadows of our selves. Our minds turn slowly into pits of darkness.
The State argues, brings out the law books. We are all turning into lawyers now. The constitutional values are upheld not when everyone agrees on everything, but when there is intellectual ferment, challenge, disagreement. What about the truth then? If the truth was indeed a State monopoly or the preserve of a particular collective, why are we there at all? We, the people, do not shut our minds because we still uphold our dignity. The truth has many colours. It doesn’t suffer from a little questioning. Our limited imaginations can only do so much. The truth does not become untrue because someone says it is so.
The liberals criticize orthodoxy for living in the past. The orthodox hit out at the liberals, saying they have forgotten what the past meant. Both are wrong. The past and the future are in our present, even more so in India. We are absorbed in questions about the self, our place in the universe, birth and death, who we are and what we want to become. The notion of a homogeneous community that needs to be fortified in order to survive is a fallacy. Religion is deeper, much deeper than us. Exploration makes it come alive. Without exploration, there is no life.
We are treading a dangerously slippery slope in our country’s imagination. If this is also about the guilt of the educated, I have none, because guilt cannot be an overriding societal emotion. Guilt demeans the self, questioning and exploration redeem it. I would like to believe that India isn’t turning into a Singapore yet with all that preaching about so-called ‘Asian values’.
But today, I do take the claims about a liberal democracy with a pinch of salt. The truth gives me shades of grey, a colder eye, a deeper faith, hopefully a warmer life. That is better than everything or nothing, like life itself.