Saturday, January 28, 2012

On "liberal extremism" (and soft oppositions to freedom)

I’ve had a cordial relationship with Chetan Bhagat for a long time; there are things I like about him, as a person and – yes – as a writer too. I once faced flak in literary circles for saying mildly nice things about his early work, and I still often have arguments with friends who make condescending remarks like “Why has Chetan Bhagat been invited to a literature festival?” But I’m deeply disturbed by the position he has adopted on the Salman Rushdie-Jaipur issue, especially his repeated endorsement of the bizarre idea that the whole mess was jointly caused by “extremists on both sides”.

Two exhibits. First, some samples from Chetan’s Twitter feed:

“When extremists on both sides turn a festival into an activist venue, there's a security risk.”

“In a fight between extreme fundamentalists and extreme liberals, the sufferer is the beautiful jaipur litfest, the gainer an appeasing govt.”

“Extreme fundamentalists. Extreme liberals. Extremely difficult to deal with either.”

“If you are truly religious, you believe in forgiveness. If you are truly liberal, you respect other points of view. Sadly, don't see it much.”

A response to that last Tweet: sure – if you’re truly liberal, you respect other points of view. (Since the meaning of “respect” is often hazy in this context, a clarification: it means that you believe people should have the freedom to peacefully express their views, no matter how strongly you disagree with them.) What you emphatically DO NOT respect – or condone – is the demonstration of those views through threats and violence, which curtails the similar rights of other people. And it’s the religious extremists who have been curtailing rights in the Rushdie case; the “liberal extremists” have been responding to the bullying with non-violent protests. This is an important distinction. Even if you find it convenient (for whatever reason) to think of strong-voiced liberals as extremists, do have the grace to acknowledge that there is no equivalence between these two forms of “extremism”.

Exhibit 2: this CNN-IBN video featuring Chetan, Ruchir Joshi (who was one of the four authors who read from The Satanic Verses in Jaipur) and Asaduddin Owaisi, who called for the arrest of the writers.

On view here is Chetan as the “balanced” diplomat-cum-moderate who is willing to listen to both points of view and who badly wants the two parties to find a middle ground – “because otherwise this whole controversy is kind of useless”. I will not comment on individual actions, he starts by saying. Then, “As an artist you have full freedom to write whatever you want to. However... Should you be exercising the right to hurt people?” And to Owaisi, “I request you to withdraw your case”, followed by this astonishing statement: “We are all Indians here – we will not let someone who is not Indian [meaning Rushdie] affect our unity.”

This is a great issue to unite the country,” he says – apparently “uniting the country” means ensuring that no one says or does anything that might be perceived as offensive to any community’s God, be it Allah or Krishna or Saraswati. “We Indians are believers. Our value system is not the same as London or Paris or Amsterdam.” (Incidentally, Amsterdam was where Theo van Gogh was murdered by a religious fanatic not so long ago because he made a film – and it should be clear to any thinking person that no corner of the world is safe from the extremisms of the “value system” Chetan is so proud of – but let that pass for now.)


In this piece, Chandrahas Choudhury lists three types of opposition to freedom of speech in India. The third of these, he says, is an “insidious kind of muzzle on the genuinely free expression of ideas”:
“... what one might call a soft opposition, or self-censorship [...] that honestly doesn't understand what individuals have to gain by rocking the boat of a particular religious order, and believes that ‘religious sentiments should always be respected’ and art has no business to question or mock what is held by some to be sacred”
I have had dozens of encounters with “soft opposition” of this sort. These typically involve conversations with well-meaning family members or acquaintances who might very loosely be described as “liberals” (or at least as “cool” or open-minded people). When the subject of an artist offending religious sentiments comes up, they usually say: “Yes, but was it necessary to write that article/do that painting/make that cartoon? Couldn’t he have been more sensitive?” Or “I agree that he has the right to do or say this. But should he have done it?

This type of conversation sometimes reaches a critical point if you reply: “Agreed - it might have been nicer/more sensitive to do things in another way. But what if the artist politely hears you out and then says he has chosen to disregard your advice – that he will go ahead and do this anyway? What will your response be then?” I've found that the mask of unequivocal “liberalism” can slip off very quickly in this situation.

It’s worrying that so many people in India seem not to understand what good art can be all about, and the conditions necessary for its meaningful survival. As Ruchir Joshi writes in this piece in The Hindu (bold-marks mine):
I have memories of writers, artists, film-makers being pushed into narrower and narrower pens by people who had no interest in literature, art or cinema other than to use these as excuses to expand their own illiterate, illiberal, poisonous power under the guise of identity politics...
And Amit Chaudhuri in The Hindustan Times:
In India, I get the feeling that the liberal middle class is only dimly aware of the importance of the arts, and how integral they are to the secular imagination, except in a time of media-inflated crisis, when it becomes a 'free speech' issue. Indians know how to talk about writers, but not about writing.
Little wonder that artistic liberty is among the first things to be held hostage (or made conditional, which is the same thing) when "sentiments" are deemed to have been hurt. A friend told me not to write a post about Chetan Bhagat because “he’s such a soft, easy target”. Well, maybe, but here it is anyway, because I think his stance tells us something about the level of discourse around us today. It’s a pity that one of India’s most popular writers seems unwilling to acknowledge that one of the oldest functions of art is to disturb people and encourage them to look with new eyes at everything they hold sacred. We already see too much of that apathy and ignorance in people who don't work in the creative field.


  1. "one of the oldest functions of art is to disturb people and encourage them to look with new eyes at everything they hold sacred".

    Hmm. Then, in your opinion to what extent has Rushdie(or MF Hussain for that matter) been able to facilitate this? How close is SR to being a true "artist"? (or is he already one?)

    Aside: The phenomenon of CB or any other writer becoming a "journalist" and making social commentaries is anyway quite boring. Its like I have to listen to someone's opinion just because he/she is a celebrity--in this case it might slightly be related, because CB was commenting on this issue wearing his writer's robe. But many writers--with little or no background in hardcore journalism comment with such an air of expertise, (reference to many political articles that CB himself writes for newspapers) that I wonder what their livelihood is--writing or "reporting"?

  2. Jai, I don't know what Chetan Bhagat is getting at exactly- haven't sat through this video either. And of course, when there is only one side threatening violence, in that sense there is only one set of extremists.

    However- I think it is true that there are two sides to blame. Not as regards what happened in Jaipur- but as regards the underlying issue- the foundations of such 'liberal versus conservative' conflict. It comes down to this: Do our liberals _realize_ that it is possible for people to hold their religious beliefs sacred? One could answer Yes, and move on- and there's no argument to that answer. But I don't think it would be the truth. It's not enough to _say_, 'I respect your right to hold your beliefs'- if you don't really. Then it becomes just a form of words. And people can see that. They can see that you don't really empathize with their hurt at all- which also makes your stated respect more of an insult. And it's not then just a question of whether the conservatives ought to accept the hurt of words with non-violent grace- it's also a question of whether the liberals can even _see_ that they _are_ hurt. Think of the alienation that comes with being wounded by someone, so _very_ cold-bloodedly. I'm afraid there is a lack of understanding here, a hard-heartedness or an ignorance, which does fuel such conflicts- from the liberal side.

  3. Thanks. It was time some one called Chetan's bluff. You are right when you talk about the "cool" people. There are so many of them among us, vociferously proclaiming their liberal credentials and then showing their true spirits when push comes to shove that they have become a threat to free-flow of ideas in this country -- a threat which equals the fundamentalists.
    And thanks, too, for the clip. Agree with Ruchir to a large extent that the ante must be upped

  4. There's this Terry Gilliam interview on youtube where he talks about how everything Spielberg does has easy, and mostly trivial, answers to difficult questions (compared to the very open-ended work of Kubrick). I feel the same way about Bhagat (and a lot of other supposedly progressive "youth icons" like Raghu-Rajeev of MTV Roadies).

    Bhagat's books come across as permissive because he talks frankly about the sort of lives young urbane Indians live. But the inspirations in most cases are hokey: One Night... has God on the phone, 2 States has some bull about getting out of a crisis after a visit to a spiritual leader at the Aurobindo Ashram. I don't find his violations of form as bad as his lack of content (though he can sum campus and corporate life with a light, self-amused touch rather well).

  5. I'm staggered by the sheer hostility with which salman rushdie is being targetted.both chetan bhagat and justice markandey katju are surely adding insult to injury-one, by calling him unIndian(!!)and the other,derisively calling him a socially irrelevant writer of no merit.the sad thing is that all this about a person whose deep,beautiful love for his homeland can't be mistaken.and even if he was the worst writer in the world,it's his right and prerogative to write and say what he wants to.people's sensitivities shouldn't dance on the edge of a pin,so easily punctured by a point which they don't agree with.and Aditya Sudarshan:Really?I haven't heard any of the 'cold blooded' liberals flat-out mock the clerics saying 'We don't care what religious zealots say.What Rushdie has written is valid and to hell with everything else'.they've registered their protest with dignity and a regard for other people's opinion,and the reverse isn't true.

  6. @Sugandha, The whole point is it isn't enough to string together the right-sounding sentences. They may sound very dignified- but you have to really be free of the mockery, and to really possess the regard. And the standard to meet is not the standard set by the religious zealots.

  7. Aditya: sorry, but I don't get your point.

    It's not enough to _say_, 'I respect your right to hold your beliefs'- if you don't really.

    Speaking for myself and for most liberals I know: we DO respect this right. (I may not respect the actual beliefs, but that's another matter entirely.) And yes, we do know that people get deeply hurt when their religious feelings are criticised or attacked. Most of us didn't grow up in bubbles. In my own house, there are two such people whom I care a great deal about, and whose religious feelings I have hurt a couple of times (before I started exercising my own personal form of self-censorship). What liberals and what instances are you talking about? Can you provide an example or two?

    And again, what is your point exactly? (I'm assuming, of course, that you don't condone violence in the name of "hurt feelings".)

    I'm trying very hard not to get personal, but rereading your comment it strikes me that if a freshly arrived Martian were to read it without knowing anything about human lives, he would assume that religious people are a persecuted minority on this planet (instead of, you know, being the people whose sentiments are given special privileges over and above everything else, to the extent that they have a licence to bully everyone else into submission whenever they feel discomfited or hurt).

  8. Then, in your opinion to what extent has Rushdie(or MF Hussain for that matter) been able to facilitate this? How close is SR to being a true "artist"? (or is he already one?)

    Rantings: in my view Rushdie has certainly done this in at least four of his novels (including Satanic Verses), in addition to his fine body of non-fiction writing. But how is this relevant anyway? As Sugandha points out, even if he was a terrible writer, the principle stands.

  9. @Jai, Sure, we didn't grow up in bubbles. That only means we are all aware of tensions and reactions. It doesn't mean that we necessarily understand the basis to them. Here is a proposition: You cannot in fact respect a person's right to a belief, unless you have _some_ respect for that belief itself. But if you more or less scorn the belief involved, then what you feel towards that person is not respect (which is a very big word) but more likely condescension (and possibly fear and loathing. It's a nice-looking distinction on paper, respecting the right while disrespecting the belief, but it is strictly meaningless- it just doesn't fit the psychological facts. And the psychological facts are just what people respond to.

    That's all my point is. That there is more actual hostility from the liberal side, towards the conservative side, than the liberal discourse suggests. This is something to be aware of- it's a part of the reason these conflicts burn on. Whether the liberal hostility is justified, and religious beliefs truly not worth respect- that's a different debate.

    In re: religious groups being bigger bullies in general than liberals, I think this is beside the point here. When we're looking at whether there are 'extreme' views on the liberal side, let's just focus on them. We all already know about the extremism on the other side.

  10. @ Aditya Sudarshan

    "In re: religious groups being bigger bullies in general than liberals, I think this is beside the point here. When we're looking at whether there are 'extreme' views on the liberal side, let's just focus on them."

    It is pure bunk to talk about liberal "extremes" without talking about the religious right. This is one of the myths that needs to be busted right away. It is NOT okay to conflate liberal radicals with rightwing/religious radicals. This is entirely false equivalence. The religious right simply has no equivalence on the left. No left wing radical, howeve extreme, equates with the craziness of the Dar ul Uloom or the RSS in terms of impact.

    Talking about leftwing extremes in isolation in THAT context,therefore, merely becomes a forced exercise in objectivity.

  11. Also, @ Aditya Sudarshan

    if you'd only taken a moment to click on the links Jai has provided, and read the articles, you would have come across this in the Amit Chaudhuri article:

    "There was a nuance that people may have missed; that one of the readers was Amitava Kumar, who has, in the past, been harshly critical of Rushdie's work. This detail is pertinent to the nature of both democracy and literature; that upholding them passionately doesn't preclude disagreement."

    You are sorely mistaken when you propose that: "You cannot in fact respect a person's right to a belief, unless you have _some_ respect for that belief itself." Please un-Talibanize your mind and read some Voltaire. You'll be better off for it.

  12. Jai, I think you fall for the self-censorship trap yourself when responding to Adotua, but I don't blame you as you also live in India and abide by its crummy laws. But to answer Aditya - yes you're right - I have absolute contempt for religious peoples ideas. I think they are absolute morons and it hurts MY sentiments when I see women covered in veils, when I see women fasting for husbands and when I see people consulting my horoscope to determine my marriage. I don't respect them, but I respect they're right to believe what they want. This is not condescension, it's called civilisation.

  13. @Sapera and TTG, Look, I chose my words carefully, for a reason.The freedom to form a belief is a different possession from the belief formed- I'm aware of that. That is why I never said that the response to one has got to be the same as the response as the other. What you should try and realize, is that these different responses are also _connected_. They don't exist in separate enclosures- they have an impact on each other. And while you can respectfully _disagree_ with someone, you cannot respectfully disrespect them. (You can maybe check this up with Voltaire too, if his authority matters to you so much!)

    So if you have 'absolute contempt' for a person's belief, please understand that it is meaningless to say that you respect their right to that belief. I can't really spell this out any more, because it's common sense.

    That's what this is, by the way, not the 'Talibanization' of my mind!

  14. I think you fall for the self-censorship trap yourself when responding to Aditya

    TTG: not really - I know Aditya to be an intelligent and sensitive writer, so it's possible that there's a nuance in his argument that I'm completely missing.

    Still, no chance of my developing personal respect for religious beliefs anytime soon. (Here, I'm using a different, more specific meaning of "respect" than the one I used early in the post.) I always try to be upfront about this: while I can to an extent empathise with the imperatives that drive people to cling to Faith, I don't respect those beliefs any more than I would respect belief in the Tooth Fairy. (This usually doesn't preclude my respecting other aspects of the personalities and actions of such people - my mother and wife, for instance.)

  15. emboldened by the Jaipur controversy(and perhaps in the spirit of competition for controversy creation)the ABVP has managed to stop the screening of sanjay kak's film on kashmir,which was part of a seminar in symbiosis university.all it took was a phone call to the dean,who immediately agreed to not only withdraw it,but cancel the seminar itself.these are truly worrying times.
    For Aditya Sudarshan:faced with an extreme attack,the liberal response was'nt extreme.In fact it was angry,but derogatory towards none,(and yes)well articulated.isn't that both sensitive and sincere?whose standards should they have met?Do give it a thought.As Jabberwock and other commentators have said,it's difficult to understand what you're trying to say exactly.of course it's possible(and desirable)to respect a person'rights without extending the same to his beliefs.stephen hawking says that the human brain should be viewed as a computer,that shuts down completely on death.I think the analogy 's complete rubbish,but does that make me fear\loathe stephen hawking?condescending being out of the question.

  16. these are truly worrying times.

    Indeed! And the climate being what it is, I'm rapidly losing sympathy for those who - in the interests of being "balanced" - choose to keep dwelling on the hurt sentiments of the people who are the first-move aggressors in every one of these cases.

    Originally, this post had a post-script with my thoughts on another term that gets misused and irresponsibly bandied about as much as "liberal extremists" - Atheist Fundamentalists. I left it out at the last minute, mainly because I thought it was a detour. But I think I'll write about that at greater length sometime.

  17. Jai, thanks for coming out & saying what needed to be said. Regarding your statement " of the oldest functions of art is to disturb people and encourage them to look with new eyes at everything they hold sacred", I think years of KJo & time pass Bollywood has dulled the ability of at least the cinematic arts to ask these questions. Since cinema is to Indian popular arts as cricket is to Indian sports, if it doesn't happen in movies it probably doesn't happen anywhere else. Or maybe it happens in regional cinema or literature.

    And to Sugandha's comment about Symbiosis & the Sanjay Kak movie, that propensity to give in to extreme elements is something I find utterly spineless & disturbing in India.

  18. The sort of ideas that Bhagat is espousing are infinitely more dangerous than the fundamentalist extremist stand. He is essentially supporting the fundamentalist stand under the grab of playing peace-maker. He gains the support of all the pseudo-liberals and gets to claim diplomatic immunity. IMHO, moderate liberals are just as non-existent as moderate fundamentals.
    Anyway, just wanted to say I'm glad that you decided to put this post on the blog.

  19. Thank you Aditya Sudarshan for fighting the good fight. As a person who is somewhat conservative, I think what you have tried to do here is illustrate how liberal expressions can be perceived as more extreme by conservatives than as perceived by liberals themselves.

    I did not get any sense reading your comments that you pose any equivalence whatsoever between this "extremism" and the extremism of the religious leaders.

    I would have liked to see peaceful protests at JLF or other such venues, preferably facilitated by the organizers themselves.

    Dont you think however, that the conservatives who get deeply and sincerely hurt by liberal rants are the least likely to stage protests, even non-violent ones. Staged protests, even peaceful ones, seem to me to have an element of theater - an exaggeration of the actual hurt to convince the other side who think we should just lump it, that its not so easy.

    Those that are sincerely hurt may write about their views, avoid or boycott the source of offence.

    BTW Jai, these are the kind of people I see around me mostly; there is no "mask of cool liberalism" that we wear to impress you to be dropped or slipped later- its possible that when we are younger and more naive we think nobody would express themselves that offensively, and then recoil when faced with genuinely hurtful stuff.

    If some of us recalibrate our opinions afterwards, that is not really a "slip of the mask" imo.


  20. Great article Jai! It is very dangerous when an author as popular as Chetan Bhagat starts endorsing such narrow views.
    If we are not willing to let our assumptions be questioned (on paper, in words) what kind of a stagnated brittle society are we headed towards becoming? What happened at the JLF is so worrying indeed. I am really very glad you wrote about this.

  21. @Aditya Sudarshan

    "So if you have 'absolute contempt' for a person's belief, please understand that it is meaningless to say that you respect their right to that belief."

    As with most things, definitional issues are key. "Absolute" varies with positionality, privilege, etc. And there is rarely such a thing as "absolute" (define your terms?) contempt. Contempt exists across a gradient, and there are degrees to which one can tolerate oppressive modalities of thought/action.

    So if I were to live in the same society as the Taliban, who would basically cut my tongue out for saying something blasphemous against what they hold sacred, it would be foolish to respect their right to do so. But if I was living in a society like, say in the US, where white supremacist groups like Stormfront are legal, even though their ideology is abhorrent to me, as long as I am essentially left alone by them to air my views on religion, race and the body politic, I will tenuously and cautiously "respect" their right to hold such abhorrent views. But that's an example of the far end of the continuum. I will ditto respect the right of a slew of people to hold a plethora of opinions regarding many things, which provoke emtotions in me that range from mild annoyance to mild outrage.

    So while I see your point - "They don't exist in separate enclosures- they have an impact on each other", I also raise you the idea that it's best to regard oppressive regimes in terms of degree. Where India is about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rather live here than say Afghanistan, where it's 9.

    Your "absolute contempt" argument, ergo, is pretty flimsy. And sure, it sounds dissonant when you frame it as "respectfully disrespect(ing)" someone, but theoretically, you could respectfully "disrespect" someone to varying degrees.

    "Dont you think however, that the conservatives who get deeply and sincerely hurt by liberal rants are the least likely to stage protests"

    Let me know, when a liberal(s) rants and succesfully coerces the State to shut down a Satsang or a prayer meeting for offending liberal values. And let me know, only, if there isn't a conservative backlash after.

  22. "To circumscribe the role or import of art within an issue-based paradigm seemed rather parochial to us. Hence, we extend the question to defending its existence per se, as also its “functionality”.

    Art exists in its own right, on its own terms. Without the necessity to justify itself, or the additional onus of purpose. Yet, throughout time, we find that it has questioned mankind, consistently jolted it into making new discoveries, unsettled societal preconceptions, ripped apart status quo and given us other ways to view the world. It unearths fragments of the past; hurls shards of an often painful present straight into our faces; and sometimes it offers terrifying or tantalising oracles of the future. It is, perhaps, above all, a reminder that nothing is sacrosanct: certainly not the sacred monster, art, itself."

    This was part of an article I'd written in UNESCO's journal, MUSEUM International, in 2008 defending the existence of a performance art department commissioning *uncensored* contemporary work in the National Museum on the History of Immigration. (Much of the resistance came from within, from the committee of historians who believed that all art needed to respect historical accuracy or else it was not legitimate.) ...

    Freedom of artistic expression finds antagonists on all fronts, for a variety of reasons, ranging from rabble-rousers claiming hurt feelings (the easiest war-cry) to scientists decrying art's "unreliability". Art isn't there to be reliable, it is there as a deeply individual and creative response to life, to the world around us. It is also, as another artist reminded recently, what most remains of our lives, of our civilisations. The Arabian Nights, the Sanchi Stupa, the Kambha Ramayana, the Last Supper... all these offended someone at some point....

    What most of the soft-protesters don't care to realise is that the threat to freedom of artistic expression is a harbinger of threats to other freedoms: the Taliban, Nazi Germany, communist Russia are all screaming reminders of this...

    Sorry, that was a long ha'penny worth, but I deal with this on a daily basis and it is frightening how rapidly we are regressing in the face of extreme opinion - and passive-agressive appeasement.

  23. PS: In the midst of my extended post, I forgot to say, Jai: thank you for this timely and valuable reminder that the biggest threat around is the complicity of a powerful majority. I would, if I could, translate your post and send it around to all those apathetic decision-makers who think artists should operate "within the four corners" of acceptability and comfort.

  24. But then there's also this -

    All I will leave here as an addendum is Kurt Vonnegut's quote:

    "If we are to discuss truthfully what America is and what it can become, our discussion must be in absolutely rotten taste, or we won’t be discussing it at all."

    In India, the same thing should apply. That's all.

  25. And as proof, if such were needed, that Vonnegut put his money where his mouth was:

    If we as liberal "extremists" get squeamish about our sacred cows then all is lost.

  26. Chetan Bhagat is speaking in the same manner as he writes - dressing up hoary cliches in cool, youthful, Peace-man, Yo! style. Your post is timely Jai but I don't think we should confuse CB with the issue at hand here: how subversion is integral to art. Literally every shayr of Mirza Ghalib, the great Urdu poet, upturns the existing paradigm - but Mirza Nosha was an original thinker, CB is not. He writes, which any person who has gone to Primary school can lay claim to. Additionally, he is immensely popular - like cola and pop corn. And this was just likely another opportunity for him to leverage his brand.

  27. Great post and some quick thoughts:

    1. The phrase ‘hurting people’s sentiments’ is utter bullshit. It is simply a veiled threat of mob violence, ie, my sentiments are hurt so much that I’m going to have to beat people up, destroy property or call a bandh.
    2. This phrase has been marketed to us so much over the years that even perfectly reasonable people (like say, your family members or folks commenting on this blog) have bought into it without questioning and end up supporting the mob violence types over people who never go beyond words.
    3. If your sentiments are hurt, go see a therapist. Grown-ups have to deal with hurt sentiments all the time from our bosses or in-laws. Salman Rushdie’s (or anyone else’s) book is a much less painful form of having one’s sentiment being hurt than being yelled at by bosses, and we can ignore Mr. Rushdie’s books if it hurts us so much.
    4. The security risk that Chetan Bhagat is so concerned about happens only because governments are unwilling to enforce order and let mob violence happen.
    5. At least in the near future, I don’t see governments enforcing rule of law to protect free speech, simply because of electoral calculations. That’s something we’re going to have to live with. But there is no need for all of us to buy into ‘hurting people’s sentiments’. Every time we come across this expression, we should call bullshit on it.
    (Full disclosure: I do like religion a lot (at least my own ), but can cheerfully deal with my sentiments being hurt. I don’t even need a therapist)

  28. This is in response, a little belated to that bit about 'absolute contempt' on liberals' part when they admit to understanding the hurt that their opponents feel and still do what they have to (apologies for the poor paraphrasing).

    The thing is liberals will respond in the manner they have to, perhaps the new light they shed (even in a subversive, 'offensive' way, and these are subjective terms) will help understand old traditions better. The history of art from ancient to renaissance times is a story of this. Whereas the option of being hurt or being offended is the surest way of ending such debate or exchange, and it appears the option of being hurt or aggrieved does not exist for the liberals.

    Pleading the excuse that it hurts 'us' is a way of shielding, sheathing one's identity but the modernity we espouse is one wherein there will be, in any scenario, always someone being offended, another causing offence. In a borderless world, new borders keep getting created, ironically; but then art shapes itself like an amoeba in the world that is. Old ideas were once yesterday's new ideas, and tomorrow's new ideas are being born in this eternal see-sawing between 'liberals' and 'conservatives' (with sincere apologies to Rumi :-))

  29. Though I agree with the overall point of freedom of expression without resorting to violence, couching it in the unnecessary jargon of liberals and fundamentalists is hardly required. It is too simplistic to classify people as liberals and conservatives. People can alternate between the two without even realizing it. The very act of self-classifying oneself as liberal and other as conservative smirks of condescension. Anyways who is a liberal and who is the judge of it ? Someone resorting to physical violence (which is deplorable and to be avoided) doesn't imply his views are wrong. Of course, it is my belief (and probably that of the so-called rationalists and liberals too) that physical violence is more deplorable than mental violence !

    "We already see too much of that apathy and ignorance in people who don't work in the creative field." I think much of the blame for it rests on the artists. Many of them think of themselves too highly and look at the public condescendingly. Sample the reaction to Chetan Bhagat's success by many of the so-called literary elite or to the many other mass successes. Even in the Rushdie show, it has been on view. Well, if the artistic elite looks down upon "the masses", then they shouldn't expect any great love from them. There have been artists who have spoken to people standing on the ground and not on a pedestal and they have received respect and love. Else why bother understanding from those you (i mean not you but literary critics) label as "idiotic masses" ? During the Rushdie show, there were 1 or 2 articles a day in many newspapers about artistic freedom is being curtailed et al but before, during or after this tamaasha, does anyone bother to write about art to a layman ? As CB put, one cannot write in literary English and tell people to read and understand it.

    This is quite true of scientists and many others too. The percentage of art or science that has actually made a difference is small but every budding scientist or artist boasts of being someone making a difference and very important to the society. It would be better if they say that everybody needs to be guaranteed certain freedoms and leave at that. I am not too convinced of this pretension of these people being some special and deserve special treatment. But yes, others are free to believe that artists are some special people and a cut above the rest who deserve special freedoms.

    Would so many of the literary elite have been outraged if it was CB instead of Rushdie who had been banned ?

  30. Appreciate the article for at least not talking of CB in mocking tone as is the norm with lot of "literary" connoisseurs. I picked up 5.someone and never managed to complete it. But just cannot fathom the hatred for him.

  31. Would so many of the literary elite have been outraged if it was CB instead of Rushdie who had been banned ?

    Yogesh: short answer: yes. (Many of the liberals I know think Taslima Nasreen - for example - is a very mediocre writer, but they strongly defend her freedom of expression.) But congrats on detracting from the basic issue under discussion, with that classic inverse-snob take on the "artistic elite".

    It would be better if they say that everybody needs to be guaranteed certain freedoms and leave at that.

    Um, this is exactly what they ARE saying. They are fully acknowledging the (non-violent) freedom of speech of the religious extremists. I assume you agree with this basic principle, regardless of what you think of the so-called literary/artistic elite?

  32. Thanks Jai for the response and the "classic inverse-snob" label. Yet another label !

    The basic principle of physically non-violent expression of opinions is agreed.

    I am not sure if some of the ban criticisms "leave at that". In fact, your last para and Amit's HT article were suggestive of "artists" being something special and hence deserve some special rights (perhaps, not a detraction). In fact, the tone of a lot of writing was the Rushdie ban was bad because he was a special writer or writers are special.

    Thanks once again for publishing criticisms too.

  33. If "liberals" (whatsoever that means) are actually for freedom of speech, then why petition against the ban on Rushdie's book alone ? Why not other books ? Or in general ?

    The best and a prescient criticism of book bans to me remains that of Heinrich Heine in 1830. "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.". Replace "burn" with "ban", you have India's situation. And nobody needs a reminder as to how it ended when books were burnt in Berlin in 1930s.

  34. The petition addresses the eventual lifting of a "general" ban on a large swath of artists whose works have been excised or curtailed by the State. The Satanic Verses were indeed inspirational in launching the petition, but the petition itself references diverse artists, writers and academics who have been variously banned by the state.

    "The Satanic Verses has not incited violence anywhere; others have used the novel's existence to incite violence to suit their political ends. Within India, in the 23 years since the ban, we have witnessed an erosion of respect for freedom of expression, as artists like MF Husain, Chandramuhun Srimantula, Jatin Das, and Balbir Krishan have been intimidated, and works of writers like Rohinton Mistry and AK Ramanujan have been withdrawn because of threats by groups claiming to be offended."

    But having a petition to address in a blanket form, all oppressive bans is as retarded as having a parliamentary or congress bill to respectively address complex, multi-layered things like "corruption" or "terror".

  35. Just to jump in on the question of the Satanic Verses petition: it came out of the specific situation, but is part of a set of initiatives being taken by several free expression groups and private citizens on free speech. Some of these have to do with book bans, past and future, some have to do with the Internet, and some are just an exploration of how far the ordinary citizen's right to free speech is protected under the law.

    I hope that answers your concerns.

    On the question of religions and liberal thought, they are not always in opposition, though historically we've seen major clashes in the country. The classic example would be Raja Rammohan Roy, who deeply offended Hindu religious sentiments when he proposed widow remarriage, and many of the commentators at the time said that he lacked an understanding of how deeply people felt about religious practice.

    Part of the imbalance is that deeply religious people often claim a greater depth of emotion--the argument is often that the feelings on prayer, ritual and practice run very strong, and the implication is that non-practitioners, atheists and agnostics (and, I presume, liberals) do not understand the depth of these emotions. But that sets up a hierarchy of emotions, doesn't it? The argument then becomes that religious sentiments must be respected (respected by *not* being challenged) because they are in some way deeper and have more validity than what people feel about, say, their moral values, or their partners, or their cats.

    My perspective would be to say that those demanding that liberals shut down their own thought and belief system in order to not cause hurt to the religious are exercising something slightly different. Deep religious feelings have more social validity and social currency than any other set of sentiments--but it might be useful for the religious to consider that a liberal might feel as strongly about apparent abstractions such as creative freedoms.

    Thanks, Jai, for starting up this discussion.

  36. your last para and Amit's HT article were suggestive of "artists" being something special and hence deserve some special rights

    Yogesh: since you bring this up, let me admit that yes, I do think of good art as something special - I think it's one of the most important mirrors we have. (Of course, one must continue discussing the artistic merits/demerits of specific artists, books, films etc. That's another matter.)

    But no, I don't think artists deserve "special rights" that are not available to other people - not sure where you got that from. And in any case, there's something a little bizarre about this argument, since the people who DO consistently get special rights and privileges are the ones who brandish their hurt religious sentiments. Everyone else is required to shut up when that happens.

    the tone of a lot of writing was the Rushdie ban was bad because he was a special writer.

    This I would thoroughly disapprove of - and yes, there probably is some truth in the idea that this case achieved such a high profile among urban liberals because Rushdie is an internationally celebrated writer who works in English. But as Sapera points out above, the petition to unban the Satanic Verses definitely does not have a one-point agenda. It's an important step forward towards giving voices to people who don't have the privileges and support that Rushdie does.

  37. the important question of freedom of expression and the lack of governmental support towards safeguarding what is,after all,a constitutional fundamental right, threatens to conflate into a 'salman rushdie versus chetan bhagat',or a 'classes vs masses' debate.the fact is,yes,writers,artists,journalists and other people who express their thoughts in public fora are naturally more concerned about fundamentalist (and state supported)censorship,because it impinges their work directly and makes them targets of harrassment.
    And Yogesh:masses = ignorant/low intellectual level/people unable to gauge quality=readers of chetan bhagat?I urge you to read pankaj mishra's essay on his student life in a decrepit UP university,and a particular gangster friend who reads a 19th century French classic,and undergoes a kind of catharsis reading about people whose conflicts and society he recognizes,identifies with.'Art',however obscure and rarefied it may seem,isn't really prisoner to an extensive vocabulary.and Chetan has his own charm,storytelling ability,and candid humor;it just has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

  38. @Aditya's perspective: I guess you are incorrect when you causally relate "respecting somebody's right to hold/express a belief" and the "respect for the said belief" itself. For example, a believing Muslim will think that only her faith is the true one, because it is said as much in the Holy Book. However, she may have respect for other people's faith without respecting the faith itself. When she starts respecting the other faith, she is a munafiq and is very close to shirk. When she doesn't, she is what CB proved himself to be.

    There are enough ridiculous ideas that are held by otherwise sane people. Tooth fairy is a pertinent example. Perhaps, you meant to say that one has to be decent while expressing ideas about other people's beliefs. That I agree with for sure. Decency is not mutually exclsuive with criticism.

    In fact, mature democracies even allow people with pugnacious opnions to hold forth even when such opnions are contrary to the country's common ethos. The British Muslim cleric, I forget his name, is a case in point. He was not deported even though he demonstrated at funerals of English soldiers.

    @Special status of artists: With all respect, it depends on two things: a) the way a society values its artists b) a common actvity that all artists engage in through their art-communication.

    Journalists for example are allowed to hold forth on sundry issues even without documented expertise primarily because it is their task to hold forth. Artists similarly tend to communicate xyz items through their work. Since their primary task is communication(and what is an artist if she doesn't communicate new ideas/perspectives), they should be allowed to communicate the way they want.

  39. @BongButSceptic, I never did 'causally relate' those two things. Maybe this can be explained better. The reason we respect a person's right to form a belief is that we respect the exercise of their mental autonomy, their thought and reason and so on. And we can respect those mental processes even if we disagree with their conclusions in any given case. But when we do not merely disagree but actively scorn the conclusions, part of the _reason_ is that (in our opinion) they are so poor as to suggest that no real mental faculties have been exercised to begin with. Therefore, when we scorn a person's belief, there is no question of simultaneously respecting his or her right to form it. Because (in our opinion) when it comes to such a belief, no such right could ever really have been exercised.

    Maybe all this is sounding a bit dry and pointles. It's not though. The point is for the liberal to see that, in such cases, she is part of a conflict- an actual conflict, which has to be engaged with on merits. She cannot simply elevate herself above the dust of the arena, by saying, let our views differ ever so widely, but we musn't fight, because we can respect each other's 'rights to our views'. Sometimes you just can't and then (if you really believe in your stance) you have to pit your views against the other and not be cowardly about it.

    (Needless to say, much more cowardly is the zealot who also refuses to engage and instead resorts to violence).

    Because I also think good writing is about courage, and the willingness to fight through a conflict- not always to demand protection from it.

  40. Aditya, actually I agree with you. Respect for a right cannot coexist with disrespect for religion. But here is my proposition: I don't have to respect anything, either anyone's belief, or their right to it. In fact, I don't even have to be polite, much less respect. I have the right to offend as well. All I have to observe is the rule of law.

  41. Sapera & Nila, Thanks for the clarification on the petition ban and that does answer my concerns. I take your words that this isn't a one-point agenda and put my delayed signature to it (for whatever it is worth).

    Though i overall agree about not setting up of an hierarchy of emotions (i do like the term), i wouldn't nod to the specifics in those paragraphs. I know of deeply religious people also who are offended by this threat of violence against artists and it is a moot point as to whether all people claiming to have deeper emotions are deeply religious ? I, for one, don't think so.

    @Jai, And on artists being special, of course every group of humans (classified by vocation or region or religion or language or anything else) think they are special and quite expectedly so. But that alone doesn't qualify them for special rights is my point. I leave it at that as you say you didn't imply such a demand for "special rights" but the tone of a few other articles were clearly so. Sorry if i extrapolated it to you wrongly.

    @Sugandha, I never implied the equalities you've attributed to me. Thanks for the suggestion, anyways.

    @Aditya, I really like the way you have put things and in particular, scorning at a man's belief is tantamount to accusing him of not having exercised his faculty of reason. Spot on.

    @Sood, Except that in this case, it is the rule of law that doesn't allow "offence of religious sentiments".

    Thanks all.

  42. Well, there's that imbalance again! If what Yogesh says is true, then why does the rule of law not apply to artistic sentiment?

    I mean, i'm not going to be so naive as to pretend I don't know WHY, but why does this HAVE to be true? There's no logical case for it (apart from consolidating power and marginalizing minorities).

    And in that case, Nila's assertion also holds, i.e. there IS a hierearchy of emotions. Religious sentiment must for "some reason", supercede all else.

    And if a society can suspend rationality to honor this unfair contract, then Aditya Sudarshan, it must also be irrational then to do the same (i.e. to suspend rationality) vis a vis allowing dissent and plurality. The subtext for the latter being:

    "we don't know how dissent, or free speech will benefit us, even if we loathe the content of such dissent, but we must allow their exposition regardless."

    That is effing all.

    BongButSceptic, right on. The muslim cleric in UK example is perfect. This is why even after all is said and done people want to live in relatively free, democratic societies like Western Europe/US. And money, yes, yes, I know.

  43. Jai - I think Chetan Bhagat had once also done a ridiculous analysis of Gujarat 2002 riots and more or less concluded that Mr Modi was not much of a culprit. He truly belongs to the league of people who will always take middle stance because that is what most people are and that is what his market is. More or less, he said what anyone with a low IQ would like to listen and statistics tell us average IQ can not be high. Look at this: Aamir Khan after watching Slumdog Millionaire said nothing like this happens in India. If he drives his car from Bandra west to east, he will know what happens in India. However, these are all carefully calculated moves by them to win more fans.

  44. We have to also remember CB will have a beef with the Indian liberal / art house crowd who never approves his work. CB as a person will be a good human being, does not hurt cats, does not hurt babies type. Very harmless chap - the type the Great Indian Middle Class will marry their sisters and daughters to.

    But his beef is based on an element of reality - CB is not a good writer, he might be the Dan Brown of India, but then he is only the Dan Brown - he is not even a Stephen King.

    Someone like CB - entitled all his life with the Goldman Sachs background and moving to a popular author status gets the tag of "mediocre writer" (for good reason) will react in such a manner. It is his beef broiling, not his beliefs.

  45. I pondered deeply over this, and what CB said makes perfect sense if you do the following:

    Replace "Extreme Fundamentalists" with "People who can't read my books" and "Liberal Extremists" with "People who don't read my books".

  46. CB's response is not a surprise considering his response towards Hussain in his op in TOI. He displayed the same attitude there plus being one of the aggrieved party then. And I sincerely doubt he had even bothered to look at symbology that purportedly hurt him.

  47. Dunno much, but practically speaking, subhuman portrayals of a person and by extension a people can also have bad consequences (more than burning books, you know) in a very immature world so full of hatred towards THOSE people.

    The 'other' were once Jews. Now it is Muslims. Are we free to say this?

  48. The 'other' were once Jews. Now it is Muslims. Are we free to say this?

    Anon: of course you're free to say this. (You ARE saying it here and, I'm sure, elsewhere.) You're also free to listen to (or shut your ears to) the many alternate views on this subject. What you're NOT free to do (or shouldn't be, in a much better world than the one we live in) is to respond with violence - otherwise you're the one heading down the Nazi path.

  49. Respond with violence? Who has done that? Let us get some sense of proportion back into this whole thing about violence and provocations. Kindly note that Rushdie is alive and well (and may he continue to be and maybe he shall be moved one day to express some sympathy for a million Iraqis who are dead for no fault of theirs).

  50. Kindly note that Rushdie is alive and well

    I take it that completely makes up for the fact that he spent two decades in the shadow of a very public death threat? As for retaining a sense of proportion: everything that happened in Jaipur - including of course the cancellation of Rushdie's video appearance - happened because of a real and proximate threat of violence. No one is criticising the peaceful protests, such as the ones involving the youngsters handing out copies of the Quran to fest attendees.

  51. Not to contradict what i said earlier (or anyone else), but anon might have a point.

    I read this excellently argued piece sometime ago, and thought it was relevant to the discussion.

    Selected quotes:

    "Personally, I thought it was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance between the (relatively) privileged and the (relatively) oppressed. No category is absolute or impermeable, of course; to have death threats publicly uttered against you is an act of oppression. And yet, Salman Rushdie has lived in relative affluence, his physical safety ably defended by the nation-state of his choice. "

    "And Salman Rushdie, defender of rapist Roman Polanski and U.S.'s war against Afghanistan, advocate of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, and disparager of all post-colonial vernacular writing is hardly a poster child for the virtues of a self-righteously unrestricted tongue."

    "One of the posters designed for flashreads has a quote by Salman Rushdie: "Free Speech is the whole ball game. Free Speech is life itself."

    "The hubris of such a sweeping statement does not appeal to me, not when people are fighting to liberate their bodies from physical violence, not when they weigh their words against the impact it will have on their life, and choose silence, or obfuscation, or tempered disagreement because they know that death of words is not actually the same thing as death of a living, breathing body, whether that is of a loved one or one's own."

  52. Speaking of the Koran and book burning: where are the free-speech/book-saving hordes on the Afghanistan US base burning incident? Where is the outrage? The dark hints about fascism on the march? That soon bodies will be in flames (as if that has not happened already, be it viet napalm or the recent gulf/ afghan wars)? Or is that incident "desired" book burning in your book?