India as a democracy has been a guiding beacon to the world since its birth as a free nation. The values enshrined in the Indian constitution have for long given hope and aspirations to its citizens and stood as an example to the world. The “rule of law” espoused by the British system and the concept of “natural rights and justice” espoused by the USA have gone a long way in shaping the Indian constitution. But to reduce the Indian constitution to these fundamentals would be a great mistake; the edicts encompassed in the Indian constitution have gone much beyond that.
One of the basic fundamentals on which the Indian constitution stands on is the concept of secularism. At the backdrop of independence with the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan there was a strong clamour to declare India a “Hindu republic”. The makers of the Indian constitution alongwith the government rightly decided against this and choose to declare India a democratic secular state instead. The Indian constitution while standing steadfast on its secular credentials however does not negate religion instead it chooses to stay at an equal distance from all religions. Thus the constitution of India while believing in secularism has never neither negated the need of religion in private space nor interfered too much in it with state action. This principle has held India a country of multilateral hues together for the past 60 years.
However in recent times we have witnessed a rapid transgression of this space by the theological right. The space that was left open for the society to fill in by the Indian constitution is being taken over by the theological right .This theological right of any religion invariably produces polarized reactions among other communities thus jostling for space in an invertible rat race which eventually damages the fabric which holds the country together. It is in light of this argument that the recent Rushdie and Taslima affair should be discussed and analysed.
Literary critics have often argued that the “The Satanic Verses” cannot be counted among Rushdie’s best works but it was undoubtedly the one which brought him the greatest fame. But the fundamental debate in the “Rushdie affair” which was to take place in the literary annals instead chose to be battled in the streets. The Iranian government which issued a fatwa on him long back has perhaps since forgotten the whole Rushdie affair but a section of people with vested interests in India continue to rattle the issue perhaps with the hope to gain public visibility and mileage. It is one thing to act as a custodian of a religion but it is something entirely else to act as the custodian of the collective intelligence of the community. And it is the later that the theological right seems to be interested in. Instead of perhaps inviting Rushdie to a debate and engaging him on the finer points of religion and popular discourse they choose to take the streets which resulted in the lost of lives. The fact that in 1990 Rushdie had published an essay In Good Faith to appease his critics and issued an apology, in which he reaffirmed his respect for Islam, has been conveniently ignored.
The Jaipur Literary Festival was pushed to the background and the entry of Salman Rushdie became the focal point. Finer details like Salman Rushdie issuing an apology or the fact that as a PIO card holder he doesn’t need permission to enter his motherland were conveniently ignored. The Government which should have steeled up to the threats and ensured a safe passage instead buckled under pressure and facilitated in the removal of Rushdie’s entry in the festival. Such directions do not auger well for a democracy. Instead of urging the Islamic communities to read, understand and question for themselves the Islamist theologians have taken upon themselves to be the vanguards of the Muslim thinking. In the process they have perhaps conveniently swept aside that Islam commands “read” as the first word in the Holy Koran(Verse 96:1)
The case of the removal of Ramanujan’s essay on Ramayana is equally bizzare. The Hindu right has believed in the concept that Ramayana and Lord Ram can be defined only on the basis of Ramanand Sagar epic serial. In the process they brushed aside the centuries old storytelling traditions, the cultures of the tribes and their beliefs. Ramanujan in his essay had discussed the 300 different versions of Ramayana and tried to analyse it from an academic and social point of view. It was almost a pathbreaking approach towards understanding the epic “Ramayana”. Yet the “right” refused to buy these arguments .It did not gel well with their notion of Lord Ram which has stemmed from a hysteria called Ramanand Sagar’s “Ramayana”.
Modeled on a western concept of one religion one god and one book and in their earnest search for this unity; the “right” perhaps forgot that Hinduism is modeled on diverse gods and this diversity is its beauty. Hinduism cannot be defined by the western connotations of one book and one god, the theological or rather the religious right choose to ignore this. And in the midst of all these discussions and the opinion of learned authors like Romila Thapar the Delhi University buckled under pressure and removed the essay from its syllabus. An issue which was perhaps to be debated and discussed on historical and academic levels became a muscle power show where eventually academic search for truth buckled under pressure and gave in.
Numerous other incidents the Taslima Nasreen affair, the Rohington Mistry affair have illustrated that the space in India for ideological discourses is fast shrinking .In the hope of attaining political mileage or perhaps even visibility the “right” have put onto themselves to question each and every thought that has evolved and is evolving and earmark and ban those which do not “conform” to their notions.
Ideological space is necessary for the growth of a nation and a society. Sometimes it may transgress into convenient social customs (Taslima Nasreen) and sometimes into the religious domain. Yet in the ideological fermentation of a society this is indeed necessary and important. Every system evolves from time to time and this system must be questioned for it to change and developed. If Copernicus or Galileo would not have chosen to defy the Church in their quest for ideas perhaps the world would have been a worse off place. But they choose to defy the norms and involve themselves in discourses which not only changed the society but changed the world.
A thought, an idea, a book or a painting can never challenge an institution like religion. There is no question of The Satanic verse standing out as a threat to the almighty God or for that matter Ramanujan’s essay challenging the existence of Lord Ram. However what it does is it encourages others to think and question and reaffirm their beliefs. Ideological thoughts and ideas need to be defeated by counter ideology and counter thoughts and not by banning them as heresy. This is because when we do the latter we stagnate the society. A student challenging Ramanujan’s essay will never see the light of the day because there is no essay to counter in the first place itself. The right chooses to take away this space by muscle power in the process throttling down their version of history, religion and society down the throats of the masses. The idea must be not to encourage thoughts which hurt religious sentiments but to encourage questions. History has shown that a society that has asked itself questions on religion, history and society has developed better foresight and better understanding of the world around them. Modernity or progress does not come in terms of food habits, dressing sense or the way people interact it comes in the form of the ideas that we discuss and analyse, modernity and progress is a state of mind.
Society and religion are two intrinsic fundamentals of a man which have for long coexisted in the Indian imagination. Thus our concept of religion very often defines our concept of society. The right often talks about a golden Indian past and cultural heritage. This Indian cultural heritage boasts of the Khajuraho temples, an epic scientific research called the Kamasutra or perhaps the foremost example of affirmative state action of a socialist state when the Mauryan rulers gave pension to the prostitutes of the country once they became old. While not going into the ideological questions of “good” or “bad” in the present context; one wonders whether any of these would have been possible today. In the quest for modernity have we perhaps yielded our ideological reasoning to conformity of a common “rightist” past?