L'affaire Rushdie and free speech - Part III

IN Censorship | 02/02/2012
While the dust has settled over 'the Ghost who (didn't) walk' in Jaipur, the debate over whether the entire episode destroyed or protected freedom of expression rages on.
FREE SPEECH HUB brings together a quick compilation of different strands of opinion on this issue, not all of which we may agree with. In Part III, MUSHIRUL HASAN says that there are other ‘more important’ issues for the media and muslims to deal with right now.

 ‘The Rushdie debate has exhausted itself’

(Reprinted from the Indian Express, 30 Jan, 2012)

Historian Mushirul Hasan, currently director-general of the National Archives of India, was the pro vice-chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia in April 1992. When he voiced his opposition to the Indian government’s 1988 decision to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, he was attacked on campus, by those who objected to his views. Hasan did not leave JMI — in fact, he returned to an acclaimed tenure as vice-chancellor. Deepu Sebatian Edmond talks to him about the Rushdie affair, then and now.

The Rushdie affair is back. It has refused to die, or be resolved.

Both the media, and men of faith among Muslims, should go beyond the Rushdie affair. During the last 25 years or so, many major issues have emerged that concern the future of this country as well as the future of Muslims. The focus should be on those issues rather than the Rushdie affair... We manufacture reactions. We go to the wrong quarters to elicit opinion. If you go to the fraudulent, second-grade leaders, then you can expect a predictable reaction. Because they would play to the gallery, and want to incite passions. If you go to the Deoband Ulema, they are in the business of taking a position... If you go to the Pope and ask for his opinion on birth control, do you expect his opinion to be different?

But in this case, Deoband set the ball rolling by issuing a press release.

One should also accept the fact that, just like with the Pope, whose diktat is not accepted by the entire Roman Catholic world, similarly, the fatwa of Deoband is not binding on everybody. It is binding on those who want to be bound by it. So, how does the fatwa of Deoband reflect the Indian Muslim community’s opinion on these matters? We are creating in our imaginations, centres of bigotry and imagination, which are actually not there.

It will be 24 years this September since the ban was imposed. What do you think will be the response if it was lifted now?

The debate has exhausted itself, I think. Let the Muslim community reflect on its own status and position in the society. Let them seek empowerment from whatever sources are available to them. Let the present dispensation — the government — recognise the importance of integrating Muslims into the nation-building project. All other issues are subjectively important, but objectively, not.

You have written on Muslim issues, you must have had a sense of what Muslims felt back then. Were they offended in ‘88 or ‘92?

This is not an issue that Muslims, on their own, initiate. The point is that the insult and the offence to the Prophet no man of faith will accept.... If you try and caricature the Prophet and Islam, obviously Muslims are going to get very, very angry.

Books continue to be banned even now. And there have been people who have traced all these bans to this one ban, saying this is where it all started. And that we have kept quiet and let it be...

That is now for the government to decide. The book has been banned for a very long time. I think this will create an unnecessary divide where none exists. There are a lot of books that are banned in this country. Why single out one? I don’t have an answer to that. 

I believe that back then you had said that banning it would only give ‘Satanic Verses’ a lot of publicity.

What I said 25 years ago, or 30 years ago, is not important, really. I am talking of how we should stop using different opportunities to beat the Muslims with. This must stop.

There was talk that whatever happened had something to do with the UP elections.

I don’t think the Muslim voter is even aware of Rushdie’s existence or the banning of his book. I don’t think that in the 60 constituencies where Muslims are more than 30-40 per cent, even 1 per cent knows that.

How influential is the Deoband, are their press releases and fatwas taken very seriously?

It is not binding. It is binding to the men of faith, but it’s not a law. There are different interpretations. The Barelvis don’t abide by it, and the Barelvis happen to be in majority in this country. I am a Shia, for example — I don’t subscribe to what Deoband has to say about Islam. It’s like the Shankaracharyas — there are different schools, there are different Mutts. Why don’t we recognise the diversity in the understanding and interpretation? In the everyday life of a Muslim or a Hindu, religious tenets do not come into the picture.

How did the community respond when you were assaulted on campus?  

I think the community realised that the whole campaign was politically orchestrated by certain elements within the campus and outside. That I was wronged. Which is why I was able to go back to the university — although after a great deal of suffering — complete my term as vice-chancellor without any trouble. There was sufficient conviction in me; I was going to stay in Jamia. I was not going to run away. What I was trying to communicate through my stand has gone down well with those concerned. The position of a liberal intellectual is vindicated.

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