Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN A MORE innocent time, all it would have deserved were the jokes. So it’s the Queen’s sword that finally caught up with Salman Rushdie — Inshallah, it’s the only sword that will. And sharper jabs in that vein. Or one could have laughed at the increasing and ironic consonances between Naipaul and Rushdie — always polar extremities in any literary argument. Now both knighted. Both critical of political Islam. Both completely adopted by Great Britian.

Instead, the curious incident of Sir Salman Rushdie has typhooned into a big political storm and one is required to have serious views on it. This oughtn’t be the case, but it is. And there are good reasons for it. Rushdie stopped being merely a writer the day the fatwa was issued against him 20 years ago. He became a public phenomenon, a battlefield over which large ideas were fought. He came to represent the right to freedom of speech and expression. A cardinal for any civilised society.

His detractors will say he was an unworthy cause: Satanic Verses was not a good book, and his writing since has been on a declining graph. They will say he is a conceited, self-obsessed man who turned his comparatively secure exile into a PR myth, whereas, as one incensed British columnist points out, others who defended him suffered much worse fates. Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated Satanic Versesinto Japanese, was knifed to death in July 1991; Ettore Caprioli, its Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing that same month; and William Nygard, its Norwegian publisher survived an assassination attempt in October 1993.

Which brings one to the nub of the thing. The furore over Rushdie’s knighthood is not centred on his literary merit or his pleasantness quotient. It is about tremendously fundamental debates. The twist is this time the opposition to him comes both from the Islamic world and Britain. The different nature of those oppositions, of course, tells its own story.

In Britian, the carping is mostly about Rushdie’s ingratitude. Some months ago at a festival in Jaipur, as sundry journalists were introduced to the autumnal lion, he growled, “I’ve always admired TEHELKA but it’s never returned the compliment.” He was referring to a TEHELKA story that had been critical of his work when his own columns have praised the paper in the past. That need for returned compliments has come back to haunt him.

When the fatwa was announced, Britain had thrown a security cover over him that cost its taxpayers 10 million pounds over as many years. And though he had lampooned Mrs Thatcher as the fascist “Mrs Torture” in the book, she stood by him. The British ambassador was ordered back from Tehran, the Iranian charge d’affaires was expelled, and Scotland Yard instructed to spend whatever it took to keep him safe from avenging swords. This was the mark of a truly civilised society. But when things eased up, instead of staying in the country that had protected him, Rushdie hightailed it to Manhattan. His parting shots denounced Britain for its general provincialism and “backbiting and incestuous” literary culture. New York, he declared, was more worthy of a grand cosmopolite like him.

Justifiably, some of Britain’s cognoscenti haven’t taken well to the new honours being heaped on him and the fact that Rushdie says he’s “thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour” — never mind it’s provincial anachronism. As John Sutherland, a former Booker Prize judge, says with characteristic British restraint: “Rushdie is a supra-national, post-colonial nomad. It’s very hard to say who owns him. Yet now he has pledged himself to the service of the monarch! For the writer of the Satanic Verses, which was extremely rude about England, it’s certainly unusual.”

THE OPPOSITION from the Islamic end, unfortunately, holds no surprises. Religious heads in Kashmir say Britian must apologise as Rushdie’s knighthood has “hurt the sentiments of Muslims across the world.” Some obscure Iranian group has announced a generous bounty on his head. Pakistan has equated the knighting to insulting Islam, and Ijaz-ul-Haq, its minister for religious affairs, has put his foot in it by saying honoring Rushdie is tantamount to justifying suicide bombers. Or something to that broad effect. A hundred odd youth have burned effigies of Rushdie. And Kashmir’s Maulana Mufti Bashiruddin says without irony that a death fatwa issued by him against Rushdie is still valid so the knighthood is “quite shocking”.

It’s important to remember that world media today has a dangerous way of blurring perspective. A hundred youth burning effigies of Rushdie do not the Muslim world make. Nor does Ijaz-ul-Haq or Maulana Bashiruddin or a score of bountyseeking organisations. Yet they do serve to crystallise the heart of the argument.

The most severe of Rushdie’s critics in Britain swear they would still support spending another 10 million to protect him. Because at the heart of the Rushdie debate is this crucial idea: the right to offend against the right to assault.

The freedom of expression debate often gets snarled in questions of how far one should go. It’s time one said it aloud: In a civilised world, the right to offend or, to use the more emotionally charged term, “hurt” anyone’s sentiment, be it Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Buddhist, should be inviolable. You can argue the merits and demerits of the offence: is it good art or bad art? Is it in poor taste or does it truly challenge received notions? Does it go too far or does it fall short? You can argue it, but you cannot prohibit it. And you most certainly cannot assault it.

How far should be a matter of personal discretion not physical threat. The spectre of “hurting feelings” cannot curb the fundamental human right to express oneself peacefully. One is tempted to say that the real crisis of Islam — if any — is that it tends to over react to bad art: bad Danish cartoons, bad Bangladeshi writer, and for too long, an overrated supra-national one. Surely a religion and culture as old and glorious as Islam can shrug its shoulder at a little badly-done offence.

Dilip Chitre Poet
Hasn’t Rushdie already arrived as a writer? Arriving in BuckinghamPalace shouldn’t be important. It’s like a scene from one of his own novels. Perhaps the UK government is turning magic-realist!

Prakash Javadekar BJP Spokesperson
We’ve always said freedom of expression is not the freedom to offend. In this case, clearly the community’s feelings have been hurt severely. But Rushdie shouldn’t be seen only as the author of Satanic Verses

Amit Chaudhuri Writer
It’s very nice to be conferred awards, of course, but things like knighthoods should be irrelevant in the life of a writer. The protests against it are poorly judged, politically instigated and plain crazy

If knighting Salman Rushdie is a political act that will drive home that point, more power to its sword.