South Asians generally hate being made uncomfortable. Whatever is slightly prickly is greatly disturbing to most of them. Alberuni was not too off the mark when he said that the Hindus (which in those palmy days meant Indians) were great status-quo-ists, easily offended and opposed to the very idea of change. A millennium down the line, those sentiments are alive and kicking.
Sample the latest hare-brained order of the Delhi High Court asking Facebook and Google to remove ‘objectionable content’. The sheer practical impossibility of such a Tughlaq-esque farman notwithstanding, there are deeper issues of offensiveness and tolerance involved here. Who determines what is offensive? One may fall back on the IPC logic and delegate that power to the judge, but is the situation today the same as in the late 19th century when a widely circulated publication was assured of being read by every literate person in the country? The surfeit of information means that what is controversial and insulting will die a natural death in 48 hours (the average lifespan of an online publication) unless a ruckus is created over it. What are the chances that one would have searched for the facebook community that insults Prophet Muhammad, Islam, India, Hinduism unless one saw it on the news first?
Similar is the case with the visit of Salman Rushdie. I am no great admirer of his works. The best of them, Midnight’s Children, was insufferably boring and the linguistic gymnastics would make one want to run for the hills. But we are not really judging literary merit here, are we? The moot question is whether a person, otherwise persona grata, should be denied permission to visit a particular country because a section of that country’s citizens don’t like him visiting? The answer in my opinion is an unequivocal No. Agreed, his works may have hurt the sentiments of Muslims. Agreed again that he stands by what he has written. So what? India is not a state with Islam as the state religion, just in the same way that it is not a Hindu Rashtra. Exactly how many citizens need to be offended for the state to take their side? This post, for example, if widely circulated may invite dislike from 50% of its readers. Is that a large enough number? Or do we need absolute majority here? This reductio ad absurdum argument points us to the slippery slope where intolerance leads us. Tomorrow we may want to shut up every voice that disagrees with us or has a contrary point to make. A North Korea on a humongous scale is what we would be then. The mind boggles at the thought.