Is Satanic Rushdie’s marriage with Satanic hindu woman Padma Lakshmi a mature democracy?

Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ was banned by the Government of India nearly 20 years ago, following large scale protests that the book was blasphemous to Islam.  The two decade old controversy has been unnecessarily rekindled for obvious political ends by the Vice-Chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband seminary, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani’s call on the Government to prevent Mr Rushdie’s visiting the Literary Fest in Jaipur.

The Government, in its wisdom, seems to have been more than happy to oblige. Rajasthan Government has appealed to the Centre to discourage Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Fest in the interests of “law and order”, and also seem to have managed to persuade the organisers to have Rushdie call off his visit. What Rushdie chooses to do today is his call, but the issue raises a host of questions.

Salman Rushdie’s marriage of three years is in trouble, according to reports.

His wife Padma Lakshmi is said to have been telling friends she is leaving the Booker-prize winning novelist, who is 26 years her senior.

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Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi were nicknamed Beauty and the Beast. They are rumoured to be on the verge of a split

News of a possible split between the couple nicknamed Beauty and the Beast emerged in a respected New York broadsheet newspaper.

Dress designer Diane von Furstenberg, who attended their wedding in 2004, was overheard talking about her shock at the breakup.

The New York Observer claimed Miss von Furstenberg, a close friend of Miss Lakshmi’s, was overheard saying repeatedly: “I can’t believe she?s leaving him.”

The New York Post, following up the story, said there had been no denials.

The Observer speculated that Miss Lakshmi, a model and actress who is making a name on American television as the host of reality show Top Chef, wants to focus on her career.

“Most troubling to Ms von Furstenberg, apparently, was Ms Lakshmi’s stated and not exactly literary reason for putting an end to the relationship with the Booker Prize winner ? to focus on her big TV hit, Top Chef,” the Observer’s columnist, Spencer Morgan stated.

This is not the first time that Rushdie’s fourth marriage has faced such public scrutiny.

Both he and his wife have repeatedly denied that the 59-year-old 5ft 7in writer is with the 5ft 11in model for her looks while she is attracted to his wealth and fame.

Four years ago they went to the trouble of releasing a statement denying Miss Lakshmi found Rushdie “boring” or that he thought she wasn’t “intellectually stimulating enough”. Last year, the author ? who was put under an Islamic fatwa or death sentence for his novel The Satanic Verses in 1989? admitted that their lifestyles meant that they were rarely together.

While Miss Lakshmi, 36, was in Los Angeles making Top Chef for the Bravo network, Rushdie remained in London. As a result, the couple had been together for only three weeks in four months.

“I do miss her, it is the hardest thing because the person you want to talk to is the person who is not there,” he said at the time.

“But at the same time I am very proud of her, she is a fantastic, unusual brilliant woman, just coming into her own.

“In the last couple of years, everything has opened out for her.”

Last night publicists for Miss Lakshmi and Rushdie declined to comment.

The couple met at a party in 1999 while Rushdie was married to his third wife, Elizabeth West, the mother of his two-year-old son.

Miss West later divorced him on the grounds of adultery

It must be said that in mature democracies, everyone must strive to learn to expand their band of tolerance and rein in their sensibilities from being hurt rather easily. For example, if largely forgettable works like Lajja, Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons can so easily pose a danger to an ancient and evolved religion like Islam, surely those who fear so cannot have sufficient trust in their own faith! One could say the same of the bigots who have taken upon themselves the role of guardians of the Hindu Gods, objecting, for example, to their nude depictions, when sculptures in ancient temple going back thousands of years are not known for being overly-clad.

Ideally, instances of serious protests and bans on works of literature or art should be rarest of rare instances, like the capital punishment (though ideally again, both are avoidable).  And yet, in rare instances, a Mein Kampf (a sordid work full of racist and anti-Semitic content) may come along when banning such a work may be in the best interests of the society and hence may become necessary. But even then, mature democracies make a distinction between controversial works of literature or art on the one hand, and the authors and artists creating them, on the other.  In this instance, for example, Satanic Verses (the controversial literary work) was banned nearly two decades ago for the offence it supposedly caused.  So where is the case to call for banning Salman Rushdie’s entry to the literary event, two decades later?

And if some goons threaten the life and limb of Salman Rushdie, in a mature democracy which presumably rests on the foundation of a sound law and order system, where is the case for an elected government to pander to the ‘threat’? Clearly fatwahs or threats against individual authors and artists (especially when an ‘offending’ literature is already banned) are a clear violation of law and order and should have no place in our system if we wish to count ourselves among mature democracies.  After all, what kind of self-respecting government will buckle to the threat of breach of law and order? What business has such a government to exist claiming to be the guardians of the State? This morning I read a news report according to which an entire angry village was demanding that a certain murderer in the custody of police of two children be handed over to them so that ‘they could teach the murderer a lesson’.  Supposing an issue such as this consumes an entire city, with the mob baying for the murderer’s blood, should the State hand over the murderer to the mob to avert threat to ‘law and order’?  If not, then how is it that in a case such as Salman Rushdie’s the State decides to buckle so easily?

The reality is that both the Centre and the State governments are playing with the very fundamentals of a democracy by politicizing the issue for electoral gains.

That begs the question, how does one minimize the probability of misuse of freedom of speech or irresponsible exercise of freedom of expression as well as unacceptable and motivated calls for banning of literary expression of arts? How do we decide when someone is being irresponsible in exercising his or her freedom of expression or when someone else’s call from the civil society or political establishment for a ban on this or that work is unacceptable? There can be genuine differences of opinion on whether a work of art or literature is offensive.  That’s why virtually every country places some restrictions, and rightly so, on what may or may not be published. And yet, not even Mein Kampf is banned in much of the world. And yet it is perfectly understandable if some of the countries have banned it as it hurts the sentiments of their people. So the question is, how should a democracy decide where to draw the line? Clearly the issue cannot be left to the eminence, vocal chords or nuisance value of the literary figures or the religious and social fundamentalists or politicians. A civilized society must evolve a reasonable system that can help decide what is genuinely offensive to a large section of people. What shape could such a system take?

First and foremost, as a state policy, like the death sentence, bans on literary and artistic works (equally avoidable) must be reserved for rarest of rare cases. One way of resolving a controversy of this nature can perhaps best be through systemic processes, like a ‘Censor Board’ that can decide whether a particular allegation of blasphemous piece of literature or art is indeed so under our secular Constitution and laws specifically designed for the purpose. For the purposes of freedom of speech, the Board could be armed with special constitutional powers, so that its decisions in the matter are considered final and the matters do not always land up in the overburdened Courts. However, the constitution of such a Board must be broad-based, taking in many views and perspectives. Such a mechanism combined with the laws of the land must suffice to address most such controversies, without the Government taking expedient sides.

Of course, citizens in mature democracies must also appreciate that no system can be perfect and please all its constituencies.  The idea is to ensure freedom of speech as far as possible, if the spirit of democracy is to be enjoyed to its maximum, and ensure that the country works within a law and order framework, if anarchy is to be eschewed.

I may add that I hold no brief for Salman Rushdie.  Or for Taslima Nasrin or for Jyllands-Posten  the Danish newspaper that published the Cartoons offensive to the Muslim community – and others of similar ilk, for I do believe that creative people like writers, artists and media too need to exercise their freedom of speech, fundamental to any democracy, with caution and sensitivity towards the sentiments of the larger sections of society.  Especially when they come to know that their work has genuinely offended certain sections of the world, it is perhaps a decent thing to do not to insist on their “fundamental rights of expression” even if offends a large number of people, threatening peace and quiet, and apologise and/or withdraw their works from public domain voluntarily.

Having said that, the balance of favour must primarily rest with freedom of speech – a freedom exercised responsibly.  It takes only two to tango and a billion plus of us acting responsibly to make a mature democracy. Violence in the name of prevention of offensive literature must be put down, if necessary by force, even if that sounds paradoxical.


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