We’re not talking about some pavement artist

Salman Rushdie isn’t having it.

“I don’t make my decisions based on 25 goondas at the gate,” says Salman Rushdie tartly…Whether it’s India or England or America, he says, “we cannot allow religious hooligans to place limiting points on thought”. This, he says, is as true about the American religious right as it is about the Sikh mobs in Birmingham that prevented the production of a play. “It’s not specific to any religion or any place,” he adds. “Original thought, original artistic expression is by its very nature questioning, irreverent, iconoclastic…it’s really a decision about what kind of culture we want to be in.”

Quite. And that kind is the kind that allows a wide range of thought, as opposed to the kind that squashes the allowable range of thought into a narrow airless little channel. It’s the choice between breadth on the one hand and choking confinement on the other.

He recounts his meeting with India’s most famous contemporary exile, the artist M F Husain, who he recently met in New York. “This is the grand old master of contemporary Indian painting,” Rushdie declares, his well modulated voice rising with outrage. “We’re not talking about some pavement artist. The idea that this man in his nineties should be forced into exile by his own country is a national disgrace. This is somebody who should be given the highest state honours instead of being treated like a pariah.” If India wishes to seem like a cultured country by the rest of the world, he says emphatically, it cannot treat its artists thus—”this has to stop”. So, too, in the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen…”I think we are in a dangerous position now in India where we accept censorship by very small numbers of violent people. Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”

Censorship by very small numbers of violent (or sometimes merely noisy) people – that’s what more and more of the world looks like these days, and what a horrible appearance it is. Let’s not have it.

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