After the attack on the writer, memory of the poet

Insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega (You will not grow up Hindu or Muslim, The only identity you will have will be that of a human)

Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines, rendered soothing by Mohammad Rafi’s voice, come to mind as I read about the horrific bombing that left writer Salman Rushdie fighting for his life. In recent years, I have taken to the lines on several occasions – when Mohammed Ahlaq was lynched, when frenzied communal mobs torched homes and left more than 50 people dead in northeast Delhi, and after the many incidents that have virtually normalized hatred in the country. But I can’t help but heed Sahir’s call for humanity when debates over how to express community identity and restrictions on individual choice light the air, not just in the country but in other parts of the world – these are times when even food choices and dress are embattled.

As a non-believer, leaning towards atheism, I may be something of a stranger to these conversations. Why should someone aloof – and dare I say critical, sometimes even irreverent towards – religion even have a stake in such matters? But then the almost primal need to question identities takes over. History tells us that just as humans have forged identities, they have also tried to push the boundaries of those relationships and find flaws in them. The genealogy of heresy is almost as old as that of religion. Because, as Sahir wrote, “qudrat ne to banaai thi ek hi duniya hamne use Hindu aur Musalmaan banaayaa” (Nature made the world, we humans create Hindus and Muslims). And on another occasion,Aasmaan pey hai Khuda, aur zameen pey hum / Aaj kal woh est taraf dekhta hai kum” (God lives in heaven, we live on Earth. These days, he rarely looks at us)

Artists and writers – Rushdie, for example – have sometimes made their profession the oracle of apostasy. Unsurprisingly, opprobrium followed. Not just religious scholars. But also fellow artists. In a well-known war of words in the pages of The Guardian, John Le Carré referenced Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and said, “There is no law in life or nature that says great religions can be insulted with impunity”.

There were many salient points in Le Carré’s criticisms, particularly his advocacy of empathy for religious beliefs, and his appeal to artists’ freedom advocates for being blindsided by the power relations that drive people to violence to ‘defend’ their beliefs – although the inclinations of Rushdie’s attacker are unclear, he has lived with death threats for more than 30 years now. But calls for a suspension of criticism of religious beliefs, especially those most beleaguered, speak of a deficit in the world today. It tells of the lack of safeguard, for which modernity, at best, has sought to provide an ephemeral plea: freedom for the heretic to speak his mind. A few weeks ago, his party, the TMC, distanced itself from Mahua Moitra’s comments on the goddess Kali after the MP supported a heretical view of the deity. The unwritten manifesto of tolerance today has very little room for the apostate.

Heretics, of course, have not always been unspiritual. In fact, spirituality, they have been at the heart of some of the most acerbic criticisms of power practices and forced boundaries between people that religions often create. The Bengali beggar Lalon Fakir, for example, sang “Shunnot dile hoy musholman/Narir tobe ki hoy bidhan/Bamun chini poita proman/Bamni chini ki prokare”. (Circumcision marks a Muslim man, what then marks a Muslim woman? We can recognize the Brahman by the sacred thread. But how to recognize the Brahman woman?)

Lalon was born around the time the East India Company conquered Bengal and by the time he breathed his last – after a life of over 100 years – a muted form of modernity was taking shape in India, as in many other parts of the colonized world. . It seems that in the more than two hundred years between Lalon Fakir and Rushdie, societies have lost the ability to take offense at religion. The heretic paid the price.

This is of course not to trace the lineage of Rushdie’s criticism to Sufi-influenced thinkers like Lalon. They lived in different times and writing in English, in any case, confers privileges of its own. The codes and norms governing behavior towards religion are different today and increasingly cumbersome. The boundaries between blasphemy or irreverence and bigotry are not always clear. Maybe they never were. But in a time when hate stories seek to deepen schisms between communities, how does cleanliness protect the critic – like Rushdie – caught in the crossfire? Is it by a call to suspend criticism, like Le Carré who qualifies satanic verses as “useless”? Or is it by viewing the author’s heresy as something as basic to humanity as belief in religion so that the language of tolerance finds a way to embrace the apostate? In 1959, following decolonization and socialist experiments in several parts of the world, Sahir – a communist himself who wrote several songs criticizing religion – raised this possibility: “You badle hue waqt ki pehchan banega, Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega(You will be the marker of a new era. One where the offspring of a human has no other identity than that of a human).

As Rushdie fights for his life, we are far from close.

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