‘ At the time of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century, the great writers and intellectuals of that movement, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, knew that their real enemy was not the state but the Church. Earlier, when the mighty Rabelais was under fire from the Church, it was the King of France who defended him on the grounds of his genius. What an age that must have been, in which a writer could be defended because of his talent! After Rabelais, the 18th century writers of the Enlightenment insisted that no Church, even a Church with an inquisition at its disposal, could be allowed to place limiting points on thought. The so-called crimes of blasphemy and heresy were the targets because those were the methods used by the Church to limit discussion; and the modern idea of free speech was arrived at by defeating the notion that these were offences and that these could be used as ways of silencing expression.
Now, there is a tendency to say, “That’s a Western idea. That’s not how we think over here.” But the Indian tradition also includes from its very earliest times, very powerful defences of free expression. When Deepa Mehta and I were working on the film of Midnight’s Children, one of the things that we often discussed was a text dear to our hearts, the Natya Shastra. In the Natya Shastra we see the Gods being a little bit bored in heaven and deciding they wanted entertainment. And so a play was made, about the war between Indra and the Asuras, telling how Indra used his mighty weapons to defeat the demons. When the play was performed for the Gods, the demons were offended by their portrayal. The demons felt that the work insulted them as demons. That demoness was improperly criticized. And they attacked the actors; whereupon Indra and Brahma came to the actors’ defence. Gods were positioned at all four corners of the stage, and Indra declared that the stage would be a space where everything could be said and nothing could be prohibited.
So in one of the most ancient of Indian texts we find as explicit and extreme a defence of freedom of expression as you can find anywhere in the world. This is not alien to India. This is our culture, our history and our tradition which we are in danger of forgetting and we would do well to remember it’ Salman Rushdie
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