Two significant political voices have sidestepped the party line to speak out against the regressive politics of their organisations. The Congress’s P. Chidambaram has declared that it was wrong of the Rajiv Gandhi government to ban The Satanic Verses 27 years ago, and the BJP’s Arun Jaitley has said that the Supreme Court has taken a “conservative view” on Section 377 of the IPC, which is 50 years out of date. Both used the somewhat neutral ground of a literary festival to make these observations. While they are to be congratulated for speaking in a human voice, which is almost inaudible in the polarised cacophony that all too often commandeers the political discourse, they may equally be called to account for failing to take action in the past — despite ample opportunity.
Indeed, Jaitley still enjoys the opportunity, and can urge his government to do the court’s bidding. In December 2013, the SC had overruled the Delhi High Court, which had found some provisions of Section 377 unconstitutional and in breach of fundamental rights. In January 2014, the courts dismissed review petitions filed by the UPA government and Naz Foundation, the original plaintiff in the matter. It stood by its prior opinion that Section 377 is to be addressed by legislatures, not the judiciary. The UPA may not have had the time to follow up, as parties began to gear up for elections shortly thereafter, but the NDA government that succeeded it could have legislated Section 377 off the statute books — a project that, by all accounts, would have enjoyed support across party lines.
Not long ago, P. Chidambaram was one of the most prominent ministers in the UPA 2 government and, had he felt strongly about the ban culture that threatens to hold the creative community to ransom, he could have weighed in on the side of freedom of expression. The Rajiv Gandhi administration had acted in haste over Salman Rushdie’s novel, banning imports in October 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the book the next year, in February 1989. At the urging of Syed Shahabuddin, India became the first nation to block distribution of the book, and 10 countries followed its example within a month. This series of strictures contributed to the climate of opinion against the book, and may have given momentum to the reaction from Iran. The ban on The Satanic Verses remains in force in India. A succession of governments that volubly support free speech have not rolled it back. Like Section 377, it remains an anachronism in a polity that has moved on, and deserves better from its leaders.