After being disallowed from shooting in India, the filming of Salman Rushdie´s Midnight´s Children has been booted out of Sri Lanka as well. The self-appointed Prevention of Vice and Maintenance of Virtue Squad of Sri Lankan Muslims ruled that Midnight´s Children was not to be filmed in the country and President Chandrika Kumaratunga´s characteristically indecisive government acquisced. The permission that had already been granted the BBC for filming was revoked.
This ban is the latest in a series of such refusals that have afflicted Sri Lanka of late. Stanley J. Tambiah´s Buddhism Betrayed? was banned in 1997 because a group of Buddhist ethno-cultural vigilantes decided that it hurt their feelings. Earlier, proscriptions were placed on Satanic Verses and Lajja because they apparently “hurt” the feelings of the Muslim community. A few years ago, the University of Colombo banned the screening of the Indian film Bombay because some Muslim students complained to the authorities that it would hurt their feelings. This, despite the fact that in neighbouring India, with its large Muslim minority, the film had already become a box-office success.
There is a clearly defined parochial tradition within Sri Lanka, which cuts across ethno-religious boundaries. Every time there are calls for a ban on a book, film, or when there is another equally nihilistic and anti-intellectual demand, the justification is the “hurt” that is felt by one community or another. The fact is that ban calls are no more than crass exhibitions of the power and influence of a community. On this particular occasion, what “hurt” there was, was rooted more on emotion and lack of relative enlightenment than on hard facts. For example, none of the supporters of the present ban has elaborated on what exactly is offensive in Midnight´s Children or in the film script. More to the point, the book has been available in Colombo bookstores for over a decade and it is still there. For over ten years, it hurt no one´s feelings. It was simply read and enjoyed.
It is clear that the main reason preventing Midnight´s Children from being filmed in Sri Lanka is that Salman Rushdie wrote it. When Rushdie came out with Satanic Verses, he wrote himself out of the Muslim world. Technically that should be quite all right, if that is what he wants. After all, the Holy Quran says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, and “Truth stands out clear from Evil” (S2, V256), which seems to indicate that a choice is there to be made. But as the present ban indicates, some members of the Sri Lankan Muslim citizenry have taken it upon themselves to police and champion the cause of what they think and interpret as Islam, regardless of the rights of many non-Muslims as well as Muslims who do not share such parochial thinking.
What the ´morally upright´ religious commandos fail to grasp is that they are doing more harm than good to Islam. For, their actions serve only to reinforce in the minds of non-Muslim Sri Lankans the image of the “fundamentalist, intolerant and irrational Muslim” that has been constructed by Western media and politics over the last two decades or so. It is dangerous, in multi-cultural societies, for a religion to be interpreted so prejudicially. By projecting, through their politicians, their imams and the heads of madrassahs, an image of a persecuted community for the most trivial of reasons and holding a vigilante outlook of the world, Sri Lankan Muslims may find their intolerance manipulated and used for justification or legitimisation of anti-Muslim sentiments.
Most Muslims, irrespective of the intensity of their religious fervour, seem keen on banning Midnight´s Children. They express this opinion either vocally or, by keeping mum on the issue, passively. Those Muslims who do not support the ban are in danger of being branded as traitors, sell-outs to the West, and in the extreme, as apostates. The unambiguous message is “toe the line or else…”. While that might explain the deafening silence regarding the ban from Muslims who do not approve of it, sooner or later Muslims of Sri Lanka will have to decide what exactly their role in Sri Lanka is. If they do not want to be considered the perennial “Other”, they have to decide how far they are going to allow their leaders, self-appointed or otherwise, to lead them thus.
Of course, this kind of narrow-minded behaviour is hardly a prerogative of the Muslim community. It is strongly entrenched in Sri Lankan society as a whole. Sinhalaacademics who opposed the ban on Tambiah´s Buddhism Betrayed? were also demonised as traitors and LTTE sympathisers. One is reminded of how, years ago, novelist Martin Wickramasinghe was castigated for allegedly hurting (that word again) Buddhist sensibilities in his novel Bava Tharanaya.
This intolerable situation has been created as a result of decades of silence and absence of determined opposition when bans were called for. The extent of activism mostly tends to be limited to signing protest letters, which is hardly enough for something as serious as muzzling the right to print, publish and read. Some serious and reflective political agitation and action, which go much beyond the mere signing of protest notes, must take place if the tide is to be turned. Governments have to be given some spine, through force of opinion and activism, to oppose ethnocentric demands irrespective of the religious or ethnic community such demands may emanate from.
In the absence of such activism, any book, paper, film or drama that may “hurt” the feelings of a religious, ethnic or caste group, will be pulled up. Besides, “hurt” is a relative and subjective term. What level of discomfort constitutes “hurt” in a multi-cultural society? If the threshold is as low as we are being led to believe, will we have to seek permission from sundry caste, religious and ethnic tribunals prior to publishing or producing anything? This would surely be devastating for creativity in the country.
On the other hand, perhaps this is the way ahead – just ban everything that is potentially offensive to anyone. The Dhammapada can be banned since it is likely to offend some intolerant non-Buddhist. It may also be prudent to ban the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas plus whatever other religious scriptures that are in danger of being published, for they too are likely to offend one kind of religious or cultural watchdog or another. Ethnographies on political and caste violence also will have to be banned since they will certainly “hurt” the feelings of mass murderers, torturers and caste puritans. Films and dramas that even glance on some communal or religious subject can similarly be proscribed. All in all, we would have succeeded in creating a brave new world where no one is offended and where the harmony of silence and complacency prevails. In such a Sri Lankan society of the future, the citizens would vegetate. They would not read or see, they would not think or debate, they would not write or dissent. Sri Lanka would be – and may be becoming – a society whose thoughts and ideals are formulated by politicians and ethno-religious vigilantes alone.