After the fatwa following ‘Satanic Verses’, writer Salman Rushdie had posited, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist”.

Even then, I remember reflecting on Salman Rushdie’s lament with mixed emotions for I was sure that beyond the profundity of Salman’s intellectual query, he knew exactly what he was doing i.e., being deliberately offensive and provocative, whilst writing ‘Satanic Verses’.

Many other writers like Germaine Greer, John Le Carre, Roald Dahl etc., thought so too, with Roald insisting, “[Rushdie] knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the bestseller list - but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it”.

Presumably, Rushdie had weighed the commercial considerations and consequential benefits arising out of the controversy. I didn’t like it, for a genius who had written the utterly brilliant ‘Midnight’s Children’, ‘Shame’ and ‘The Jaguar Smile’, Rushdie didn’t need to knowingly incite, inflame, or enrage, just to sell books. But I remain convinced that he had.

Beyond the binary and passionate pro-or-anti positions that the controversy generated, the book itself was panned by credible and unbiased critics for its sub-standard literary value (and Rushdie had certainly set the bar very high for himself).

This poor review was reason enough for me not to buy or read the same (after doing the diligence of excerpts, reviews, and opinions of credible critics). Soon the official ban (India became the first country to do so) and incidents of violence erupted. My own displeasure with Rushdie’s devious intent and other issues of a lacklustre ‘read’ reasoned me against pursuing the book – but the threat of violence and burning of the book was an anathema, as an over-the-top reaction.

It was also pure politics (in this case of electoral considerations in India and one-upmanship within the Ummah) in the guise of ‘manufactured outrage’.

The political backdrop at that time was oscillating claims amongst the contending flag bearers of global Islam which had got taken over and usurped by Shiite Iran, post-1979 Iran Revolution, only to be diluted by Iran’s humiliating armistice with Saddam’s Iraq in the 80’s. The Saudis had re-started their infamous global Wahhabisation project.

Ironically, the relatively low traction that the book got initially (only to be fueled by India’s succumbing to electoral considerations, and hence the first sovereign ‘ban’), did Ayatollah Khomeini win the competition of extremism and hatred, and Salman Rushdie’s sub-standard book offered that perfect opportunity.

The template of politico-religious ‘Thought Police’ (politics of religion-based supremacism) emerged and is now visible and thriving across continents, and across religions. They are united by hate.

Unbeknownst at that time was that this unreasoning, threats and regressive politics that followed ‘Satanic Verses’ was only a harbinger to so many more bans, fatwas/edicts, boycotts, across the continental, partisan and ideological divide that it is an industry for playing politics. Unsurprisingly, liberal values came to be attacked and capital after capital succumbed to the seduction of ‘strongmen’ promising revisionism and rewriting of history which essentially amounted to disallowing anything that did not suit their worldview, partisan narrative, or personal beliefs.

Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie did the full circle of fate as he went into hiding, emerging, and writing copious amounts of fine work, and then finally getting stabbed for a book written 34 years ago!

He had reasoned succinctly, “Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people. I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don’t like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don’t like it, nobody is telling you to finish it”.

This wisdom holds true for movies, documentaries, plays, songs, comedians etc., obviously, with the exceptional caveat of national security, national emblems, and common sense in terms of disallowing deliberate falsification, plagiarising or incorrect facts to be masquerading as truth. This calls for a certain spirit of tolerance, debate, and acceptance of the unliked, in a civil, mature, and even large-hearted manner befitting people of a civilisational dignity. Sadly, it is increasingly unimaginable at the moment.

Recently, there have been many serious, comic and creative/fictional outputs in terms of movies, books, documentaries et al that have been subjected to ‘ban-culture’ selectively. Selectivity is key. This reflects rather dimly on the deep insecurities, vanity and even mobocracy that has gripped the environment.

Take the recent example of the recent movie ‘The Kerala Story’. The reactions are expectedly polarised, and that is perfectly fine in a democracy, as so it should be. However, it has been subjected to the political ‘might-is-right’ syndrome that has led to its valoursing and public support by the highest executive offices of the nation and some states.

Equally politically, the Chief Ministers of States of the Opposition parties have slammed and even ‘banned’ the same. While militating against the ideological sensibilities of some is understandable but calling for its ‘ban’ is disrespect for contrarian view – an exact same reflection of the spirit underlying ‘banning’ that what was earlier afforded on some BBC documentary or comedians (perceived to be uncomplimentary to the political/partisan other).

The right to offend and be offended (again, without bringing into question State secrets, security, or emblems) ought to be universal and equally applicable to all, without fear or favour.

My own view of ‘The Kerala Story’ is simple. Extremism is a fact that has radicalised people of all faiths to do much wrong. Bigots exist in all religions and regions, and they must be shunned. However, fringe elements of any community should never be equated to the entirety of the community.

The foremost question is, does the ‘The Kerala Story’ intend to paint a community in entirety or attribute the action to a small fringe element? Individuals need to answer themselves, without resorting to unfounded propaganda or WhatsApp forwards. Facts and context must matter, emotions and ‘manufactured hate’ needs to rest.

For example, the Northeast has admittedly seen many secessionist movements but the diminishment, ignorance of its history and racism targeted at North Easterners is also a parallel fact. It has also given an embarrassingly long list of sportspersons who have brought unmatched glory and pride to India, in recent times. Not every North Easterner is a secessionist. Fringe is not entirety.

The Sikhs had their own socio-economic wounds that were injected with petty politics by ‘Delhi’ to create the Khalistan storyline – equally no community has shed more blood for the safety, security, and sovereignty of India, than the valiant Sikhs.

To call every Sikh who protested genuine perceptions of disaffection during ‘Farmers Protest’ as a Khalistani, was shameful and rich, especially as it came from people who would have no notion of what it takes to take up arms and pay the ultimate price, for the nation. Not every Sikh was, is, or will ever be, a Khalistani. Fringe is not entirety.

Many Hindus have been involved in acts like lynching, forgery, or some even in the acts of moral turpitude in the garb of religious preaching (as is the case with every community). These individual acts of dereliction, intolerance and small spiritedness are not reflective of every Hindu.

Not every Hindu is, or will ever be, so insecure and hateful, as that is the wont of the fringe. Fringe is not entirety.

Similarly, some Muslims were indeed given to radicalisation and extremism owing to various domestic and international developments. The United States Department of State reported a total of 66 fighters of Indian origin who had allegedly joined ISIL, amongst them a few girls. Arguably the lowest traction as a reflection of the size of the community, in any country in the world.

To even countenance the undeniable fact of 66 odd with the historical contribution of the community across all possible fields of distinguishment for India is unrequired (as can be said of any other religion). Context is important – forget ISIL, the instances of Muslims from Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad or even Kerala joining a subsequently mutated religio-inspired insurgency in Kashmir Valley is also virtually zero. Most Muslims have not heard of, or aspire for, ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’ as widely suggested. Fringe is not entirety.

Now, in deeply hurt times like now it is important to question if the movie like ‘The Kerala Story’, especially what it seems to suggest in terms of scale (though revised from 32000 to three) and wide-spread attributions onto a community would either bridge or accelerate assuage polarisation and further societal ‘divide’?

Nonetheless, I still believe that it deserves to be aired without any ban and be put up for critique for its production quality, accuracy or otherwise, suggestions of politics, vested interests etc., without the pettiness of bans. Let the citizenry and the unbiased domain experts ascertain the artistic worthiness of an Oscar (assuming that to be fair reflection of cinematic standard) or withstand the factual scrutiny of historical scholarship, as was done earlier for ‘Kashmir Files’.

Cherry-picking facts, and banning, are both politics, nothing should be unnecessarily banned just because a partisan/ideological section does not like it. Therefore, to suggest a selective ‘ban’ for a movie, book or BBC documentary is nothing but convenient politics, as each output needs to stand for itself on its own merit for validation of quality, facts and even intent.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views expressed are the writer’s own.