‘Restrictions on Rushdie are not connected with UP elections’

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Minority Affairs and Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid has a particular legacy with the restriction placed on author Salman Khurshid at the Jaipur Literary Festival. It was his father Khursheed Alam Khan, who petitioned the Supreme Court in 1988 (along with Samajwadi Party MP Syed Shahabuddin) asking for a ban on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Now, two decades later, Rushdie has argued that history has repeated itself. Like during the Rajiv Gandhi era, even today, the Congress-led coalition government was afraid of offending Muslim voters in UP if Rushdie had been allowed to speak in Jaipur. Is this minority politics being played out from one generation to the next? Revati Laul asks Salman Khurshid on the campaign trail, as his wife Louise is contesting the election from UP’s Farrukhabad, whether the whole controversy is related to the UP polls as is widely believed.

Minority Affairs and Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid
Minority Affairs and Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid

How important is garnering the Muslim vote in the UP elections for the Congress party?
Well, 18 per cent of voters are Muslim and 22 per cent are Dalit. If you take them together—or even separately—they are a very significant chunk of the vote base in UP. Everybody knows these votes have swung an election result in UP one way or the other—at least in the last 20 years. Whether that is being strategised by any party in a particular manner is something you have to watch the parties closely for. As far as the Congress goes, it’s a very ambitious outreach on which Rahul Gandhi has worked very hard.

From what you’ve seen on the ground, how much of a difference do you think the Congress campaign is making to wean the Muslim voter away from its go-to space, which has been the Samajwadi Party in the last decade-and-a-half? 
I don’t consider that traditionally the space of the Samajwadi Party any more because in the 2009 general elections, a major chunk of Muslims voted for the Congress.

But voter behaviour is different in general and state elections.
That’s absolutely true. That is the traditional wisdom but what Rahul Gandhi is trying to do is to break that traditional wisdom and crack it into a new conundrum that will emerge in these elections.

In connection with this, political circles are alleging that the decision of the UPA government at the Centre to go along with the Rajasthan government in preventing Rushdie from entering Jaipur and even doing a video link via satellite is connected with UP. How do you react to that? 
I think that’s an unfair allegation. These are all matters that have to be handled by the state government. They can give anybody any right under the law. And there are reasonable restrictions that are imposed. Take the example of a riot. As ministers, we are often expected to rush to that place. But very often the local administration confines us to a guest house and we are not allowed to go into the city. If you can impose such a restriction on a minister of the Central government, you can also impose it on a private citizen. The call on this is not even taken by the state government entirely as it is taken by the local administration. They have to judge what the risk involved is. Maybe, a decision taken at one point of time may be completely different from what they consider appropriate at another time.

But as someone who has a personal legacy to track back to, what is your take on this issue? 
The restriction and ban is one thing, the provocation caused by any unrelated event is to be dealt with separately on merit. There is a third thing: how do you test the reasonableness or rationality of the restriction you are placing? This is not the only book on which there is a restriction. When Mrs Indira Gandhi chose to go to court against Salman Rushdie for something that he had said, he removed it from his book. So would you say that the English court ordering for something to be removed from Rushdie’s book—Midnight’s Children—amounts to an unfair restriction on the freedom of speech? It’s an English court that did it, not an Indian court.

Yes, but I am asking you for your opinion on the restriction on Rushdie. 
I have no opinion. You see when you ask someone in government about an opinion on something the government has done, they can only give you the government’s view. I don’t have any personal view.

As someone who is also Minority Affairs Minister, how do you square the ban on Rushdie with the principles of secularism and freedom of speech? 
Very simple. Freedom of speech is tested in the Supreme Court. Lady Chatterley’s Lover (DH Lawrence’s 1928 classic) was banned by the Supreme Court. So if anybody has any problem with the restriction imposed, they can go to the court. The court will give them justice.

Do you think this restriction on Rushdie could have a backlash in UP amongst secular voters? 
Please don’t separate Muslim voters from secular voters. Muslim voters and secular voters have a right to protect the dignity of their religion and their prophet. And anyone who wants gratuitously to push the questioning of dignity of the religion and the prophet is not secular. This is my view. You are secular if you believe in the Constitution and the restrictions that the Constitution imposes. Don’t judge things only by your personal point of view.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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