Rushdie: In a Land of Shame

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Are we now a country that cannot bear the disembodied video presence of a writer whose book we do not approve of? Nisha Susan follows the Rushdie-shaped troubles at Diggi

Boiling point Prof Hasan, Ashok Vajpeyi, Salim Engineer, Shoma Chaudhury, Rahul Bose, Tarun J Tejpal, Javed Akhtar and Barkha Dutt discuss freedom of speech
Boiling point: Prof Hasan, Ashok Vajpeyi, Salim Engineer, Shoma Chaudhury, Rahul Bose, Tarun J Tejpal, Javed Akhtar and Barkha Dutt discuss freedom of speech, Photo: Garima Jain

SALMAN RUSHDIE may not be the Wizard but Jaipur was certainly Oz last week. On the afternoon of 24 January, the last evening of the highly anticipated Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the front lawns of Diggi Palace looked like a political rally. All afternoon, the tension had mounted in the crowds as they heard rumours that angry delegations from Muslim organisations had entered the venue to prevent the live video session of Salman Rushdie. The already-hefty crowds of police and security guards seemed to have doubled. A group of Muslim men were seen quietly performing namaaz outside the authors’ lounge. A TEHELKA journalist was told to leave the corridor where she was working with the words: “Madam, chale jaaiye, yahaan tod-phod hone wala hai.” (Madam, please leave, there could be violence here).

Illustration: Samia Singh

It felt like a deflated dénouement after weeks of build-up and flare-ups around the arrival of Salman Rushdie at the JLF. He was coming. No, he wasn’t. He shouldn’t be given a visa. He doesn’t need a visa since he’s a Person of Indian Origin. The media should not provide oxygen to the attention-seeking fundamentalists. The media should reflect the hurt sentiments of the people. Rushdie has been to the JLF before in 2007 and was invited again to attend this year — the difference being that this time, the festival announced his sessions on its website instead of keeping it secret.

In anticipation to the initial announcement of the invite to him, the Darul Uloom Deoband Vice Chancellor Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani protested, which left the author’s visit in a limbo. After all the anticipation, on the afternoon of the first day, the organisers read out a statement from Rushdie, expressing his great sadness in not being able to attend the festival. He said he had no choice to pull out after receiving police warnings that “paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me”. Later, the Maharashtra police denied providing any such intelligence reports prompting many arch remarks about the fiction-writing skills of the Rajasthan government. The Rajasthan Home Ministry then responded saying that they had reports of a SIMI member having been tasked to kill Rushdie. Swami Agnivesh was exerted by the reports of misleading intelligence and told TEHELKA, “There must be an investigation if there was concoction of a threat. This goes against the spirit of India.”

The next flare-up came swiftly: authors Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar read passages from The Satanic Verses in their session on the first day. The organisers asked them to stop. A while later, authors Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil announced in their session that they were going to read their favourite passage about Mumbai. Slowly, it dawned on the audience that what was being read was a section from The Satanic Verses. News spread that the authors were protesting the absence of Salman Rushdie and the artificial ‘ban’ of his book. Apparently, arrest warrants hovered over the heads of the organisers and four writers. As an Australian author later said, the JLF had now taken on a moral gravity that such events don’t usually have.

Is it illegal to read from a book which is ‘banned’ by the Central government? No one seems to know for sure. The book was banned from import by a notification from the Ministry of Finance in 1988. This is the only way in which the Central government can ‘ban’ a book. So is it illegal to read from it? Publicly read out printed sections downloaded from the Internet? Lawyer and human rights activist Colin Gonsalves says, “I am very doubtful about the government having a right to ban a book at all. If it offends you, too bad. Go sit in a corner and sulk.” Senior advocate and BJP MP Ram Jethmalani says, “People in multi-religious societies must have tolerance for the free speech of others.” Other lawyers extrapolate their way into this grey zone. Senior counsel Sidharth Luthra expla – ins, “If it’s a banned book, it’s banned. You can’t be reading it out.” In this atmosphere of confusion, a day after their protests, the four authors left the festival, having reportedly been given legal advice that if they stayed on, they might just be arrested.

As the arrest warrants hovered over the heads of the organisers and four writers, JLF began to take on a moral gravity

Writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia says, “Rushdie should have been here, it’s unfortunate that he isn’t. The blame should go to the Indian state, which has been so weak in imposing the law. The State’s role in all this needs more criticism. It should not have given in to the pressure. The state has acted not as state but as a political party, as this has to be tied into the UP elections.” Ruchir Joshi has since made statements indicating that he does not regret reading from the book, Salman Rushdie is not the best thing since sliced bread but he’d be ready to do the reading again. Before reading from the book, Hari Kunzru had said, “Freedom of speech means the freedom to say unpopular, even shocking things. Without it, writers can have little impact on the culture.” He has since written that “we wanted to demystify the book. It is, after all, just a book. Not a bomb. Not a knife or a gun. Just a book.” Author Lionel Shriver echoes Kunzru’s sentiment: “It’s a shame that this subject has been the focus of the festival, and ultimately it highlights the foolishness of banning books. Books can’t hurt you. We have to defend the right of everyone to offend everyone. If you try to protect people from being offended, you’ll have failed and will end up in a police state.”

IN 1989, when the fatwa was declared on The Satanic Verses, it split the literary community into two, with many defending his right to free speech and some more weak-kneed writers like John Le Carre, John Berger and Roald Dahl blaming him for causing offence and inviting trouble upon himself. Now the captive audience at Jaipur was split over the acts of protestors with varying degrees of nuance. To poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the freedom of radical speech is a given. He says, “I’d go further and say that if books are being banned we’d soon be banning even Bhakti poetry. A lot of Bhakti poetry is against religion, specifically against Muslims and Hindus, especially Kabir’s. So are we going to ban Kabir next? Are we going to ban texts that have been in existence for hundreds of years because ‘ved katheo sab jhoot hai’. That’s the Vedas, the holy book. What are we going to do about that ? There has been a tradition of dissent in this country for a long time. Bhakti itself was born out of dissent that you don’t need a temple or a mosque.” Kannada poet and playwright HS Shivaprakash occupies a less idealistic position. “Many of my writer friends,” he says, “talk as if a writer is absolutely free in the world. Having been in a similar controversy years ago in Karnataka, I feel that the writer is only as free as any other member of society, so whe n ever he challenges the authorities, he faces the music. In the past, we have had the glorious tradition of those who have laid down their lives for their beliefs. The world is full of conflicting ideologies and a writer is part of it.”

‘A lot of Bhakti poetry is against religion, especially Kabir’s. So are we going to ban Kabir next?’ asks Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Some took a pragmatic and compassionate view of the mess. Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunasekara says, “As for blaming the four authors [who read from The Satanic Verses] for taking flight afterwards, I think that’s really misunderstanding the situation — if they were going to end up in jail, I think their leaving is sensible and regrettable. Yes, the point of a festival is free space, but I wouldn’t condemn the JLF. Perhaps there’s more to come — what is free speech? These ideas shouldn’t evapoevaporate.” Others are not as kind. S Anand, publisher of Navayana Books, who read a short passage from The Satanic Verses the next day, blamed the organisers for (among other things) not recognising that the threat to freedom of speech against one author is a threat to such freedom everywhere. He was irate because of an email from JLF organisers: “This is to advise you that The Satanic Verses is banned in India and reading from it may make you liable to prosecution and arrest.”

Between the lines Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil
Between the lines: Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil

There were those who blamed the authors for not standing their ground. There were those who accused the authors of grandstanding. Author Farrukh Dhondy says, “The four writers made political gestures to get publicity for themselves, knowing they felt perfectly safe here. Take The Satanic Verses and read it on steps of the Jama Masjid, that would be protest.” This last accusation is, of course, the most populist explanation now for any attempt at defying cultural intimidation, and was sometimes also heard among the crowds at the JLF. Journalist John Elliott believes that “the law is the law whether you approve of it or not, and it has to be followed by the organisers of a literature festival.” Butalia adds, “As far as the action of writers is concerned, the right to protest is important and it has to be protected. I think the writers genuinely did not know the consequences of their actions. As ordinary citizens, they are not expected to know the law. However, to me it is unclear whether the protest was directed at the state, the organiser or both?”

‘A lot of Bhakti poetry is against religion, especially Kabir’s. So are we going to ban Kabir next?’ asks Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

All the authors TEHELKA spoke to pra – ised the JLF organisers and said they shouldn’t be held responsible for what’d happened. After all, as Kunal Basu pointed out, “The organisers have borne responsibility by inviting him and trying to make it happen. Look, this is the city of Jaipur and this is India — the JLF organisers are not responsible for all that happens. They’re not running a commune here — people can do what they like.” Writer and critic Devangshu Datta adds, “You know there’s going to be trouble when you invited Rushdie, you have to stand for the principle. My great grandfather went to jail and paid fines because of this law.” Shriver adds, “In one way, the organisers brought it upon themselves by inviting him, but that is their right. And in small doses, a little controversy helps. Though I disagree with everything that has happened because it represents the triumph of intimidation.”

A video link conference session was scheduled with Rushdie on the festival’s last day so that he would at least be able to have his say and interact with the festival audience. Even that was thwarted — the Rajasthan government apparently declared in opaque tones that the organisers would need permission for any such event, and nobody would confirm till the last minute whether it would happen or not. Which brings us to the afternoon of the video link in which the wizard was scheduled to appear. Enormous crowds gathered in the lawns standing practically on tip-toe. A little after the scheduled time of the session, the visibly upset JLF organisers and Rampratap Singh Diggi, the owner of Diggi Palace, declared that they had decided to call off the session upon advice from the police that there were groups of people marching on to Diggi Palace and that some protesters had already entered the venue, some of whom could potentially become violent. The wizard wasn’t coming, even on video.

Once that was established and the explanations given, an impromptu debate, moderated by TEHELKA managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, was organised on the front lawns about the entire fiasco of the video no-show. The panelists included TEHELKA editor-in-chief Tarun J Tejpal, actor/activist Rahul Bose, lyricist/poet Javed Akhtar, NDTV group editor Barkha Dutt, writer Ashok Vajpeyi, Jamaat-e- Islami’s Salim Engineer and former Rajasthan civil servant Professor Hasan. Tejpal made the cheering comment that the afternoon had been just a “momentary defeat… Salman Rushdie’s voice will speak in a 1,000 different ways. It’s not a victory for them.” Bose wanted to extend the fight against censorship to beyond just the festival, Engineer contested how Rushdie had offen ded Muslim sensibilities and the need to limit freedom of speech, while Dutt agreed that the media should not be the “oxygen to orthodoxy”. The discussion veered from sharp diagnoses to vague bluster, but was sufficiently intense to diffuse the cro wd’s pent up tension and to, at long last, discuss the raison d’etre of the festival: how far will we go as a society to defend a book, any book? The brief catharsis of the debate underlined Chaudhury’s sharpest point: why hadn’t organisations that found the book offensive challenged Rushdie to an intellectual debate within JLF?

Many lament that the State has failed to provide security for our writers’ freedom of speech. But the festival organisers were categorical in saying that the Rajasthan Police has supported them well throughout the crisis and that the decision to not broadcast a Rushdie session was based more on a fear that any altercations could potentially damage the property, injure guests and dirty the festival’s spirit. Looking at everything that happened, Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif strikes an optimistic note: “It’s a great thing (that) this happened, because where else can this topic be debated but in a literature festival? These festivals can often be in a bubble, and it’s good that real life has crashed through the festival, and what the rest of the country is discussing is being discussed here.” Pavan K Varma is more circumspect and says that he’s “sorry that someone has not been able to come for the lit fest because a fringe element is holding the society to ransom. I don’t agree with everything that Rushdie writes but I am happy to debate it. I appreciate that some writers had the courage of conviction to read out from his book. On the other hand, I do feel that we shouldn’t let the festival be hijacked by a single issue.” Contrast this with author Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the DSC prize for his book Chinaman at the JLF this year, and his deeper pessimism about JLF 2012: “The organisers’ position in this is very complex, they have to be pragmatic and make sure the festival does not get subordinated to one author. I think by bringing him, they wanted to say that this book is not all he stands for, there is more to his writing. But by reading out from the book, we may have sent the message that we are here to provoke. It is a brave act of solidarity on the part of the writer but it inflamed the situation. I don’t see the argument for banning the book, but for people who haven’t read Rushdie, after this controversy, he will only stand for one thing, as someone offensive to Muslims.” Jaishree Misra remains enthusiastic when asked about the controversy: “When my book was banned in UP, not many writers came out in my support. Writers have to show solidarity. We should’ve taken a stro nger stand. Reading out sections from the book is a toke n ist gesture, a safe way to protest. All writers should’ve threatened to withdraw or not speak for a day to actually have made a difference.” For a way forward, we might continue on that cue and realise that only in the banality of Rush die’s presence lies his — and our — safety.

THE DECISIONS made in Jaipur last week — from Rushdie deciding not to attend to the four dissenting authors leaving the festival to the organisers’ decision to not screen the video session — every one of these was made under pragmatic considerations. The perceived threat that overwhelmed each decision was the potential malevolence of the mob and the stampede — this threat perception might have been real or exaggerated or imaginary, we have no way of really gauging. What we’re left with is the sober reminder that a thin, puny voice is able to hold everyone else to ransom, that we are now trying to determine empirically and absurdly whether a piece of literature is an incitement to violence. We need to realise, and assert, afresh our right to freedom of speech and our right to offend.

With bureau inputs

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]

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