No-Show Revives Rushdie Affair in India: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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The novelist Salman Rushdie found himself last week oscillating yet again between being a human being and a symbol -- of both freedom and heresy. Only the venue of this spectacle was new: the city of Jaipur in India, the country of his birth.

Rushdie was one of more than 250 writers from around the world who had agreed to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival, the largest such gathering in South Asia, and probably the most eagerly awaited. But a few days before the festival was to begin on Jan. 20, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, a cleric at the Darul Uloom Deoband, a prominent Islamic seminary in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, caused a stir by declaring that the Indian government should have denied a visa to Rushdie, who, because of his depiction of the Prophet in his novel "The Satanic Verses," was "a person whom the Muslims of the world hate."

The Maulana had got his facts wrong. Rushdie possesses what is called a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, and didn't require a visa to come to India. Indeed, he visits frequently, and had appeared at the Jaipur Literary Festival once before without incident, in 2007. But it was lost on no one that the cleric's call to action was cannily timed. Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, goes to the polls in three months, and it is home to a substantial chunk of India's 160 million Muslims, a bloc being courted by all the major parties of the state.

No Indian government has ever been particularly sympathetic to the idea of artistic freedom or freedom of speech. Indeed, in 1988, after demonstrations against "The Satanic Verses" by Indian Muslims, the government banned importations of the book into India, adding, unbelievably, "that the ban did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work.”

Now, as the pressure grew on the governments of India and the state of Rajasthan to issue a statement guaranteeing Rushdie's safety, the Home Ministry broadcast, instead, news of intelligence on a possible attempt on Rushdie's life. Following this, the author decided to call off his visit, releasing a statement that said: "While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers. I will, therefore, not travel to Jaipur as planned."

That decision might have drawn the curtain on yet another depressing instance of censorship (whether by an edict of government, or the threat of violence by groups of outraged hardliners) in the recent history of India. But as it turned out, it was only the prelude to an explosion of debate about the freedom of artists, the limits of protest and the duties of government -- one that consumed the festival, and made the 2012 edition a kind of extended referendum on the Rushdie affair.

The furore began when two writers, Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru, decided on the opening day of the festival to use their allotted time to read aloud, as a gesture of protest at Rushdie's de facto exclusion some passages of "The Satanic Verses." Just before they went on stage, Kunzru tweeted: "About to defy bigots and shoe throwers, reading @SalmanRushdie Satanic Verses on stage with @amitavakumar at #jaipur #jlf." Although the organizers, fearing that this would invite action from the state, tried to stop the reading, the two continued, and later that day two other writers, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil, also read from the banned book. News of this insurrection spread, and within minutes it was being broadcast all over the world by the massive press contingent present at the festival.

It seemed that the four writers who had broken open the long-sealed box of "The Satanic Verses" in Indian public life might be charged by the police, and by the next day they had all left the city. In a piece called "Why I Quoted From `The Satanic Verses,'" published in the Guardian a day later, Kunzru explained:

Amitava Kumar and I were extremely angry. We felt that it was important to show support for Salman, who is often misrepresented and caricatured as a sort of folk-devil by people who know little or nothing about his work. This situation has arisen in India at a time when free speech is under attack. Recent moves to institute "pre-screening" of internet content, and kneejerk bans of books such as Joseph Lelyveld's masterly biography of Gandhi, show that these are not good times for those who wish to say unpopular things in the world's largest democracy.

We decided that we would use our afternoon session, in which Amitava was due to interview me about my novel Gods Without Men to highlight the situation. We decided (without consulting the festival organisers, or anyone else) that I would make a statement, and then we would quote from The Satanic Verses. We knew this little-read and much-burned book was banned in India, but it was our understanding that this meant it was a crime to publish, sell or possess a copy. We knew it would be considered provocative to quote from it, but did not believe it was illegal. A pirated text exists on the internet, and we downloaded two passages, 179 and 208 words in length respectively.

Our intention was not to offend anyone's religious sensibilities, but to give a voice to a writer who had been silenced by a death threat. Reading from another one of his books would have been meaningless. The Satanic Verses was the cause of the trouble, so The Satanic Verses it would have to be. We did not choose passages that have been construed as blasphemous by Muslim opponents of the book – this would have been pointless, as these passages have overshadowed the rest of the content of the novel, which concerns the relationship between faith and doubt, and contains much that has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. 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. [...]

The festival organisers later informed me that they had been advised that it was unsafe for me to stay in Jaipur, and my continued presence at the festival would only inflame an already volatile situation. I left early on Saturday morning, and left India the same day.

It was just as well that Kunzru and his comrades in dissent left. Although it became clear in the days that followed that reading from the book was in no way a crime, the roars and silences that emerged in their protests' wake revealed much about the balance of power in the country. No member of either the government of Rajasthan, the government of India, or the two major political parties -- the Congress and the BJP -- stood up to defend Rushdie, or to say that his right to enter the country trumped any offense felt by an individual or group. But a Muslim member of Parliament demanded the arrest of the writers, arguing that "Reading from a banned book is a deliberate provocation and proof that the festival is a forum for Islam-bashing." After a group of hardliners demanded the cancellation of the event, even the idea of a conversation with Rushdie via video link on the last day of the festival was finally abandoned by the festival organizers.

In a stinging piece in Open magazine, its editor Manu Joseph made it clear that it was the government that was at fault for succumbing to the swagger of the religious fringe:

In this, the cleric of a seminary in Deoband, Maulana Abdul Nomani, who started the entire controversy, is not as complicit as the government of India. An Islamic cleric will say things, he is only doing his divinely ordained job. Without passing moral judgments, issuing sundry threats and stating his interpretation of texts, he is nothing, he has no place in this world, and for all this he endures the consequences of his action by being on the margins of a modern progressive country.

The Indian government, on the other hand, is a direct beneficiary of not only electoral politics but of the powerful values on which this country was built. If the Indian government enjoys far greater dignity than the Pakistani government, if the Indian Army general has to plead his case with the government or fight in the Supreme Court against it for a one-year extension of his term while, historically, the situation has been the reverse in Pakistan, it is because of the philosophical foundation of modern India. But the government has often chosen the cowardice of practicality over the courage of morality. And it has, once again, failed to stand up against religious thugs because it is afraid that it will lose Muslim voters in UP and elsewhere, who are crying hoarse anyway saying that they are not so stupid.

And in Tehelka, Shoma Chaudhury wrote:

Curiously though, it’s easier to understand — even empathise with — the aggressors in this debate than those who were elected to defend and fail to do so.

The fact is, in a democracy, if we stand by our right to offend, we must stand by others’ right to feel hurt as well. It might be tempting to remind those who get into a froth over the way Saraswati [a Hindu goddess] was depicted or the Prophet was written of that the gods are meant to protect us, we don’t need to protect them. But no reasonable citizen can deny another citizen’s right to feel that froth. One cannot demand deracinated coolth as a pre-requisite for citizenship: every civilised society has to defend the space for cultural conservatism as zealously as it defends the right to challenge it. So as long as the Dar ul-Uloom elders or the platoons of Internet Hindus are not threatening violence or bodily harm, they are not really wrong to voice their protest. Or even ask for bans.

It’s for elected governments to stoically absorb that sentiment and remind them that we have agreed to live in a democratic society and if any fellow Indian’s imagination offends them, they have the right to not read a book, not watch a show, not buy a canvas. Or just plain rebut.

But it might also be worth making a distinction between three types of opposition in India to freedom of speech. One is the absolutist kind, well represented by groups in both Hinduism and Islam, that sees violence or arson as a legitimate response to perceived insults. The second, often complicit with the first, is rooted in political apathy and a refusal to enforce the rule of law rooted in a calculation that standing up for the principle of freedom of expression isn't worth the perceived political cost. In this case, the Congress Party didn't want to jeopardize, through any action in defense of Rushdie, the investment of millions of rupees it is going to pour into its campaign to win Uttar Pradesh.

But a third, more insidious kind of muzzle on the genuinely free expression of ideas in India is what one might call a soft opposition, or self-censorship. This is a section of well-meaning Indian opinion that honestly doesn't understand what individuals have to gain by rocking the boat of a particular religious order, and believes that "religious sentiments should always be respected" and art has no business to question or mock what is held by some to be sacred. As its representative, one might take the bestselling novelist Chetan Bhagat, who said about the controversy, "[Rushdie] is a hero as far as his others writings are concerned, but writing something that attacks somebody's god is not the right thing to do....I'll not make somebody who attacks my god a hero. This is India, you cannot hurt feelings here."

It is true that freedom of speech, as Rushdie observed in a long interview with Barkha Dutt, is the source of all other freedoms. But, as the number of hostile responses to Kunzru's arguments on his website demonstrate, this idea is bound to be interpreted only in the context of the overall climate of freedom in the society in which its value is asserted. India is actually unfree in so many ways, ranging from the casual harassment of women on streets to the persistence of caste hierarchies in social life to the entrenched patriarchy and deference of family life to the persistent tendency to explain all events as manifestations of the divine will. It is a country where young people are brought up to "always respect their elders" and to think twice before speaking their mind -- basically, to be conformist, to value the old or accepted answer over the subversion of the new idea or question.

It isn't especially surprising, then, that the notion of dissent and skepticism of absolute truths enshrined in the idea of freedom of speech has a limited appeal in India. Tolerance may be an idea with a long history here, but not freedom of speech.

Perhaps the best result from the unsavory affair was the circulation of a petition demanding a reversal of the original sin: the banning of Rushdie's book in 1988. Proposed by the writer and literary critic Nilanjana Roy, the petition says:

We the undersigned support the right of all artists and writers to freedom of expression and we strongly urge the government to reconsider the 23-year-old ban of the Satanic Verses.

The Satanic Verses has not incited violence anywhere; others have used the novel's existence to incite violence to suit their political ends. Within India, in the 23 years since the ban, we have witnessed an erosion of respect for freedom of expression, as artists like MF Husain, Chandramuhun Srimantula, Jatin Das, and Balbir Krishan have been intimidated, and works of writers like Rohinton Mistry and AK Ramanujan have been withdrawn because of threats by groups claiming to be offended.

India is one of the very few countries in the world where the ban stands, placing us alongside Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Liberia and Papua New Guinea, among others. We submit with respect that there is a democratic need to review and re-examine the circumstances that led to the original ban of the Verses in 1988, which have changed greatly over time.

By reversing the ban, the Indian state would also help reverse the creeping tide of intolerance and unreason that threatens today to swamp our public life.

(Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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