Last week Salman Rushdie cancelled a planned appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival in the face of reported threats to his life – Indian police could not assure him of their protection. Then on Tuesday, organisers of the festival were forced to drop a video-linked interview with the Indian-born author after a crowd of protesters massed outside the venue. This most recent episode in L’affaire Rushdie dredges up the age-old debates about the limits of freedom of expression, but it also casts fresh scrutiny on the place of Muslims in political life in India. By KHADIJA PATEL.
A good many people believe there was no credible threat to Salman Rushdie’s life in Jaipur last week. The entire drama is said to have been concocted by the Indian government to keep Rushdie away from India, placating the local Muslim population and winning their vote ahead of state elections scheduled for the coming months.
In a television interview this week, Rushdie said he believed the Indian government had circuited “fantastically fishy” intelligence reports of assassination plots to force his withdrawal from Asia’s largest literature festival.
To those lucky enough to have thrilled in the experience, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a feast of literature, a celebration of the written word, a fun fair for book lovers. On his return from Jaipur, Azad Essa, author of “Zuma’s Bastard” says, "The festival was a carnival: big names, thousands of visitors, packed sessions and plenty of chaos.”
Electioneering though does reveal the ugly – and desperate – in politics.
On Tuesday the threat of violence appeared real enough to force organisers of the Jaipur festival to drop a video-linked interview with Rushdie. Explaining the decision to scrap the video link-up, British writer and historian William Dalrymple, a director of the festival said, “The police commissioner told us there would be violence in the venue and a riot outside where thousands were gathering if we continued."
The owners of the hotel which would have hosted the video link refused to accept the risk.
But at least one journalist believes the crowd was not menacing. Describing it as “a small, television-amplified mob”, Dan Morrison believes the ruling Congress Party, pressured the organisers to scrap the link-up in the hope of regaining relevance “in a state where its influence has been weak for decades”. And yet in the confusion that led to the announcement of the cancellation, Dalrymple was himself reported to have received a threat against his life – he has refused to comment on this report.
Sanjoy Roy, producer of the festival, had this to say on the matter, "Once again we are being bullied and we are having to step down".
If these threats were indeed real, the Indian government, local police and the Mumbai mafia, who were apparently hired to do the job on Rushdie, know best. But if the authorities did indeed have intelligence that a threat against Rushdie’s life was to be made, it could not be disregarded.
The Jaipur commissioner of police warned organisers, that though the videolink could indeed go ahead, "there would be violence in the venue and worse outside".
“If you give in to the intimidation, you put at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based: what is the point of having a literary festival, a celebration of words and ideas, if you censor yourself and suppress an author's voice? But equally, can you justify going ahead with a literary event, however important, if you know that you will thereby be putting at risk the lives of everyone who attends – including the authors who have come at your invitation and hundreds of school children and elderly people – as well as knowingly igniting a major religious riot in one of the most crowded towns in northern India with a long tradition of tensions between different communities?” Dalrymple, writing in the Guardian, describes the considerations he made before making the decision to cancel the video link-up.
This was just the intelligence authorities were acting on but India knows well the value of such intelligence. In 1984, following an Indian military raid on the Golden Temple – the holiest site of Sikhism – intelligence assessments revealed a probable threat to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from her Sikh security guards. Responding to the threat, her aides removed Sikh security guards from her service. The story goes, she noticed their absence and ordered that they be reposted, asking, “How can I call myself the Prime Minister of secular India if I distrust my Sikh guards?” After the Sikh guards were reinstated, she would ultimately be assassinated by two of them.
“Whether the threat was manufactured or not, I think it was wise of Rushdie to withdraw under the threat of violence,” says South African writer and poet Rustum Kozain.
Rushdie is of course no stranger to the threat of death. His 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” was branded blasphemous by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. Rushdie would be the subject of the Ayatollah’s famous 1989 fatwa that ordered the author be killed. Sentiment against the book – as with the author – was ferociously charged for years to come. A translator of the book was later murdered, and 37 people were massacred in 1993 in Turkey by a mob targeting another translator.
In India, “The Satanic Verses” was banned and remains banned to this day.
“It reflects badly on India, that the book is still banned there (it never occurred to me that the book would still be banned in India) and that issues of identity and threats of violence tied up with imaginative and imaginary offense can cow a nation,” Kozain says. “But given the country's history of communal violence, which politician will have the guts to take it on?”
And yet, Rushdie’s public appearances have increased in recent times. He is certainly not living the life of a recluse anymore, cowering from the crazies. In recent years, his appearances in India have gradually become more public and altogether without incident. In 2000 he attended the Commonwealth Writers Prize awards in Delhi, and in 2007 he actually attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. Dalrymple says of Rushdie’s 2007 appearance at the Jaipur festival, “He came unannounced, with no bodyguards or police protection, and spoke brilliantly, sitting, drinking tea and signing books for his fans, while giving avuncular advice to younger writers who had never met a writer of his stature. No objections were raised, no politicians got involved, no problems arose.”
The political environment in India this time around, however, is far more charged; it needed a convenient spark and Rushdie's proposed visit was a great opportunity.
As Indian political parties readied themselves to pander to the whim of voters, three weeks ahead of the festival, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the Vice Chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband, an influential Islamic seminary, implored the Indian government to refuse Rushdie entry into India. "Indian government should cancel his visa as Rushdie had annoyed the religious sentiments of Muslims in the past," Nomani said in a statement released to Indian media. He stressed that the government should take into account the feelings of Muslims against Rushdie.
Rushdie would point out in turn that as a person of Indian origin, he did not need a visa to enter India.
“For writers and artists it is an impossible, soul-deadening place to be in, tolerating intolerance,” Kozain says.
Professor Leon de Kock from the English Department at Stellenbosch University says attacks on freedom of expression that are founded in religion are especially dangerous. “It is essential that we condemn attacks on freedom of expression from all fundamentalists, especially religious fundamentalists because when these attacks occur from a religious slant, they become tyrannical,” he says.
“If we take a step back from the way this situation has played out and look at what’s happening within the framework of a global system of neo-liberalism in which everything is supposed to be a free-choice commodity – including attitudes and positions – then the matter becomes more complicated,” De Kock says.
And indeed in India the position of Muslims is a particularly complicated issue.
In 2005, the Indian government commissioned a panel to examine the social and economic status of India’s Muslims. In what came to be known as the Sachar report, it was revealed that in the state of Rajasthan of which Jaipur is the capital, 41% of urban Muslims live below the poverty line – opposed to 27% of Hindus – who of course make up India’s majority. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Darul Uloom Deoband is located, 44% of urban Muslims live in poverty, compared with 24% of Hindus.
The report also revealed that 25% of Muslim children aged six to 14 had never attended school or failed to complete their secondary education. Muslim-majority villages are less likely to be served by government schools, paved roads and bus stops.
Photo: Members of various Muslim organisations sit before a televised speech by British-Indian author Salman Rushdiew which was cancelled at the annual Literature Festival in Jaipur, capital of India's desert state of Rajasthan January 24, 2012. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain
Muslims, the report found, hold a tiny proportion of civil service jobs but last month Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed the progress made in the recruitment of Muslims into government jobs. Since the Sachar report was issued, Singh claims, more than 4-million scholarships had been awarded to Muslim students. And yet, as the Indian government claims to have made gains in combating these inequalities, another report begs to differ. According to the results of a Gallup poll released last November, 32% of India’s Muslims consider themselves to be “suffering,” compared to 23% of Hindus.
“What do minority interest groups do to counter that kind of pressure towards normalisation? I am by no means condoning the Muslim fundamentalists, but the latest incident shows an important fault-line.
Globalisation has made it harder for minority groups to assert themselves,” De Kock neatly points out.
Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, who number just over 18% of the total population, have been the subject of fierce campaigning. The ruling Congress party has promised a controversially high nine% sub-quota of seats in the legislative assembly – out of a total of 27% reserved for "backward" or minority groups in the coming state election. Retaliating against the move, opposition BJP leader Uma Bharti said, “Congress’ promise to give 9% reservation to backward Muslims is anti-constitutional as it would create a wedge in the society on the basis of religion. We would oppose tooth and nail any such move on the roads and in the Parliament.”
In response, the Socialist Party has promised Muslims 18%.
This is electioneering season. As parties try to elbow each other out of the way to win the election, the Muslims themselves have had scant means to assert themselves. It is the backdrop to the initial spark of indignation against Rushdie’s planned appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. For all their curious fatwas and purported links to the Taliban, the Darul Uloom in Deoband has renounced terrorism. They certainly did not call for Rushdie’s death. Theirs was an opportunity to assert themselves, flex their muscle. Against the backdrop of a tenuous political climate, charged with religious tensions, the spark that Deoband lit led to the crowds outside the Jaipur hotel where Rushdie’s video link-up was meant to be broadcast.
According to Dalrymple, hours before the link-up was scheduled to happen, a crowd of Muslims sought out Sanjoy Roy and told him that they were prepared to use any amount of violence in order to stop Rushdie's voice being heard.
In the bluster of an election however, it is the voice of Muslims in India that have now been drowned out in the din of fundamentalism and violence. “It happened because of the upcoming assembly elections. It’s all about power, politics and misuse of religion,” Indian author Vikram Seth says of events in Jaipur. Indeed so. This instalment in the grand l’affaire Rushdie was about so much more than Rushdie himself. DM
- “Why Salman Rushdie's voice was silenced in Jaipur?” William Dalrymple asks in The Guardian;
- India’s Political Blasphemy in The New York Times;
- Salman Rushdie and the Deobandi school of thought in The Guardian;
- Jaipur, Rajasthan: A lesson in chaos, beauty and confusion in Daily Maverick.
Photo: Salman Rushdie (Reuters).