My special thanks to Anwesha Saha, Md Zishan Khan and Trisha Roy, without whose help this piece couldn’t have been written.
“Question mark over Rushdie’s participation in Jaipur festival”
“Muslim groups to go ahead with Rushdie protest”
“Salman Rushdie’s censoring-out from the ongoing literary festival in Jaipur will be remembered as a milestone that marked the slow motion disintegration of India’s secular state.”
“Four writers who read from The Satanic Verses leave Jaipur to avoid arrest”
“‘Rajasthan police invented plot to keep away Rushdie’”
“With this, even the hope of glimpsing Mr. Rushdie on video screen was over.”
“”I’ve investigated, & believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry: Salman Rushdie.”
“UPA behind disruption of Salman Rushdie’s address: Arun Jaitley”
And yet again, it has happened. Rationality, open-mindedness and free speech have been flown down the dirty waters of a filthy drain by a shrewd government and political pressure. Even after all the tumultuous revelations regarding the oppression of the freedom of expression that followed the legendary artist M.F. Hussain’s death last year, nothing has changed, and it seems all those essays and full-page editorials championing freedom in art, culture and literature were a mockery in itself.
Salman Rushdie’s identity is not only that of an eminent Indian-born English writer who had won the Booker and the Booker of Bookers, but of the most prominent harbinger of a paradigm shift in the literary scene of Indians writing in English. He is one of the brightest literary stars the country has ever produced and an inspiration for people who have already made or wish to make a mark for themselves in the world literary scene from India. And yes, it now stands as a fact that the author was kept away from the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012, the biggest annual literary festival in Asia, thanks to shrewd scheming and religion based political moves having strong connections with the upcoming state polls.
Recently, a lot has already been said in the media (and the above mentioned headlines, which most of you might have followed thoroughly, capture the entire timeline of the issue in a precise manner). about the freedom of speech of a writer- whether it comes with a right to offend or not; about Rushdie’s right to security- he had the full right to have security against the threat to life; about how Rushdie’s numerous visits to the country of his birth after the 1988 ban on his book The Satanic Verses never created such a mayhem as it has now which clearly indicates how the different political parties got involved in the issue to target different vote banks in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections; about the apparent lie that the Rajasthan government conveyed to him in a poor yet clever and successful attempt to keep him afar from the Festival; about how the Central government didn’t confidently come out in support of his visit and fell a weak prey to the fundamental forces operating in the country; about the legal aspects of reading from a banned book even though it is banned only by the Customs act, about the morality of politicians and sentiments of the aam aadmi.
Over the past week I found my thoughts on the entire Rushdie incident to have bifurcated into two parallel directions. On one hand I thought about how easily an issue, with a slight touch of religion, could be turned into a major political issue by instigating the masses and commenting blatantly and irrationally in the media. And on the other, I thought about how the entire JLF thing was hijacked by the Rushdie issue! I agree that the silencing of a writer’s independent voice due to irrational political atmosphere in a literary fest itself, must be the most significant element of all debates and discussions, but giving so much of media space to this particular issue was a little over-the-top which might have given someone the impression that this Jaipur-Whatever-Festival was either some meet for communal politics or some propaganda event for a writer called Salman Rushdie- because, do remember that, we live in a country where lumpen thugs are art and culture critiques. Whatever, the second point is minuscule (or rather absurd!) compared to the first one, so let’s talk about the former.
The Satanic Verses was published in UK and banned in India twenty-four years ago, in 1988. A lot has happened since then. Violent protests against the author and the book followed in India. The book was banned in South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Qatar. In 1989 fatwa was issued against Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Copies of the book were burnt down and book stores were bombed in many countries. Salman Rushdie apologised to Muslims and even signed a declaration to re-affirm his Islamic faith. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered, the Italian translator seriously wounded and an attempt was made to nab and kill the Turkish translator. The Satanic Verses was a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for ‘novel of the year’.
In between many of my freewheeling discussions with friends and acquaintances the topic of Salman Rushdie has come up a number of times. It’s unfortunate to say, that other than a very prolific English tuition teacher of mine, I haven’t found even one who can talk at length about the literary genius of Rushdie, rather, they say, ‘he is blasphemous’, ‘his last wife was very sexy’, ‘he does all these for glamour’, and a high school mathematics teacher has even told me that, ‘blasphemous writers like him, who marry a thousand times and move about only with ladies, should be shot down’. We live in a country, where a very small section of the population actually reads good books, and fewer still are those who can actually critically analyse a great piece of literature, or for that matter, art. And yet these are the people, who led by politicians with vested interests, can come out in full force on the streets to protest against creative works, and even go on rampage. And this is precisely the mob- a crowd blindly obeying whimsical political decisions, irrational and jobless- which our administration fears, the mob which is used to threaten, to destroy and destruct. I even wonder that the activists and leaders who have gunned their disapproval at having Rushdie in the festival have even read a single line from the banned novel, leave aside critically analysing it.
Apart from Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence and Haroun and the Sea of Stories I have also read Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie, in which intellectuals, critiques, writers and political thinkers provide their interpretations into the complex political and cultural meanings of Salman Rushdie’s writing. And, my humble opinion is that, it’s not that easy to completely understand and reflect on Rushdie’s work. Moreover, it is very unjust and foolish to club Rushdie entirely with a particular book, make a helluva issue out of what he had written some 24-odd years ago and protest vehemently against his visit to a lit-fest.
Fundamentalism of all sorts is bad and history is full of unfortunate events- Galileo was imprisoned, Socrates was executed, M.F. Hussain had to leave his country and Taslima Nasreen was hounded. Every now and then, you will come up with such issues where someone, or some film or some book has “hurt the religious sentiments”, but at the end of it you will realise that it was a small part of a bigger political game or for that matter business game. The only thing that beats me is, how can we have a better future if there is no diversity in thought, if there is no alternative perspective, no different interpretation of a certain mythological event or a religious texture in the form of art or literature? Is it justified that people should be incited by saying that ‘your religion has been insulted’ by this novel or that piece of art and that protests and hooliganism is the only answer to it?
Rather I think, it is high time that we start understanding that art and culture is something beyond entertainment, they edify thoughts, and thoughts though may be based on the popular beliefs can sometimes take the side of unpopular ones. They can be pondered upon, discussed and elaborated, criticised or praised, thrashed or accepted, but we should neither ban books nor destroy paintings. Husain painted Hindu deities in the nude not for insulting Hinduism or any other perverted cause, but because he had a certain idea and interpretation of our Indian mythology and he put it in canvas. He was much more Indian than the frauds and thugs who, on the name of protecting and upholding our Indian culture and heritage breed hatred between people of different religions, steal crores of money and indulge in thousands of immoral activities.
Perhaps the Rushdie incident at the JLF was only the tip of the ice berg of problems that hound the Indian society today. The important question that we must ask ourselves is whether art and culture and for the matter, the media be allowed to be toys in the hands of archaic laws and unjust political motives?
The past has never been perfect and whatever good we see in the present is the result of a number of rebellious thoughts, conflicting ideas and innovative decisions. Why is the country being dictated by the whims and fancies of fanatical leaders, who unfortunately have control over the masses? It seems as though these leaders are the primary abusers of freedom of speech, which they use to continue to suppress the country in a narrow minded thought process.
Napoleon Bonaparte had rightly said, “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But, because of the silence of good people.” If we sit quiet against these rampant draconian styles of the country’s administration today, then we will step into a bleak, disintegrated and narrow-minded tomorrow. It’s high time that we think and speak up.
Let’s stand up for Salman Rushdie. Let’s stand up for ourselves.
(Abhishek Saha, a third year Civil engineering student at BIT, Mesra, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)