Murmurs In The Land Of Chup
First the statement from Salman Rushdie today:
For the last several days I have made no public comment about my proposed trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival at the request of the local authorities in Rajasthan, hoping that they would put in place such precautions as might be necessary to allow me to come and address the Festival audience in circumstances that were comfortable and safe for all.
I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to "eliminate" me. 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.
I hope, however, to be able to participate by video link, at a time to be announced soon. Believe me, I am sorry not to be there in person.
It is time to once again revist Salman Rushdie's letter to Rajiv Gandhi way back in 1988, and remind ourselves:
On Oct. 5, the Indian finance ministry announced the banning of my novel, ''The Satanic Verses,'' under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act. Many people around the world will find it strange that it is the finance ministry that gets to decide what Indian readers may or may not read. But let that pass, because at the end of the notification of the ban an even stranger statement appeared.
The ministry - I am quoting from The Press Trust of India's report -''added that the ban did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie's work.'' To which I can only reply: Thanks for the good review.
The book was banned after representations by two or three Muslim politicians, including Syed Shahabuddin and Khurshid Alam Khan, both members of Parliament. These persons, whom I do not hesitate to call extremists, even fundamentalists, have attacked me and my novel while stating that they had no need actually to read it. That the Government should have given in to such figures is profoundly disturbing.
A further official statement was brought to my notice. This explained that ''The Satanic Verses'' had been banned as a pre-emptive measure. Certain passages had been identified as susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such. The banning order had been issued to prevent this misuse. Apparently, my book is not deemed blasphemous or objectionable in itself, but is being proscribed for, so to speak, its own good!
This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr. Gandhi, for a free society to behave.
Given the extraordinarily craven statement issued by the JLF organisers (see The Press Statement in the Storify Tweetfeed that follows below), perhaps it would be useful for them to read Rushdie's 1990 essay, Is Nothing Sacred?, at least its last paragraph:
Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant- looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary.
"Everybody knows," wrote Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, "there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression. If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining."
Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.
And if the above doesm't do the trick, they could at least read the opening, eponymous essay of 1982, in the collection Imaginary Homelands where the above is also compiled, which ends with another quote from Bellow:
There’s a beautiful image in Saul Bellow’s latest novel, The Dean’s December. The central character, the Dean, Corde, hears a dog barking wildly somewhere. He imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limit of dog experience. ‘For God’s sake,’ the dog is saying, ‘open the universe a little more!’ And because Bellow is, of course, not really talking about dogs, or not only about dogs, I have the feeling that the dog’s rage, and its desire, is also mine, ours, everyone’s. ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’
Now, let's be clear. Salman Rushdie's visit to Jaipur was not meant to be about Satanic Verses at all — in fact, the panel Mr Rushdie was to speak on today was about Midnight's Children, but given the developments of the last few days, topped by the above, it was perhaps inevitable that the anger and outrage at this craven behaviour of the government would spill out. Call it just a bit of sunshine that managed to sneak through to dispel the middle of the night darkness as Amitava Kumar and Hari Kanzru, in protest, took to reading out passages from Satanic Verses during their reading. They were made to stop. Within an hour, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil repeated the performance. It remained unclear why reading out passages which could even remotely be considered "susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such" from a book -- which is to say, they do not attract any of the restrictions on Free Speech under Article 19 of the Constitution or attract Section 153 or 295 of the IPC -- that only was banned under under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act and continues to be legally available for download as an e-book from such sites as Amazon on Kindle.
Follow the tweetfeed below to see how the events unfolded at JLF.
[We intend to keep the story updated through tweets that would be appended automatically to the feed below]:
Frankly, none of the events as they unfolded should have come as any surprise. That it was the Congress that has been the most craven, from the time of the first imposition of the ban, is of course well-known and needs no reiteration after Shuddhabrata Sengupta's excellent post, Satanic Versus Moronic. If there was any surprise and a twist in the tail, this time around it frankly had come from the "BJP Minority Cell" in Jaipur whose general secretary Munnawar Khan is reported to have asked the Congress-led state government not to allow Mr Rushdie to enter the city. The double-speak of the two political parties need not detain us: it is not that their top leaderships lack the courage of their convictions, it is just that they do not have any conviction to start with. As a result, there is nothing that they value, no principle that they hold dear, no moral authority that they fear, other than very myopic political opportunism and expediency
Interestingly, while parallels with l'affaire M.F. Husain are being drawn, it would be instructive to revisit the controversy:
In Gujarat, a local leader offered a kilo of gold to anybody willing to gouge out Husain's eyes. In 2006, a fringe organisation calling itself the Hindu Personal Law Board offered Rs 51 crore for his head. Shortly after that, Madhya Pradesh Congress minority cell vice-chairman Akhtar Baig offered Rs 11 lakh to anybody who would chop off Husain's hands.
And from an old blogpost of 2010:
This was also seen as a political issue on which masses could be mobilised before the elections that were due in 2008. The BJP strategists might be making very liberal noises now, but way back then, the now BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who was then the Maharashtra BJP president , had also extended support to the demand for Husain's arrest. Others were not so restrained and demanded physical assault and worse. Newspapers reported that Congress home minister, a man of immaculate misconceptions, Shri Shivraj Patil, had instructed the police chiefs of Delhi and Mumbai to take “appropriate action” against Husain. It was claimed that there was "intelligence input" that anger against Husain's paintings could incite communal trouble. When questioned, he claimed it was in response to the opposition leader's demand for action against the painter. He did not have an answer as to why his ministry did not act against all those who were openly declaring prize money for chopping off the hands of Husain -- or the Danish cartoonists, or Taslima Nasreen, or Salman Rushdie, for example.
Despite some differences and the two cases not entirely being analogous, the parallels could not be more stark. The simple point is just this: there were elections due then, just as they are now.
Which of course just brings me to my old rant: it is pointless to keep expressing shock at how politicians seek to "politicise" each and any issue on the altar of political expediency, however myopic it might be, when elections are just around the corner. Some elections are always around the corner.
Also, for people like us - who get exercised - rightly, but sadly not sufficiently -about causes célèbres such as those involving the likes of Salman Rushdie, M.F. Husain, Taslima Nasreen, these should only be occasions to remind ourselves of the woeful state of civil liberties in the country. If this is how the well-heeled and well-connected celebrities are treated, it is inconceivable for us to even imagine what the *aam aadmi *(it seems almost profane to use the term) would be subjected to routinely, or the fate of the small presses, or authors and artists who do not make it to front pages when they are made to exercise "self-censorship".
Sultan Shahin in the New Age Islam:
Satanic verses is a book of fiction that contains dream sequences within the dream of a demented person. It is wrong to treat it as a discourse on Islam. However, like all dreams, realities do enter into the dream sequences. The episode of Satanic Verses is most likely pure fiction and creation of the determined enemies of Islam in its infant years. Deeply offended by Prophet Mohammad’s many blasphemies against their gods and goddesses, belief in whom was a part of Prophet Mohammad’s ancestral religion, the Quraish leaders, later stalwarts of Islam, wanted to kill him or defame him and his message in any way possible. They did many things in this context. Satanic verses could be just a part of that effort at maligning the messenger of God. But the fact remains that Arab Muslims of that period mentioned it and it was one of the relatively less known parts of Islamic history until Mullahs made Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses an issue.
Mullahs claim to be hurt with the publication of the book. But there are things that hurt other too. Don’t they know that the very existence of the Holy Quran and Muslims hurts the religious sentiments of many Christians; the message of the Gospels hurts many Jews and so on. Hindus, being the most ancient, have the right to claim feeling hurt at the existence of every other religion. So what do we do? Kill each other? Don’t let one come into other’s country. Live separately? Throw rotten eggs at each other? As Ahl-e-Hadeesis do and suggest we should.
This may be news the Mullahs that others too can feel hurt. But they do. An ordinary Muslim like me too feels hurt, for instance, sometimes. I feel hurt the most when I find a Muslim, particularly one calling himself Mohammad, lying, cheating, killing, raping. No matter how offended the Quraish of Mecca were with the Prophet’s blasphemies, they never accused him of lying or cheating or any other misconduct. No one called him intolerant of even his worst enemies and his own blasphemers. They continued to consider him Al-Ameen (The Trustworthy). Never was a word breathed about him by his enemies about even the remotest sexual misdemeanour on his part. If anyone really loved Mohammad, as Mullahs claim Muslims do, they would follow him. But we Muslims, well, we can kill and die in Mohammad’s name, saving his honour, but follow him, no we can’t do that. Too difficult. Impossible. Not in our DNA. So what do we do? We create an image of Mohammad, a deviant, pervert, cruel Mohammad, whom we can follow. This is precisely what Salafi Arabs did and today’s Salafi Muslims follow.
Successive commissions appointed by the government have recommended affirmative action for India's economically depressed Muslim minority. One such proposed measure is being touted by political parties aiming for Muslim votes. But politicians, fearful of a Hindu backlash, would rather resort to symbolic politics -- banning this or that book, keeping Rushdie out of India -- than take concrete measures to ameliorate the lot of a demoralized community.
And they can always find a few Muslims who are satisfied with temporary boosts to their communal self-esteem, which in the previous two decades has been continuously battered by a resurgent Hindu nationalism and a general ideological climate in which terrorist violence is routinely identified with Islam.
The real question is what happens after the first act? The really interesting story is to watch how people claiming to be behind an argument behave, once that argument has been smacked on the table.
In this case, any fears I might initially have had are rapidly turning into curiosity. Is the Indian secular discourse only an instrument for liberals to mask their eliteness? Will they cut and run once uncomfortable secularism leaks out of the pages of papers and the edges of the TV screens into a wider arena? How does one bring back the meaning of protest? Is any literature festival, no matter how brilliant and successful, more important than the writers from whose free expression it finds its fuel, its very reason to exist? Can Oprah and Chopra carry the show by themselves next year? Could someone at the Centre have said to the chief minister of Rajasthan: “Sir, please fully ensure Mr Rushdie’s safety or these people will move this festival to one of the many other locations in India which will welcome them”? Will this country stand by and watch three festival organizers and four not very well known writers being harassed and worse by self-proclaimed ‘Defenders of Islam’ because they read a total of 25 minutes from a text that is legally available in Turkey and Egypt?
Ruchir Joshi for an internation audience, in the Newsweek/Daily Beast:
I found myself in a TV studio in New Delhi last week, facing a “Muslim political leader” who was very angry with me. Luckily, he was 900 miles away, on a satellite link from south India. “I dare you,” he shouted, “to go and stand in Trafalgar Square and say the Holocaust did not happen! I dare you to go to Paris and say the Armenians were never massacred!” Never having been in any doubt about the Holocaust, nor ignorant of the massacre of Armenians, I was confused as to why I should do this. Next day, on another TV program, another “Muslim leader” raged at me, demanding, “I dare you to go to London and abuse Jesus Christ! See if they put up with it!” I didn’t have time to tell him about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but I don’t think he was there to hear arguments; he was there to be seen by the people of his constituency, shouting at “liberals” like me. What the Holocaust and the massacre of Armenians were being equated with was the “insult” Salman Rushdie is supposed to have leveled at the Prophet Muhammad in his book The Satanic Verses. I was being asked to go and deny the Holocaust (while insulting Jesus Christ) in Britain because I had challenged the assertion that Rushdie had insulted Muhammad in his book. We were arguing on TV because these leaders were accusing me of having committed a crime at the Jaipur Literature Festival: in tandem with a fellow writer and friend, I had read out a passage from The Satanic Verses at the end of our own book reading there.
It may be common knowledge for older generations but it's worth repeating for people born, say, after 1982, those who were no older than six or seven in '89: India's blocking of The Satanic Verses led directly to Khomeini's fatwa. Khomeini's murder sentence on Salman Rushdie was like the meltdown of a spiritual and moral reactor and the toxicity spread in several directions, feeding into and powering similar poisons that were spreading. The model of a swaggering, bullying ‘identity' that could claim ‘hurt' in order to kill, rape and burn with impunity, went viral. The demand for the destruction of the Babri Masjid was begun in earnest in 1990, the goal achieved in 1992, the justification being ‘Hindu' identity. The Taliban coalesced over those same years, soon after establishing their ‘identity' over Afghanistan. Certain mosques in Britain, Europe, the Maghreb and elsewhere became emboldened to propagate deeply reactionary and violent versions of Islam, and some of the people who were indoctrinated at these mosques (and then trained in Afghanistan) eventually showed the world their identity by flying planes into the WTC on 9/11.
In the meantime, attacks on M.F. Husain began in India, as did attacks on anything the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal and the VHP deemed as ‘hurting' ‘Hindu' ‘sentiments'. The massacre and burning out of Gujarati Muslims in 2002 was made possible by exactly the same politics that kept up its assault on the ‘enemies of Islam', except the brand label in Ahmedabad read ‘enemies of Sanatan Dharma'. Every time someone, politician or practitioner of art, has yielded an inch to the identity merchants, the latter have taken a mile. Relentlessly, competitively, often cynically, always without any mercy or pity.
On Chapati Mystery, Rohit Chopra has 16 excursuses in despair, one of them:
I found it puzzling that David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, should state at the festival that the Rushdie affair was “a blot on Indian democracy.” This was not postcolonial sensitivity on my part. I wondered if Remnick, a supporter of the Iraq War, would state that the war on Iraq was a blot on American democracy.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Remnick wrote:
“Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.” (italics mine)
I replaced the word ‘liberty’ with ‘freedom of expression’ in the sentence above. Many in India had made the same argument. As had many about the freedom of speech not being absolute in India or anywhere. I do not necessarily agree with them. But why do we see them as enemies of free speech and Remnick as a defender of liberal values?
I thought of another asymmetry. Would an Indian or Pakistani or Kenyan editor be able to declare, at the New Yorker’s festival, that any of the policies of the American state were a ‘disgrace to American democracy’? Would he or she be invited back again? Or get a visa?
The Satanic Verses needs to be defended from censors even if it's a bad book; but very few people in India seem to be able to speak of its virtues or, for that matter, Rushdie's, in anything but the most self-serving clichés....
Part of the failure of the 'free speech' issue in India has to do with the nature of our so-called secular intelligentsia, which has been busy, in the last 20 years, building its own fiefdoms. This was visible to anyone who followed the Rushdie debate on television. That liberals are complacent in their power and their class, and the right wing generally confused, unpleasant, poor and desperate, is a paradox we can't entirely ignore. From the glimpses of the JLF on television, one noticed, despite the tears, rage, and anxiety, a sense of centrality, rather than marginality, in the liberals, notwithstanding their defeat, shored up as they are not just by a common belief in free speech and literature, but by networks of mutual support and interest.
The Indian government was represented not by one but by three sponsors. They were the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Ministry of External Affairs and its public policy division, all shown as separate sponsors.This raises a question with regard to the Rushdie affair. Were the three government sponsors aware that the controversial author was invited to the Jaipur event? If yes, where was the need to pretend later that his presence at the festival was unwelcome? If the government did not know about the invitation to Rushdie, are we to conclude that the organisers violated the terms of sponsorship by making him the focus of their endeavour?
Maulana Wahiddudin Khan in Times of India
According to my way of thinking, the demand by this Muslim group is completely uncalled for. They have the right to stop Rushdie from coming to their own campus, but they have no right to ban his entry into Indian soil...
There is a very relevant verse in the Quran on this subject. It reads: "If any of the non-believers seeks your protection, then let him come so that he may hear the words of God, then convey him to a place of safety" (9:6)...
The verse focuses on a very important Islamic principle, that Muslims should welcome everybody. According to this principle, Muslims should organise meetings with the British author. They should put their point of view before him in a rational manner, then try to present to him their point of view and their objections to his writings.
If Rushdie is not convinced, they should make dua for him and according to the Quranic teaching, see him off amicably, without rancour.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan in NYT:
These protests were by a tiny minority, who are not representative of the Muslim community.
The protesters were completely wrong in doing what they did. Salman Rushdie has every right to come to this country. I heard his interview after the video conference was cancelled and agree with him when he said that all other freedoms rest on the freedom of expression. If you abolish the freedom of expression, all other freedoms will cease to exist.
According to Islam, you have to counter a book with a book; statement with statement. Countering a statement with violence is not right. It is un-Islamic. Protest and argument are two different kinds of reactions.
Javed Anand in the Indian Express:
Nearly 150 years ago, “Sir Syed”, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, argued against book-burning and ban-seeking... consistently held the view that words must only be fought with words. Khan would go out of his way to procure controversial writings. His advice to fellow Muslims: Must read anti-Islam, anti-Prophet literature. If the content is scurrilous, ignore them. However, if the criticisms are of a serious nature, the only option is to place your response in the marketplace of ideas. By burning books or demanding a ban, you only create the impression that Islam has no answers to offer...
UK-based Ziauddin Sardar of Pakistani origin whose recent book, Reading the Quran, should be considered essential reading for all students of Islam. “I find the whole idea of blasphemy irrelevant to Islam,” he argues. “If there is no compulsion in religion (a verse from the Quran says so categorically) then all opinions can be expressed freely, including those which cause offence to religious people. Of course, we, the believers, have the right to be offended. But we have no right to silence our critics”.
Before the event, but still interesting: Ruchir Joshi, Kiran Nagarkar:
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