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".