Freedom of expression isn’t there only to be sanctified in name. It must be vigorously defended in practice, especially when under duress. India failed this test when it allowed the threats made by yet another fringe group that has appointed itself guardian of Muslim honour to effectively keep the writer Salman Rushdie away from the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. The episode is another tawdry sequel to the sorry chain of events set into motion in 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi’s government, deploying its usual cynical electoral calculus, banned the importation of Rushdie’s compelling though uneven work, The Satanic Verses, under the Customs Act. Cheap votebank machinations may again underlie the latest manufactured crisis around a book that most people, including Indian Muslims, have forgotten to be outraged about.
One of the more unseemly aspects of the debacle was watching those who have themselves benefited from the English-speaking public sphere’s infinite tolerance for less than outstanding literary output turn into squeamish apologists for shutting people up. Chetan Bhagat did his usual brisk trade in thought-free cliches, announcing that “writing something that attacks somebody’s god is not the right thing to do”. (Bhagat has not quite done the right thing in ignorantly suggesting that the Prophet is “somebody’s god”.)
Then, there is the timid prostrating to vested political interests by the festival’s organisers, one of whom happens to have family connections to Union minister Kapil Sibal. Having hitherto sung many hymns in praise of the free exchange of ideas and Rushdie’s brilliance, the guardians of the Indian literary sphere suddenly balked at a relatively mild symbolic protest at Rushdie’s absence in the form of a handful of writers reading from The Satanic Verses. They were backed by Tehelka publisher, Tarun Tejpal, who curiously laments the “jeopardy” in which the festival “we all love and celebrate”—not freedom of expression—finds itself.
While it is unlikely that simply reading from Rushdie’s novel, which is widely cited in academic work and easily available online, is a criminal act, it is an absolute disgrace for Indian democracy that Rushdie felt unsafe speaking at the festival and that a symbolic act of solidarity by fellow writers was cut short by the organisers in the name of “ensuring compliance of [sic] all prevailing laws”. If literature didn’t routinely challenge what the organisers coyly call “the four corners of the law”, very little of it would be worth reading. That even a video link that would allow Rushdie to address the festival from abroad was cancelled under the guise of a law-and-order problem is absolutely unacceptable. No quarter should ever be given to lunatic blackmailers, would-be assassins, or for that matter, to festival organisers and writers who suffer from low levels of integrity under pressure.
Yet, there is something curiously tinny and wanting about the levels of sound and fury generated around the “silencing” of a writer who, whatever the triumphal fantasies of the Darul Uloom Deoband, will only have garnered more admiring readers and radical credentials after this latest brouhaha. These controversies overshadow the lukewarm critical reception accorded to most of his recent work and make it easy to forget that some of his own latter-day political expressions have been anything but radical, never mind “unpopular” or “shocking” as some of the more hyperbolic laments for his absence from Jaipur suggest. Far from making anyone “uncomfortable” in the places where he now lives and is lionised, the once-firebrand Sir Salman has in recent years endorsed some of the US’s more questionable foreign policy initiatives, insisting that this country remains the “best guarantor” of global freedom. With a comfortable niche in western celebrity culture, Rushdie has also made a career of denouncing criticism of US policies as “anti-Americanism”, a lazy catch-all, while hailing a mind-numbingly conventional lifestyle comprising “sneakers, burgers, blue jeans and music videos”. Defending his right to speak is essential; deluding ourselves about his iconoclasm is not.
If this latest instalment of the Satanic Verses saga is to generate a serious discussion about the perilous state of civil liberties and democratic freedoms in India, we’ll also need to look beyond the glitzy festival circuit and the conspicuous headline-grabbers. For every Rushdie or Husain who rightly elicits our vigorous support, there are many for whom we do neither en bloc solidarity readings nor produce reams of outraged commentary, never mind breathless ticker tape on the 24-hour news channels. From Chhattisgarh and Kashmir to Gujarat, Kerala, Orissa and the Northeast, journalists, activists, researchers and filmmakers routinely face intimidation and silencing by the state and the agents of commerce. So do a great many ordinary and vulnerable people, protesting the violation of their rights and freedoms—the seizure of their lands and the degradation of their environment—particularly when the interests of the powerful are threatened, whether these be politicians or mining conglomerates.
Why is India considered to be having what Rushdie terms an “existential crisis” only when there is high-gloss drama involving the rich and the famous? Isn’t the Soni Sori case, with yet another custodial rape and torture of an adivasi woman accused of being a Maoist sympathiser, an act of attempted repression where too national security was invoked as an excuse, at least as much cause for shame? A nation which has been waging economic and military war on sections of its own populace for quite some time now isn’t having an “existential crisis”; it has lost its way almost entirely.
We need to take a good hard look at what “freedom of expression” really means and how it is controlled not only by the state but by the media and publishing industries in incestuous partnership with large corporations. We need to stop being selective about who is entitled to this freedom or to have it vocally defended. Let’s junk the childlike notion that events like the DSC Jaipur Festival, their humble origins notwithstanding, are spaces for the untrammelled freedom of expression until some bad people or state actors come and ruin it all. In their ‘Kumbh Mela’ incarnation, such events are rarely egalitarian spaces for the exchange of ideas—distinct hierarchies, carefully managed selections of speakers and hard-headed financial calculations are at work in what have become exercises in branding, networking, marketing, advertising and selling written commodities known as books, albeit with some nice fireside chats on the side. There’s something disingenuous about the cognoscenti expressing shock that the organisers of a heavily corporatised event—who had already evaded uncomfortable questions about dubious sponsorships from companies which are gravely implicated in repression and exploitation—did not show greater integrity in the face of more repression. It’s also a safe bet that very few of those now expressing indignation about the current complicity between festival organisers and vested political interests will actually boycott the disgraceful event from now on.
Finally, it’s also time to stop parroting the nonsensical mantra, being repeated by Rushdie and Hari Kunzru, that there is a hierarchy of freedoms in which “freedom of expression” is somehow more “foundational” than others. Freedom of expression is fundamental, but it is also most meaningful where other vital freedoms can be vigorously asserted, including the freedom for all to live dignified lives, free from hunger, violence, war, landlessness and exploitation. And here it is worth remembering that the powerful forces of corporate globalisation—of which Rushdie has long been an enthusiastic votary—have long been just as capable of shutting down protest and resistance as they are of sponsoring literary festivals or peddling their consumer choice version of “freedom”. It’s easy enough to glibly claim that it is alright to accept huge sponsorships from dubious corporations because literature can humanise and liberate. We need to ask what it means for organisers, writers and attendees at the Jaipur gala to have ignored or downplayed the ways in which some corporate sponsors of the festival have been complicit in ‘unfreedom’, in narrowing or destroying other freedoms in the pursuit of profit.
Individual writers have spoken up against exploitation at different times, but where were the writers speaking out together collectively when the right to live free of toxins and environmental degradation was violated in Kerala by festival sponsor Coca-Cola? When sponsor Bank of America has been actively participating in the suppression of Wikileaks and its exposes of power and corruption? When mining giant Rio Tinto has colluded with repressive regimes? Are those suppressions of freedom less “foundational” than those enacted against prominent writers? Until these questions are seriously addressed, what has happened at Jaipur will remain episodic farce destined to be repeated as endless tragedy.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Indian Novel in English: Nation, History and Narration (OUP), which also cites from the Satanic Verses