Authors, students, book-lovers, activists and tourists gathered in New York yesterday to read from Rushdie’s works to re-create an event that was performed to show solidarity with Salman Rushdie when the fatwa was issued in 1989. It was an event organized by PEN America. No event like this has been organized in India; there is no news of a call to hold an event like this in near future from the Indian authors living in India to date. In fact, the Indian government, most of the political parties, and even the intelligentsia in India have remained, by and large, silent on the issue. Condemnation of the event has also been measured and cautious. This silence has been noted by some international media houses because of Rushdie’s Indian connections. What causes this silence?
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has, of course, reacted to the attack. In reply to a journalist’s question regarding the incident, he said, “I also read about it. This is something that the whole world has noticed and the whole world has reacted to such an attack.” Such a response clearly indicates Jaishankar’s intention of bypassing any direct involvement in the incident. When some of the Arab countries and especially Iran supported Hadi Matar and held Rushdie himself responsible for the attack, Britain condemned such a reaction as ‘ludicrous’ and the USA as ‘outrageous.’ India till date has remained silent on Iran’s response to the attack as well. This silence of the Indian government is understandable. The comments of Nupur Sharma about Prophet Mohammad created a huge uproar in the Middle East. Some of the countries even demanded the Indian ambassadors to openly protest against Nupur Sharma’s comment and even sought an official apology from India. This is a region which the Modi government has always wooed for reasons obvious. So, the silence of the government is not surprising. What, of course, is noteworthy is BJP’s silence on the matter. In fact, India was the first to ban The Satanic Verses in 1988 when Khomeini’s fatwa was one year away. When the Rajib Gandhi-led Congress government banned the book, BJP strongly criticized Gandhi for appeasing the Muslims of the country. In fact, Vajpayee government even gave Rushdie a visa and allowed him to visit India. Reportedly, one of the spokespeople of the BJP has said that the party and the government have been very cautious about the incident as it is highly sensitive and as the BJP of 2022 is different from the BJP of the early 2000s; now “there is a conscious attempt by the BJP leadership too to have warm ties with major parties in other countries.”
Is it the only reason for the silence of the party and the government on the attack on Rusdhie? BJP’s stance on Rushdie in 2022 is distinctly different from what was the party’s opinion about him in 1988. Rushdie has always been very critical of the Modi government. Just a few days before the attack, he signed a letter (along with 101 other signatories that include authors like J M Coetzee, Anne Tyler and Kiran Desai, to name only a few) sent by PEN America to Droupadi Murmu, the president of India, dated 14 August 2022, which expresses grave concerns “regarding the myriads threats to free expression and other core rights that have been building steadily in recent years, since the Bharatiya Janata party-led government has come to power.” Rushdie also contributed a short piece to PEN America’s collection, India at 75, which has put together the writings of Indian authors and authors of the Indian diaspora on the occasion of the country’s 75th Independence Day. In his short piece, Rushdie has written, “Then in the First Age of Hindusthan Hamara, our India, we celebrated one another’s festivals, and believed, or almost believed, that all of the land’s multifariousness belonged to all of us. Now that dream of liberty and fellowship is dead, or close to death.” So, neither BJP nor the government can afford to stand with this Rushdie. Condemning the attack on Rushdie in clear terms also means support to free thought and speech, two things which have indeed been under threat in India recently.
The relative silence of the Left parties on the issue is ominous. Among the important leaders, only Sitaram Yechury condemned the attack. By and large, the Left parties have tried to protect the secular character of the country. But, on occasions, it has been noticed that they are a little soft to Islamic fundamentalism. The last Assembly Election of West Bengal even saw the Left Front allying with a party of communal character that all of a sudden surfaced in the politics of West Bengal under the leadership of an Islamic Maulvi. The Left parties and intelligentsia should stand firmly and condemn the attack in unambiguous ways. If Left politics in this country gets dominated only by electoral loss and gain, nothing could be more unfortunate than that.
What is, however, most alarming is the silence of the Indian authors who live in India. Other than Shashi Tharoor, no important Indian author living in India has condemned the attack outspokenly. No collective initiative (like the one taken by PEN America) has been taken to date. It seems that the authors in India are not in solidarity with Rushdie. This sends a wrong message to the world. Why this silence of the Indian authors? They seem to be very vocal on incidents like mob lynching in which saffronites are involved. Are they, too, then a little soft to Islamic fundamentalism? Are they silent because they apprehend a single word spoken against Islamic fundamentalism will endanger the security of the minority communities in the country as this could be used as an alibi to humiliate and assault them? Are they silent because Prophet Mohammad is involved in the incident and they are a little bit scared about their own security after watching the vandalism of the Muslim fundamentalists in response to Nupur Sharma’s unnecessary remark? Whatever the reasons are, Indian authors should firmly speak out and condemn the attack in unambiguous terms. They should stand together and stand with Salman Rushdie.