Politics and religion – and police – invade the Jaipur Literature Festival
JAN 24: In a potent example of religious intolerance hitting India’s traditional freedom of expression, plans for Salman Rushdie to speak to the festival by video link were abandoned this afternoon. Muslim demonstrators managed to gain access to the premises and positioned themselves in groups around the various venues, while several thousand prepared to march to the location. Some of the demonstrators began to push schoolchildren off chairs so they could sit down, and it was clear that there was a serious risk of violence if Rushdie appeared on the video. The owner of DiggiPalace (where the festival has been held since it started in 2006) decided, after hearing firm state government and police advice, that he could not risk the escalation in the tensely packed location and, with the organisers, cancelled the link.
Instead Rushdie gave a long interview on a tv channel. He said the events had shown that India was a place where “religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas at a literary festival, in which the politicians are too, let’s say, in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them for narrow electoral reasons”, adding: “This decline in public standards, and in the liberty of ordinary Indian citizens to engage in discourse, to hear differing points of view, that’s the thing that makes me saddest”.
JAIPUR: Last week I wrote about elephants that “are not for riding”, explaining how huge stone statues had been shrouded by India’s Election Commission to avoid influencing voters in the state of Uttar Pradesh’s coming assembly polls. This week it is Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, that is not for reading at the internationally famous Jaipur Literature Festival, which Rushdie has not attended because, indirectly, of the UP elections.
The Jaipur festival is one of the wonders of today’s India, growing haphazardly from a few hundred people in 2006 to one of the world’s biggest such events with 15,000-17,000 new registrations each day, and a total of 120,00 footfalls expected by the time it ends tomorrow evening. Here 260 writers, including many famous Indian and foreign literary names such as (from abroad) Richard Dawkins, Tom Stoppard, David Hare, and Ben Okri – mix with masses of book lovers and schoolchildren, combining often-brainy entertainment with conversations, vibrant music, and minor controversies – and this year with Oprah Winfrey, the American tv personality as a star attraction (above).
But the UP elections have this year invaded the crowded gardens and tents of Diggi Palace, the elegantly faded hotel that hosts the festival, because Rushdie was due to attend. In the past, there have been only minor protests about visits to India by this UK-based Indian author, who had a fatwa issued against him for insulting the prophet Mohammad with his 1988 novel, Satanic Verses that Muslims consider blasphemous. But when Rushdie’s visit this time was announced, it was condemned by an Islamic seminary based in UP, the Darul Uloom Deoband, which called for the visit to be cancelled.
That instantly became big news because Muslims are an important vote bank in UP and therefore need to be wooed by political parties. They could swing the result, which is especially important for the Congress Party whose potential future leader, Rahul Gandhi, is cutting his political teeth on the hustings.
Threats of mass demonstrations against Rushdie were issued by various Islamic organisations, and a reward of one lakh of rupees (Rs100,000 – $2,000) was offered for anyone who managed to throw an insulting slipper at him – Rs125,000 if they spat.
As the festival opened last Friday, police and other security forces – some in uniform and others in easily identifiable plasticky-looking leathery jackets – spread through the festival along with less obvious intelligence officials, and the entrances were closely guarded
Later in the day, after intelligence agencies allegedly reported an assassination threat against him, Rushdie announced that he would not be coming . That calmed nerves, which had been on edge with the organisers fearing mass demonstrations that could ruin the mood of the festival and even lead to injury if they became violent, and plans were prepared for him possibly to appear on a video link tomorrow.
But, within hours, the festival itself was plunged into controversy when four authors read passages, initially mild and then highly contentious, from Satanic Verses. This book is banned in India, which means that it cannot (lawyers tell me) be imported, bought or read in public, so the four authors and the festival organisers could have been instantly arrested and jailed, and the festival could have been closed, even though organisers had stopped the first of the two readings.
Legal action started
The police quickly issued threats of arrest, which remain, and legal complaints were lodged by Muslim groups in Rajasthan courts today against the four authors and the conference organisers.
Two foreign-based authors who read passages – including Hari Kunzru, who is British – have fled to avoid arrest, leaving a furious debate about what has happened.
The conventional view (with which I agree) is that the law is the law. So, if a book is banned, it is not the job of a broad-based literature festival – even though it stands for freedom of speech and expression and may disagree with the ban – to allow speakers to flout the law and thus face the risk of both jail for themselves and others, and the closure the event.
The alternative view is that, having invited Rushdie, the festival should have stood by him, encouraging him to come, and should not have stopped the first of the two Satanic Verses readings (the organisers did not know about the second till it was too late).
David Remnick, an author who was at the festival, has emerged as a focal critic with comments in the Indian media and an article headed A Writer Under Threat in the The New Yorker, which he edits. “Reading Rushdie’s own words seemed like a very necessary act of defiance to me and almost everyone else at the festival,” he wrote – “almost everyone” being I believe an untested, emotional and inaccurate assertion.
Such a view shows little understanding of the complexities of Indian life and the way that religious sensitivities and political ambitions inter-weave, with one cashing in on the other, often violently.
It is easy to defy the law from offices and homes in the US, UK and elsewhere – or during a brief stay in India – but it is neither practical nor sensible for a literature festival like Jaipur to put its future and the safety of thousands of people at risk.
Oprah Winfrey (above) remarked during her star performance yesterday that she had been struck by how, inIndia, “people don’t talk religion, they just practice it”.
She was of course correct, but the opposite of any statement is often also true in this country, and that is the case here. While a huge majority of the 1.2bn population do indeed practice their religions quietly, there is a minority that use people’s beliefs to whip up unrest for their own often far-from-religious reasons – as has happened with Rushdie in Jaipur.