Muslims protest the arrival of a writer, the Government does nothing and a festival is forced to censor itself.
Since 2006, the Jaipur Literary Festival has earned the distinction of being the pre-eminent gathering of letters in India, and in many ways, the non-Western English speaking world. The Festival, scheduled to begin this Friday was expected to host, for the second time, Salman Rushdie, author of the famous Midnight’s Children and the infamous Satanic Verses. It was announced this morning that Rushdie, in response to mounting protests and calls for violence from religious zealots, would not be attending the event, citing security concerns for himself as well as the other attendees.
It has been years since Rushdie emerged from his life under police protection. The fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 still stands, but with much less trumpeting. It was almost beginning to feel as though Rushdie’s life might get back to normal – at least by the standards of international literary celebrities. It was similarly beginning to feel as though the JLF was about to exhibit, yet again, the messy truth that despite being a messy democracy, India is, in fact, a democracy. Arundhati Roy recently stated on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show that Indian democracy exists only in its cities and for the middle and upper classes. Perhaps, but that would still make it the biggest democracy in the world – no small feat.
The Government’s unwillingness to protect the writer from harm shows that it is unwilling to take a stand. Once again, the Congress Party is playing electoral politics by trying not to offend Muslim sentiments in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections. William Dalrymple, co-director of the JLF came out with more force: “The reality of Rushdie’s writings is completely different from the way that they have been cartooned and caricatured. Salman is a writer of enormous breadth, depth; he writes about a huge variety of subjects. His passionate engagement with Indian Islamic history and works like The Enchantress of Florence shows that he is as far as can possibly be removed from the Islamophobe of myth.” But then again Dalrymple isn’t running for office in UP.
Tehelka is less sympathetic. In the end, festival with global ambitions has lost out on a tremendous opportunity for itself and for its country.