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Recapping: The Rushdie Affair – OpEd

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By Sriya Chakravarti

After Sir Salman Rushdie cancelled his visit to India due to death threats and was unable to communicate with the writers at the Jaipur festival via Skype, the Indian media went in a frenzy of criticizing the government and questioning its failure to provide adequate security for the author. Since then much debate has occurred on the topic above. As a result, questions about India’s intolerance and opportunistic politics have surfaced yet again. i

The Times of India stated, “Rushdie is simply a writer at a literary festival, moreover one that has sealed Rajasthan’s position as an international tourist destination. When he last visited the same festival, in 2007, it went off uneventfully.” ii This indicates that there is no problem with the freedom of speech but the real issue lies in the timing and ramifications of the speech. The only sensible explanation that a majority of analysts can come up with is petty politics stifling creativity.

Many believe this event is a stain on the India’s international reputation and it is an embarrassing situation for India, as it openly talks about becoming a super power but succumbs under pressure from trouble making groups. Per Rushdie, “India has always been a contested country and this kind of bigotry will carry on.” iii This event is being looked as India’s collective failure with assaults on free speech, where moderates of the society are being ignored. Critics suggest that the fear of offending “Muslim voters” before the elections is the prime reason for the occurred incident. iv However, Mr. Chidambaram asserts, “ A lot is attributed to the government without knowing the facts.” It was the writer’s decision to cancel his visit, and the organizers call to withdraw the video conferencing. v

The writers at the Jaipur festival believe that India is a complex country with a delicate architecture and there are moments of bigotry. Rushdie’s absence from the festival does not silence his voice or profile. The purpose of the festival is not to prove a point or endanger the lives of innocent civilians who are there to enjoy the variety of artistic flavor of the festival. The writers collectively felt that this is not a victory for violent groups but just a momentary setback to democracy, which will be fought back. vi Many believe that if this continues, India will become an “iniquitous, philistine and schizoid democracy.” vii On the other end of the spectrum, some scholars do not see Rushdie’s absence from the Jaipur festival as a sign of ending democracy, and freedom of speech. They are of the opinion that he needs to be held accountable for the blasphemous text and has to face consequences of his actions that have hurt the sentiments of some people. viii They also think that the “so-called educated Indians of today” …”suffer from the colonial inferiority complex.” Where they think that…“whoever lives in London or New York must be a superior to the Indian writers.” ix

Sir Salman Rushdie calls the whole episode, “fantastically fishy” and states that this sort of a behavior has let down the majority of Indian Muslims, who frankly don’t even care if he is present at a festival or not. At the same time it gives a negative stereotype to Muslims. x “Rushdie asked in his NDTV interview: If censorship continues, India will cease to be a free country. He added that this was just “one incident” in a larger trend of sectarian politics that has been displacing secular India over the past thirty years.” xi Unfortunately, it is not intolerance or increased radicalization but inept leaders who enabled an issue out of a non-issue. Regardless of moments of bigotry, Rushdie’s fan following will keep getting bigger if it has to. xii

Everyone seems to be interested in the Rushdie matter as his work is viewed as a taboo by some sections of the society. It needs to be understood that it is human nature to want what we cannot have, as restriction ignites more desire. Rushdie’s presence in India for the Jaipur festival was almost like eating a forbidden apple from the Garden of Eden. Despite countless warnings, Adam ate the disdained apple. In a similar context, Rushdie could have come to India, if he wanted to and as he has before. With that being said, he is however, at risk of an attack anywhere in the world.

It is a blessing that some of us are capable of handling dark, deep thoughts and action but there are others who seek not to explore those dimensions of the mind for whatever reasons. This is where the intellectual struggle begins. Someone who is not ready to investigate unchartered ventures of the mind is asked to opt out of an exploration that others are willing to undertake. The fear of losing audience is the key driver for such acts. With that being said, those who are threatened by creativity give hope, as they act as an indicator for the victory of the creative world in the future. xiii

Finally, the truth is “not about Rushdie, It’s not about religion, and it’s definitely not about a book few people in India have read.” xiv Unfortunately, Rushdie has been used as a pawn in the larger political game but now the blame is being shifted around and scapegoats for the situation are Rushdie himself and the organizers of the Jaipur festival. However, in all honesty, no one is going to even remember what happened with the Rushdie affair in days to come. Everyone will get busy with their life and freedom of speech and the criticism against the country will eventually die down as people move to more important subjects in life. Unless, the middle class moderates become fearless, and roll up their sleeves to make it a priority to bring amendments where the term “maintenance of public order” is not exploited repeatedly for political reasons.

(She can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed are author’s own)

i Salman Rushdie pull out: A stain on India?, BBC, January 20, 2012
ii Republic of fear, The Times of India, January 25, 2012
iii Worrying victory for India’s extremes, BBC, January 24, 2012
iv India media criticise government over Rushdie row, BBC, January 25, 2012
v It was Rushdie’s decision not to visit: Chidambaram, The Hindu, February 1, 2012
vi Panel on Rushdie issue, Jaipur Literature Festival 2012
vii Worrying victory for India’s extremes, BBC, January 24, 2012
viii Salman Rushdie had to pay for hurting Muslim feelings, MSN, January 29, 2012
ix Salman Rushdie is a poor substandard writer, Times of India, January 25, 2012
x Mail Online India, January 26, 2012
xi Rushdie Non Grata, New Yorker, January 24, 2012
xii Rushdie in conversation with Barkha Dutt, NDTV 2012
xiii Panel on Rushdie issue, Jaipur Literature Festival 2012
xiv Easily Bullied, Livemint.com, January 25,2012

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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