L’Affaire Salman Rushdie – OpEd


1962: There were intelligence reports of likely threats to the life of John F.Kennedy, the then US President, if he visited Dallas. The US Secret Service advised him not to go. He decided to go despite the reports. He was assassinated.

1984: There were intelligence assessments of likely threats to Indira Gandhi from her Sikh security guards following the military raid in the Golden Temple. Those responsible for her security quietly removed all Sikh security guards from her house. She noticed it and ordered that they should be reposted. She said: “ How can I call myself the Prime Minister of secular India if I distrust my Sikh guards?” Her security set-up was told to ensure that no Sikh would be alone by her side. There was negligence in implementing this. She was killed by two of her Sikh guards who managed to have the duty roaster manipulated in such a manner as to ensure that they would be alone by her side.

1991: There were intelligence assessments of likely threats to Rajiv Gandhi from the LTTE during his election campaign in Tamil Nadu. The intelligence agencies and the Tamil Nadu Police failed to strengthen security for him. He was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber.

2004: There were intelligence assessments of likely threats to the security of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, if he went to Islamabad for the SAARC summit. Despite this, he decided to go. The intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan strengthened his security. Nothing happened.

Shri Salman Rushdie is a well-known literary personality — loved and admired by many non-Muslims and hated by many Muslims whose feelings were hurt by his Satanic Verses. He was and is a highly threatened non-Government personality in the world. The threats to his life arose from individual Muslims angered by his book and from the intelligence agencies of Iran where religious clerics had announced a handsome reward for his assassination.

The British security agencies and Police strengthened his security and he was advised to cut down his public exposure. He complied with their advisory and had practically no social life for some years till the fatwa was withdrawn in Iran. The threat to him from the Iranian intelligence subsided, but the threats from individual Muslims remained as high as ever. Intelligence and security agencies of the world felt confident of being able to protect him from potential individual assassins with no State sponsorship. He increasingly became more active socially and started interacting with the civil society and the media in different countries. He started travelling frequently. He developed a love relationship with a woman of Tamil origin in New York and was often seen with her in public in NY. He visited Chennai with her to meet her relatives and friends. He participated in the inaugural session of the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2007.

Though the threats to him remained high, the intelligence and security agencies of different countries, including India, had no difficulty in ensuring his security. He and his hosts also facilitated their task by maintaining a low profile about his visits and by avoiding advance publicity. Many of us came to know of his visit to Chennai along with his Tamil woman-companion only after he had come and gone.

Ensuring his security for his participation in the Jaipur Literary Festival that started on January 20 became a complicated affair because the fundamentalist Deobandi group came to know of his planned visit much in advance and made a public issue of it. Statements and comments emanating from the Deobandi office-bearers and some sections of the Muslim community amounted to open, verbal intimidation meant to intimidate the Government of India into not allowing him to come and intimidate him into not coming.

The situation became sensitive and complex. One would have expected the Government of India to stop this intimidatory campaign initiated by the Deobandis in the bud and make it clear to them that the Government of India was determined to protect him and would not succumb to the intimidatory campaign.

The Government of India did nothing of the sort. It adopted what seemed to many as a deliberately ambivalent attitude by highlighting his right to visit to India as a person of Indian origin , but maintaining a political silence on the intimidatory campaign against him. The Government and the Congress seem to have seen political advantages in such an ambivalent attitude on the eve of the forthcoming elections in UP.

As it normally happens in such an increasingly-charged atmosphere, reports started flowing to intelligence agencies of alleged plans of some elements to assassinate him when he came to India. The open intimidatory campaign of the Deobandis was compounded by the flow of reports about the alleged clandestine plans of the Mumbai underworld to assassinate him. The reports were of a general and not specific nature.

These clandestine reports called for three actions by the Government of India:

(a). The Government of India taking over the responsibility for strengthening and co-ordinating his security.

(b ).Informing Rushdie of the clandestine intelligence reports.

(c ). A formal assurance to him that security for him would be strengthened and that he need not cancel his visit just because of these reports.

It is apparent that the Government of India only informed him of these clandestine intelligence reports. It did not take any other action to give him confidence that it would do everything necessary to protect him. The Government of India’s deliberately ambivalent attitude continued.

Apart from odd statements and remarks by individual spokesmen of the Government of India and the Congress Party that Rushdie would be protected, nothing was done to strengthen his confidence in the Government of India. In the face of this ambivalence of the Government of India, he decided to cancel his visit. I felt disappointed and let down by his decision which will give fresh oxygen to extremists of any persuasion. But I can understand his decision. Many of us would have probably reacted in the same manner in the face of the ambivalent attitude of the Government of India which was marked by a mix of partisan opportunism and State cowardice.

The ill-advised actions of some of the participants in the Jaipur festival such as reading out extracts from Satanic Verses have added to the confusion. Certain things need to be clearly stated and understood. L’Affaire Rushdie is not a moral issue. It is not a question of the right of Rushdie to freedom of expression.

It is pure and simple an issue of the obligation of the State to protect a highly-threatened person by whatever means possible and not to let itself be intimidated by extremists. The way the whole affair has been handled by the Government of India would legitimately strengthen the suspicion that the handling of the affair was vitiated by partisan opportunism, which encouraged the creation of a crisis in the hope of reaping electoral dividends.

January 20,2012, was a day of tragedy, shame and disquiet. Tragedy because the events were manipulated in such a manner as to discourage Rushdie from coming. Shame because of the opportunism and cowardice of the Indian State and political leadership. Disquiet because it showed once again that for our political class partisan interests come before national interests.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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