Salman Rushdie, the Jaipur Festival and Literary ‘Match-Fixing’

Freedom of speech – and freedom from persecution for writers, in particular – has often been a subject for The Wheeler Centre’s events and articles.

This week, Salman Rushdie, one of the world’s most famous persecuted writers, had to cancel his appearance (then the video session that was to replace his physical presence) at India’s Jaipur Literary Festival, due to threats of violence.

Kabita Dhara, veteran of the Jaipur Literary Festival and publisher at Brass Monkey Books (a company that specialises in bringing Indian writing to Australian audiences) gives us the low-down on why it happened – and how it’s connected to Indian politics.

When asked what word he would use to describe the controversy that has surrounded his scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) last week, Salman Rushdie uses the word ‘farce’. In an interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, after a scheduled video link with the festival (to make up for his inability to physically attend) was also cancelled due to threats of violence, Rushdie explains that he has been visiting India for years now; he has spoken at events in India a number of times in the past few years. So why all the fuss now?

Fingers are pointing to the fact that it is election time in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which borders the state of Rajasthan (the state of which Jaipur is the capital). When it was announced that Rushdie would be appearing at the JLF, the Darul Uloom Deoband an ‘influential fundamentalist Islamic seminary’, demanded that Rushdie’s visa be withdrawn. (A poorly thought-out move: Rushdie, born in India of Indian parents, has documentation that means he doesn’t need a visa to enter India.) Consequent events suggest that the government, after initially supporting Rushdie’s visit both on a federal and state level, had second thoughts and decided that courting the 20% Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh was more important. (One Indian TV presenter likened the situation to instances where villages that struggle with no electricity for years get given free laptops come election time.)

Jaipur, India

Jaipur, India

Just days before Rushdie was expected in India, emails purporting that three assassins were travelling to Jaipur from Mumbai to murder Rushdie were sent to the festival organisers and government officials, and subsequently to Rushdie himself. Government officials seemed unable to guarantee Rushdie’s safety and doubted that they could control the situation (even though they manage just fine with other visiting international dignitaries and sporting teams). Rushdie decided that it would be irresponsible to attend the festival due to the danger to festival-goers and because of the stress it would place on his family. It was later found that the emails and their content were probably fabricated, and now no organisation is taking responsibility for the emails or the intelligence that informed the emails.

When a video broadcast to the JLF crowds was organised to replace Rushdie’s initial scheduled appearance, the festival organisers again received threats of violent protests in Jaipur and had to cancel. All of which begs the question, while a democracy might see it as prudent to ban a book, how can it, effectively, ban the author? When the government banned The Satanic Verses when it was published in 1988, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took pains to clarify that the ban was because of concerns that the book would offend India’s Muslims and cause civil unrest, and that it did not reflect on the literary quality of the work.

The Satanic Verses is banned in India under a law that prevents its importation and dissemination, which raises the question of whether the ban is even relevant anymore given that the book can be downloaded from the internet. This does not mean its author is banned, or that one cannot discuss the book. When four other writers – Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi – decided to read from The Satanic Verses at the JLF, to protest the treatment of Rushdie, they too found themselves under threat of prosecution, although Kunzru and Kumar deliberately read passages that had nothing to do with Islam but reflected instead the quality of Rushdie’s work.

The worrying aspect of this whole saga is the lack of clarity as to, firstly, whether the threats to Rushdie were orchestrated by government officials in a bid to dissuade Rushdie from attending the JLF because of impending elections (an Indian TV presenter charmingly referred to this possibility as ‘match-fixing’) and, secondly, who these people actually are who claim to be speaking for India’s Muslims. While the answer to the first is crucial to answering the second, it can only be speculated on, given that the only evidence is that which has been gleaned from media reports and literary blogs. So let’s consider the answer to the second.

While The Satanic Verses is still banned in a number of countries, after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1998, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie that started the whole controversy was lifted. The book is available in some predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey, Egypt and post-Gaddafi Libya, and has been translated into Turkish and Arabic. Most relevant to recent events in Jaipur, the book has long been read in India by those who bought it from overseas or downloaded it from the internet – and this group includes Muslims. A number of Indian Muslims have spoken up in defence of Rushdie’s right to free speech and have even sent him messages of support on social media. As Rushdie says in his interview with NDTV, the average Indian Muslim has more to worry about in day-to-day life than to protest about the visit of a writer. So which Muslims were threatened by Rushdie’s presence in Jaipur?

While it is in an elected government’s mandate to pass laws to protect the people of its country, when that country is a democracy, it also has the responsibility to balance that mandate with allowing freedom of expression as granted in its laws and Constitution. A burning question for Indians is how is the world’s largest democracy can justify stifling healthy debate because of threats of violence. (Where is Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indian’ now?)

I will give the last word to Rushdie himself. In a passage in the last chapter of The Satanic Verses – a complex meditation on alienation, migration, Western materialism and the political manipulation of religion (amongst other things) – Rushdie has one stuttering character say, about India,: ‘Fact is … religious fafaith, which encodes the highest ass ass aspirations of human race, is now, in our cocountry, the servant of lowest instincts … ’

Kabita Dhara is director and publisher at Brass Monkey Books.