Note: To protest Salman Rushdie’s absence from the Jaipur Literature Fest, writers Amitava Kumar and Jeet Thayil read out from Salman Rushdie’s Banned book The Satanic Verses of 0n 20 January. They were asked to stop and later the organisers distanced themselves from the incident, claiming support for free speech but within the four pillars of India’s laws. Firstpost’s Sandip Roy sat down with festival co-director William Dalrymple to get a sense of what really transpired. Excerpts from an interview.
What went down with Salman Rushdie’s decision not to come?
We didn’t want to be seen wobbling in the front of bigots. We wanted this to be a showcase, whereby we defied all these threats. Salman, who has been under threat for huge amount of time, was very, very clear he wanted to brave it out. But when we got specific intelligence given by the Intelligence Bureau and the government of Rajasthan that there were a group of three assassins — whose names were given to us — heading for Jaipur, had been armed and paid to kill Salman, he took the view that this was an unacceptable risk. You have to respect that. I can say with 100 percent guarantee, we, in no way, pressurised him. We were supporting him and encouraging him to come right till the end.
Prior to that the Muslim organisation called off the march that they had threatened. We didn’t get our permission to launch this festival from the government of Rajasthan till 1:30 at night on the morning of the actual opening.
What happened with the writers reading from The Satanic Verses; why were they stopped from doing so?
We suddenly hear via New York via a tweet from Salman that there is a reading of The SatanicVerses. I didn’t know that this is a criminal offence in this country and you can be arrested immediately. I had no idea that to read a banned book is a criminal offence. According to the 1867 statute, reading the full work or a fragment is not allowed. What you are allowed to do is to discuss it, paraphrase it, talk about it. But to actually read the text is a criminal offence. It’s an old colonial rule like the homosexual rule.
When this initially happened, I bollocked Sanjoy (Roy) saying you can’t stop the reading, not knowing that it was criminal. I just thought he was playing safe. Turns out he saved the festival. Authors were going to be arrested. We were going to be arrested. We thought we were going to spend last night in jail. The police turned up within an hour of the reading.
How did they know?
The terrible misjudgment was they announced it in advance to the media and therefore it was a premeditated act. I am sure none of (the writers) knew it was a criminal act. We thought we could put a lid on this thing. As we were having this discussion, we heard two more people were reading from The Satanic Verses. We were not sure the festival was going to open this morning.
We totally support free speech. We hope Nilanjana Roy will get a petition together to revoke this ban. We hope to have a video link with Salman. But we cannot operate a literary festival if we go outside the law. We cannot read the text of a banned book. If we read the text of a banned book, we are the mercy of the law. We would not have had the festival today, had we not had the authors sign a statement advised by MF Husain’s laywer that they had not been put up to it by the festival, that it was an individual act.
Where are those writers now?
As far as I know, they were all advised to leave Jaipur.
Have other writers had to sign a guarantee that they won’t read from the book either?
That was an idea that was suggested. I am not aware any of the authors had to sign anything today. It might be sadly something we would have to do in the future.
Hopefully, we can ride this out. We fought very, very hard to get Salman in. We didn’t buckle. We totally stand by free speech. When someone goes outside the law of the country, that’s a problem. We have to distance ourselves. We can support free speech right up to the point that they break the law.
You mean you can stand up for Salman but not for his book?
We can discuss it. We can organise petition. The only thing we can’t do is read from the text. We can agitate to change the law. But we are in this country. And we operate in this country. We have to obey the law of the country.
Given the festival’s prestige, and with so many writers here, could you have called the government’s bluff? Could this not have become a rallying point, a way to strike a blow for the freedom of expression?
We were faced with situation of actually closing down. We had 60,000 people, 300 authors we had invited. The course we took allows us to continue to fight for the freedom of speech and be the festival we are and not have it closed down. By doing what we are planning to do, we could still strike a blow for the freedom of speech while keeping the festival open. If it closes, it wont reopen. And there is nothing else like this anywhere else in the world. And I want to fight to protect it. I do not want to allow the enemies of free speech to close this festival . That would be their victory.