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Why Salman Rushdie should not go to Jaipur

Dear Mr Rushdie, please do not go to Jaipur

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Many in India agree with these words, but many in India do not do so. Many in India believe that Voltaire wrote these words, but the truth is that these words were first written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of Stephen G Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire in 1906.

Those who protest the loudest against Rushdie's proposed visit to Jaipur wouldn't have heard this phrase wouldn't have heard of Voltaire or Hall; indeed, they wouldn't even have heard of Rushdie.

All they know is that Rushdie's visit offers them an opportunity to affect votes in the upcoming assembly elections, notably the Uttar Pradesh elections, where a swing in the Hindu and Muslim votes could be a deciding factor.

All they know is that Rushdie's visit offers them an opportunity to affect votes in the upcoming assembly elections, notably the Uttar Pradesh elections, where a swing in the Hindu and Muslim votes could be a deciding factor. Reuters

That's why Rushdie should not attend the Jaipur Literary Festival — he will be a pawn in the dirty business of politics — and he should not allow himself to be used and discarded.

Why is there so much surprise on the turn of events that have led this?

Let's rewind a few years, when the IPL — an entire tournament, the pride of India, moved out of India to South Africa. Analysing the events that led to the shifting of the league, Wharton had written, “The political dimension is what caused the move to South Africa in the first place. It has also made the IPL something of an election issue. The Congress-ruled coalition in New Delhi said it was impossible to provide security, especially after a terrorist attack on a touring Sri Lankan side in Pakistan in March. Some opposition states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said they were willing to host the tournament. "The BJP states gave an all-clear while the Congress-led states said no, showing deep polarisation over IPL," Bamzai says.

Even today, the government seems on the defensive. "The organisers were trying to be too clever by putting the pressure on chief ministers," Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told TV channel CNN-IBN. "Ultimately, the police told the chief ministers, 'Sorry, we cannot provide security.'"

It's the same story all over again. It's not about Rushdie and his writing, it's about politics and politicians raising a bogey about law and order. "Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who met Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, said he has conveyed the problems associated with Rushdie's visit. Organisers of the festivals would not do anything to happen that should affect the whole festival and let things turn ugly," he said.

Earlier, he had said that the visit could lead to a major law and order problem. Rushdie had attended the festival in 2007 and has been to India a few times after the fatwa against him for derogatory references to Islam was revoked. However, in view of elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gehlot wants to be seen as a voice of fundamentalist Muslims,” said India Today.

To be seen as pro or anti-Muslim swings (or at least is seen to swing votes).

“Known for disrupting cricket matches involving Pakistan in India, the Shiv Sena has threatened to disrupt the ICC Cricket World Cup final. The ICC CWC final could face Shiv Sena threat creating a fresh controversy; a senior Shiv Sena leader has put a question mark on the fate of the final match in Mumbai, if it involves Pakistan. You all know Sena chief Bal Thackeray's views. If the Pakistan team reaches the final (scheduled in Mumbai), whether to allow them to play, the Sena chief will decide," Manohar Joshi said on Thursday,” ESPN STAR had reported in early 2011.

What’s common to all three incidents described above? There’s a unilateral threat made by organisations or individuals. The politicians in power in the states which are at the receiving end of the threats do not equivocally condemn the threat and assure security, stoking the fear of a law and order issue.

The fundamental commonness is that politicians see in such developments — Pakistani players in the IPL, Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival and even the possibility of an India-Pakistan final – as opportunities to polarise Hindu and Muslim votes and gain one or other vote-bank.

The Salman Rushdie issue, then, is not about the book that seemed to offend certain sections of society, it is not even about India, the failed state. This is about the opportunism that pervades politics in the country today.

Rushdie is a vote magnet — for both groups — those who want the Muslim vote and those who want the Hindu vote. Rushdie’s attending the Literary festival at Jaipur will have the politicians celebrating, whether it is Gehlot’s government in Rajasthan or the Congress in UP. Rushdie’s listing as a speaker has been a godsend to the Congress — it’s given them an opportunity to seem more pro-Muslim than they are.

If Rushdie announces that he will not visit Jaipur, the biggest losers will be the politicians, not the lovers of literature in India.

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