At the just concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, British historian Timothy Garton-Ash said he had heard the Jaipur police commissioner reassure the festival attendees that he would provide 100 armed police personnel to ensure that no one’s feelings were hurt.
“If that’s the case we might as well all shut up and go home,” Garton-Ash said wrily.
The ban on Salman Rushdie coming to Kolkata proves Garton-Ash’s fears right.
Rushdie was not scheduled to have an event. He was not on the agenda of the Kolkata Literary Meet opening today in the city. The Midnight’s Children team of Deepa Mehta and Rahul Bose were.
But according to The Telegraph , police officials and “a senior minister” called the Kolkata Book Fair to ask if Rushdie was holding any programmes at the fair. And then the lit meet organizers were asked asked to give a written assurance that Rushdie would not show up at the literary meet. All this happened even without any particular group protesting his visit to Kolkata.
In short, it was a preemptive strike most foul.
“The unspoken political agenda is probably clear to all, but to ban Rushdie, the writer with a valid Indian visa is West Bengal’s shame,” tweeted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.
“The Rushdie ban is an insult to our cultured claims,” he added.
The frailty of West Bengal’s “culture claims” had already been made amply clear when the Left Front government booted Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen out of the city. At that time Mamata Banerjee, a firebrand opposition leader, kept conspicuously silent. In 2007 the CPI(M) banned Nasreen’s book Dwikhandita and decided to evict her from West Bengal where she had been living for three years without incident. Mamata said nothing. “Mamata — for all her claims of being an alternative face in West Bengal politics – did not rise above vote-bank pressures,” wrote Monobina Gupta in her book didi – A Political Biography. “Mamata’s irrational impulsiveness, her irascible temperament, emotional reaction, her instinctive solidarity with the underdog – none of this was in evidence. On display instead was the shrewd calculation of a politician, her willingness to factor realpolitik into her calculations.”
Calling the latest Rushdie ban a “sad and tragic moment” in “the history of Bengali intellectual courage” writer Ruchir Joshi pointed out that Rushdie had already traveled to Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi without any trouble.
The most frightening aspect about the preemptive ban on Rushdie is that Rushdie was not even on the programme. The clear and unambiguous message that the authorities were sending out to the organizers was “Don’t even think about it.” In that case it literature festivals will soon themselves become an endangered beast as groups of all kinds prepare a blacklist of those who are permanently banned. At Jaipur this year Muslim groups demanded that the writers who had read from Satanic Verses last time be banned from the festival this time. Surely, next year someone emboldened by this latest Rushdie ban will want Ashis Nandy barred from a future festival. Like the notorious no-fly lists compiled by airlines after 9/11, we are now seeing the menacing rise of no-speak lists. Even worse, the next literature festival will think long and hard before it wants to invite anyone remotely “controversial”. In a country where taking offence has become a fundamental right, this is a new low and a dangerous precedent. Now the state doesn’t even have to wait for anyone to take offence before rushing in to clamp down a ban.
Make no mistake, despite our incessant Tagore-puja we are definitely no longer the land where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Mamata might have appointed herself Bengal’s cultural-patron-in-chief, leading industrialists in rousing choruses of Ekla Chalo Re at business meets but culture in Kolkata has been reduced to traffic signals that blare out Rabindrasangeet in an endless nauseous loop.