Why 'free speech' fled from the Jaipur Literary Festival

On its website, the Jaipur Literary Festival bills itself as being “free and open to all”. All you need to do, it says, is show up, with a photo ID.

Except that under the surreal circumstances that have overshadowed the proceedings at the first couple of days of the festival, some of the best-known writers in the business have either had to keep away for fear of being killed – or, having turned up with a photo ID (and an invitation from the festival organisers), have had to slip away from the festival, like thieves in the night, for fear of arrest.

 Why free speech fled from the Jaipur Literary Festival

Did the four authors who read from The Satanic Verses violate any laws? Reuters

Yesterday, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar hurriedly packed their bags and scooted from the festival – evidently on legal advice – after it became clear that the controversy surrounding their public readings from The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s book that is banned in India, would turn even more ugly, and perhaps even lead to their arrest.

Reports suggest that two other writers (Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi), who too read passages from the proscribed work of literature, have also left Jaipur.

Festival organisers say there was a very real risk that the LitFest would not have opened on Saturday, the day after the four authors read passages from The Satanic Verses as an expression of solidarity with Rushdie, who had to cancel his plans to come to the festival following an alleged assassination threat and planned protests by Muslim religious groups.

Festival co-director William Dalrymple told The Hindu that the festival was saved from a Saturday shutdown only because the four authors had given written statements saying that they had acted on their own and that the festival was not in any way involved with their readings.

Dalrymple reasons that “reading from a banned book” is unlawful – and that the four authors were presumably unaware that it was a punishable offence for which they could be jailed for long. “You can discuss a book, read from other writings by the author, have conversations with him, invite him, but you cannot either possess a copy or publicly read from a book that is banned. That is a punishable offence,” he says.

Majlis Iteehadul Muslimeen MP Asaduddin Owaisi has demanded the filing of criminal cases against the four writers for their “deliberate provocation. In the garb of liberal values, these writers … are trying to destroy the secular and plural ethos of our country.”

The Rajasthan police officials have asked festival organisers to provide them with tape recordings of the sessions at which the authors read from the proscribed book.

Jaipur Police additional commissioner Biju George Joseph said the police had initiated suo motu action – that is, on its own accord – and would take “appropriate action” .

But legal opinion suggests that the authors may not have violated any law.

The New York Times blog India Ink quoted Kavita Srivastava, general secretary of the Rajasthan unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, as saying that no law had been broken, and that the festival organisers had no reason to be worried.

Yet, in the atmosphere of intimidation that has overshadowed the festival – which prompted Rushdie to cancel a planned appearance as a star panellist on a discussion about Indian writing in English – the four authors evidently felt that prudence was the better part of valour.

But it wasn’t just them who had to flee from the festival. At a deeper level, some very fundamental principles of free speech too had to pack their bags in a hurry and slink away, badgered into submission by bigotry and intolerance.

They are learning to their dismay that free speech isn’t quite “free and open to all”, even for those who turn up with a photo ID. And that when the chips are down, there are few who will speak up for the right to speak without being silenced by manufactured rage.

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2012 07:09:04 IST